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Parashat Shofetim 5782

September 1, 2022

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Idols of Our Own Making
A D’var Torah for Parashat Shofetim
By Rabbi Matthew Goldstone

Our parasha this week begins with a call to justice – we must establish reliable judges who will judge with integrity and we ourselves must actively pursue justice. Immediately following this charge, the portion switches to a prohibition against setting up idolatrous objects of wood or stone. The next chapter (Deut. 17) continues to interweave discussions of avoiding idolatry through the worship of celestial objects with legal justice – that capital punishment shall only be enacted on the basis of the testimony of multiple witness and that difficult cases should be brought to the appointed judges of the day. The extended connection between avoiding idolatry and the pursuit of justice reinforces their antipodal orientations. Idolatry leads us away from truth and justice.

But the nature and manifestations of idolatry can shift over time and what once may have been acceptable practice can easily become unacceptable. Rashi draws our attention to one such shift in his comments on Deut. 16:22, which prohibits setting up a stone pillar (מַצֵּבָה) for worship. Rashi reminds us that in Genesis (28:18) our ancestor Ya’akov set up just such a stone pillar as part of his worship of God. But now, such practice is forbidden because it has become a mainstay of idolatrous practice. What was once loved (אֲהוּבָה) by God has now become hated (שְׂנֵאָהּ).

We do not need to look far to find once venerable structures and practices that have become corrupt. Yet, the Torah proceeds to complicate the matter. Deuteronomy instructs us to follow the verdict of our trustworthy judges and not deviate from what they tell us, neither to the right nor to the left (Deut. 17:11). The Midrashic tradition famously interprets this command to mean that even if it seems to us that the judges tell us that left is right and right is left we should follow their judgement (Sifrei Devarim 154).

On the one hand, this interpretation is somewhat disturbing. The danger of blind faith in counterintuitive rulings can lead us down the path of “false facts,” acting contrary to the best interests of society, and even greater corruption. Yet, on the other hand, we can see the resonance between this interpretation and shifting divine attitudes towards certain practices. What once was acceptable has become abhorrent, what once was left has become right. There are certain institutions and practices that, while once religiously and politically sanctioned, have become unacceptable and thus we must be told that what was once right has become left.

At the end of the day, it comes down to the reliability of our leadership – we must appoint those magistrates and officials who shall govern the people with justice (Deut. 16:18). We must identify and uplift those leaders who have the courage to tell us when right has become left but who are trustworthy enough to steer us on a path that does not merely serve their particular interests but leads us all towards a more just society.

But what makes for leaders of this caliber? At AJR we believe that pluralism is a crucial ingredient. The ability to cherish the positions of others, to see beyond one’s own point of view and to embrace the diversity of authentic expressions of Judaism and meaningful life, is a mark of a qualified leader. At AJR we strive to imbue our students and alumni with the value of pluralism so that they may have the knowledge to know when right has become left, the wisdom to know how to share this realization with others, and the courage to do so in a polarized world in which far too many people listen only to the distorted echoes of their own deeply ingrained assumptions.

May the gift of understanding those around us allow us the power to smash the idols of our own making and to continue to guide our communities towards greater justice and truth.
Rabbi Matthew Goldstone, PhD, is the Assistant Academic Dean at the Academy for Jewish Religion where he teaches courses in Talmud and Jewish Law. Rabbi Goldstone is the author of The Dangerous Duty of Rebuke: Leviticus 19:17 in Early Jewish and Christian Interpretation.