Parashat Shoftim

Separation of Powers

The Torah provides a model for separating religious, judicial, and governing bodies--to keep power in check.

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The third crown--the priesthood--is discussed next. The parashah states that the Cohens and Levites, the tribes that conduct and oversee the ritual observance in the Temple, have "no territorial portion" of their own in Israel but rather must live off the offerings made by the Israelites to God (Deut. 18:1-8). Here, the center of religious power is prevented from amassing economic power and is forced to live off the generosity of the rest of the nation. The nation's religious leaders, themselves the center of great power, are prevented from exploiting their rank.

Post-Colonial Tyranny

These limitations are designed to keep biblical society functioning altruistically and without corruption, to distinguish it from the unjust governance of Egyptian slavery. Sadly, this lesson has been lost in much of the Global South, where external colonial oppression has too often been exchanged for home-grown tyranny, precisely because power and institutions were not limited and separated.

Mugabe's Zimbabwe, Musharraf's Pakistan, and Castro's Cuba are all examples of power gone awry. The centralization of all power forms in one person, coupled with the limitless use of their power, results in unjust and unbearable societies. We witness the results in the news daily and grieve for the communities struggling under the burden of such oppressive and unfettered governance.

Yet this week's parashah offers a glimpse of a society of a different order. Through promoting the development of civil society, AJWS grantees help to bring into reality the promise of our parashah: a just society of limited power held by many.

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Rabbi James Jacobson-Maisels

Rabbi James Jacobson-Maisels teaches Jewish thought and mysticism at the Pardes Institute of Jewish Studies in Jerusalem.