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Parashat Shoftim

August 11, 2010
This week we are privileged to read a parashah that covers a multitude of disparate subjects, including the laws of royalty and magicians, but is introduced by the subject relating to the parashah’s title: Shoftim – Judges. In the first verse, we are enjoined to appoint justices; and then in the next two verses we, and not the professional judges to be appointed, are given a set of commands of how we are to apply various concepts of justice. What is it we are prohibited from doing: take bribes, and show favoritism. As to the latter prohibition, Torah does not identify the likely recipients of favoritism. Nevertheless, the natural inclination is to conclude that it is the powerful and the rich who are to be its likely beneficiaries. But does this “natural” conclusion comport with our present society?

This past television season marked the 20th, and last, season of the popular television series, Law and Order. As many know, this well-received program has followed virtually the same formula for its successful run: the first half of each episode is devoted to the discovery of a homicide victim followed by the apprehension of the alleged perpetrator; and the second half of program portrayed a courtroom drama with twists and turns hewing closely to actual modern-day cutting-edge legal issues.

Yet there was one other aspect of this long running series that also seemed to contribute to its success: the accused, and those assisting them, were usually among the rich and powerful. As Stanley Fish beautifully writes in a recent Op-ed piece for the New York Times, the program’s creative team seemed to have a thing for targeting the wealthy and successful, whether consisting of “old money,” fast-rising executives in the high-flying business world, or rock stars or athletes, in casting the likely perpetrators of the crimes. In sharp contrast, the juries who invariably issued the courtroom convictions seemed to be plain vanilla, ordinary persons. One could say that the wealthy were prime targets, for who else could afford the fees charged by high-priced criminal attorneys?

Yet as Mr. Fish points out, this doesn’t seem to be the only motive behind the selection, with its apparent formula for success over the last two decades. Rather, it appears that the privileged group was intentionally selected as the villains because the massesthe demographics that the show’s producers wanted to attract, apparently favored sticking it to those who have succeeded in our society. In other words, he posits that the vast numbers among usthe have-nots, enjoy nothing more than exacting revenge – under the guise of “justice”, against the rich and powerful.

This modern “natural” prejudice helps us understand Torah’s message in our parashah: while it commands us not to show favoritism, it is silent as to the likely beneficiaries of the favoritism: for it is wrong to favor the rich and the powerful; but it is equally wrong to disfavor them. In short, Torah is teaching us that in seeking to impose the ends of justice, we really need to be blind to the identity of its participants. We cannot trust the intrusion of human emotions in the judgment process for just like the verse’s other prohibition, bribery, it will pervert justice. Thus, in sorting out the facts of a particular dispute, be it civil or criminal, we need to apply cold-hearted rational fact-finding processes to arrive at a blind conclusion to its resolution.

But is this “Jewish justice”? In the very next verse, Torah teaches us that we are to pursue justice, and employs the Hebrew word for “justice,” tzedek, twice. The doubling of this word can be understood as conveying two concepts of “justice.” During the High Holy Days, which will soon again enter our lives, we come before the Ultimate Judge. When we stand before Her, we expect that She will apply two strands of justice – din or judgment, and rahamim or mercy. Judgment for an objective evaluation of the merits of our case; and mercy, to temper the decree resulting from that objective evaluation.

Equally, when we apply the concept of “justice” to our human dispute resolution process, the repetition of the “justice” that we are to pursue demands the same: when we sort out the conflict, we need to divorce our natural prejudices of favoritism towards one or the other. Only when we have reached this result, the first tzedek, can we consider tempering the conclusion to accommodate the peculiarities of the circumstances before us that may require some degree of “favoritism” in the form of mercy, and thereby achieve the second tzedek. The true challenge that we confront is making sure that we apply these two steps in the proper order so as not to pervert the process.


Julius Rabinowitz is a Rabbinical student at The Academy for Jewish Religion, and an attorney.