Parashat Shofetim 5780

The Political Philosophy of Deuteronomy
A D’var Torah for Parashat Shofetim
By Rabbi Len Levin

Rabbi Simeon ben Gamaliel used to say: On three things does the world stand: On justice, on truth and on peace, as it is said: “execute the judgment of truth and peace in your gates” (Avot 1:18).

These three principles—truth, justice, and peace—are like three legs of a stool. A three-legged stool is stable, but if any one of the three legs is removed, the stool cannot stand.

There are five laws in the portion Shofetim in which these principles of Rabbi Simeon ben Gamaliel are implied:

  1. “Justice, justice you shall pursue”—a justice based on truth, without favoritism or bribery (Deuteronomy 16:18–20).

 

  1. In matters of legal controversy, there shall be a supreme court to decide the law (Ibid. 17:8–13).

 

  1. You may have a king, but he must have his own copy of the Torah so that he will not be above the law (Ibid. 17:14–20).

 

  1. If witnesses bear false testimony, they shall be punished proportionately to the damage they sought to inflict on others—judicial truth merits enforcement (Ibid. 19:16–20).

 

  1. In cases of manslaughter, the elders in the city of refuge shall hear the case between the perpetrator and the victim’s family, and the parties shall accept the judgment of the court—respect for justice leads to social peace (Ibid. 19:1–7).

Why are these three principles interdependent? First, there must be truth. The truth-tellers must be seeking only the truth; they must not act for material gain or social advantage. Second, if the truth-tellers bear true witness, then people can have faith that the verdict of the court decided by their word will be truly just. Even the king, who has the most power, may not pervert the use of his power to his advantage, but must rule in accordance with the law, which is objective and independent of persons. Moreover, for people to trust the fairness of the law, doubtful cases must be submitted to the highest tribunal, where those with the most wisdom and access to divine inspiration will decide them. Finally, when the credibility of the law and the institutions of justice are firmly established, this will foster social peace, because those people with disputes, even involving loss of life, will have enough faith in these arrangements to bring their cases to court to settle, instead of perpetuating murderous feuds and taking justice into their own hands.

Many stories in the Bible illustrate these principles. I will cite two of the most famous.

The most beloved king in our history, King David, once abused his political power to indulge his passion, sending the innocent Uriah to his death. The prophet Nathan chastised him in his famous admonition “You are the man”(2 Samuel 12:7). In the end, David’s favoritism led to the collapse of social peace through the rebellion of his son Absalom.

Another king, Ahab, suborned perjury and perpetrated judicial injustice leading to a man’s death because he coveted his subject Naboth’s vineyard. He, too, was admonished—this time, by the prophet Elijah—in the words: “Have you murdered and also taken possession?” (1 Kings 21:19) He was later killed in battle (Ibid., 22:35).

The interdependence of these three principles has shown itself with terrifying force in modern history. We may trace the first overt manifestation of this to the Dreyfus affair. It started with one lie. This lie was used to commit injustice against one man. But to cover up the first lie, more lies were needed. A whole eco-system of slanders and fabrications came to fruition in Edmond Drumont’s La Libre Parole, which spread anti-Semitic conspiracy theories among millions. France was divided down the middle, with two different narratives competing for the title of truth, each disqualifying the other. The very existence of the Third Republic was in jeopardy. (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dreyfus_affair)

Germany caught France’s fever, especially after its defeat in World War I generated the “stab in the back” myth and millions of Germans branded the Weimar democracy as the fault of the “November criminals.” The Nazis picked up this false narrative and ran with it, blaming all the ills of Germany on the Jews. A month after Hitler’s election, one more lie, about the perpetrators of the Reichstag fire, was enough to topple the remnant of democracy and the party of falsehood seized absolute power. In 1938, more lies precipitated Kristallnacht, and in 1939, a year later, still more lies plunged the whole world into war.

The true verdict was voiced in the words of the Spencer Tracy character in Judgment at Nuremberg when he said to the fictionalized Nazi judge Ernst Janning, who protested he didn’t know it would come to that: “It came to that the first time you sentenced a man to death you knew to be innocent.”

Truth, justice, and peace stand or fall together.
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Rabbi Len Levin is professor of Jewish philosophy at AJR and editor of Studies in Judaism and Pluralism.