Commentary on Parashat Shoftim, Deuteronomy 16:18 - 21:9
Over the last several millennia, humanity has developed a large and growing body of profound writings, words that encapsulate the hopes, aspirations and potential of the human soul. Across the globe, religious traditions rightly exult in the majesty and depth of their sacred writings: the Bagavad-Gita, the Rig-Veda, the Dammapada, the Tao Te Ching, the Iliad, these are the spiritual heritage of humanity, a crowning glory of literary art and religious passion.
Reading these books constitutes an exposure to greatness. Yet there is something lacking in them all that the Hebrew Bible possesses in unique measure: a passion for justice for the poor, the weak, and the despised. Unlike the Buddhist ideal of a ‘bodisatva’ (an enlightened being) who is so pure that he can step over a beggar without remorse, Moses and Jeremiah consider justice and compassion to be the sine qua non of any true religiosity. One cannot claim to love God and not be passionate about justice. That is the primary Jewish contribution to the human spirit.
Yet there is a subtle Jewish assimilation afoot: because other religious traditions define “religion” primarily in terms of faith, prayer and ritual alone, there are now a significant number of Jews who do so as well with Judaism. By focusing on the mitzvot bein adam la-Makom (commandments between a person and God) as the primary definition of piety, we distort Judaism to fit the foreign contour of Christianity and other non-Jewish faiths. We betray the broad heritage of Torah when we fail to recognize justice and righteousness as primary religious categories of Judaism.
This week’s Torah portion opens with the summons to “appoint judges and officials for your tribes . . . and they shall govern the people with due justice. You shall not judge unfairly” (Deuteronomy 16:18). With those words, and in countless other places, Moses insists that justice is an eternal religious obligation, at the very core of what it means to be a Jew. And that insistence is not restricted to biblical Judaism. The Rabbis of the Talmud and Midrash were faithful proponents of the Sinai revelation here as well.
In Midrash Devarim Rabbah, they explain that God loves justice even more importantly than sacrifice. This bears out what Scripture says. “To do what is right and just is more desired by the Lord than sacrifice.” Scripture does not say, as much as sacrifice, but “more than sacrifice.” The midrash then goes on at length to explain the many ways in which justice is superior to sacrifice in the sight of God.
Whereas sacrifice could only function while the Temple stood in Jerusalem, justice and righteousness were essential during the biblical period and are no less mandated today.
Whereas sacrifices could only atone for unintentional, accidental sins, acts of righteousness and justice atone even for intentional sins.
Whereas sacrifices are offered only by humanity, even God is obligated to practice justice and righteousness.
Whereas sacrifices are significant only in this world, righteousness and justice will remain a cornerstone in the Coming World.
For all of these reasons, the midrash affirms the centrality of justice as a Jewish calling. We cannot consider ourselves pious Jews without a firm commitment to making the world a more just and righteous place.
How we treat the weakest in our midst (the “widow” and “orphan,” to use the Torah’s language) is still the irreplaceable core of our identity. None of this should imply that the other mitzvot are not important. All mitzvot, both ritual and ethical, reflect the commandments of God as understood by the Jewish people throughout history. All of them play an essential role in lifting us above our own self-centeredness and the despotism of time. All of the mitzvot act to refine character and to mold piety. All of the commandments express our passion for God and for our brit (covenant) with God.
That having been said, it remains to assert — as a matter of Jewish integrity and a rebuttal of those who would tailor Judaism to fit a Christian mold–that ethics and a passion for justice remain the engines driving the entire Jewish enterprise. Rituals are essential and beautiful, but they remain frosting. Goodness, justice and decency form the base. As the Torah insists, “Justice, justice shall you pursue.”
Provided by the Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies, which ordains Conservative rabbis at the American Jewish University.
Pronounced: MIDD-rash, Origin: Hebrew, the process of interpretation by which the rabbis filled in “gaps” found in the Torah.
Pronunced: TORE-uh, Origin: Hebrew, the Five Books of Moses.