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Shoftim: Judgment Call

Deuteronomy 16: 18 – 21: 9

"Judges and officers shall you make for yourself in all your gates," we are told at the opening of this week's reading, "and they shall judge the people with righteous judgment." The declaration seems obvious at first blush. Who wouldn't want righteous judges? Yet the Bible—more so, perhaps, than any other text of the ancient world—is singularly attentive to this issue of judges, making it into one of the central demands of the Torah.

It does so here by launching into a prolonged discussion of all the forces that can set a judge's judgment awry. "You shall not pervert judgment," we are told. "You shall not respect persons, neither take a bribe: for a bribe blinds the eyes of the wise, and perverts the words of the righteous. Justice, only justice shall you pursue, that you may live, and inherit the land which the Lord your God gives you."

Even when turning to the proper attributes of kings, this week's reading seems less interested in their ability to win wars or rule the masses than in their capacity to maintain a high quality of justice—for a king, above all, is the supreme judge of the land. Only an Israelite may rule over the land, lest the king's judgment be skewed by affinity for a foreign nation. A king may not accumulate too much gold, or too many horses or wives, the three separate categories representing the triple threat of wealth, power, and beauty that are the underlying, judgment-skewing vices associated with idolatry. Finally, a king is to write down a copy of the Torah and keep it with him at all times.

This week's reading is hardly the only place where the Bible emphasizes the need for superior judges. And not only for Israel: of the seven laws that according to rabbinic tradition were given by God to Noah, the last and perhaps most significant is the establishment of just courts—the implication being that they are a universal first principle for all mankind. In Exodus, Moses' father-in-law Jethro convinces him to delegate the responsibility of judgment to lower courts, insisting that he track down for the position "able men, such as fear God, men of truth, hating unjust gain." Elsewhere, judges are warned against being swayed by the passions of the mob and against favoring not just the wealthy but even the poor—for mercy itself can become a source of injustice.

Yet judgment is a double-edged sword. On the one hand, good judges are central to a good communal life. That is why, before the Israelites ever anointed a king over themselves, they lived first under the rule of "Judges"—an extremely rare title for political chiefs in the idolatrous ancient Near East. On the other hand, it's precisely because of this central role that the Bible repeatedly spells out what it takes to be a good judge—and reminds us how easy it is to be a bad one.

Why is all this so important? Ultimately, just courts are not only the hallmark of a just society but also the instrument for creating one. Fortunate as most of us are to live in societies distinguished by basically fair and impartial judiciaries, we forget what things can be like for people wholly under the sway of political or other overpowering interests. Without the conviction that ultimately a wronged individual can find redress behind the judicial bench, what faith can anyone place in public life, in government, or in orderly relations among citizens, and what more is there to existence than an endless power grab?  

With all its emphasis on laws, the Bible is telling us something deeper: the laws of the Torah are as naught unless backed by a culture of fairness, justice, and truth.  


David Hazony's first book, The Ten Commandments: How Our Most Ancient Moral Text Can Renew Modern Life, will be published by Scribner on September 7, 2010.




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