On Judges, Kings, Priests, and Prophets: Is the Jewish-Leadership Status Quo Sufficient?

Shof'tim, Deuteronomy 16:18–21:9

D'Var Torah By: Rabbi Rachel Sabath Beit-Halachmi, Ph.D.


The dramas of political power and legal authority are mesmerizing. From the creation of the first civil society to today, there is no shortage of debate about how an ideal society should function. The dilemmas that emerge as the Israelites begin to establish their own nation in the ancient Land of Israel have an eerie relevance given some of the issues confronting any modern democracy today: Who is fit to be appointed a judge? How will the principles of justice described in the Torah actually function? How will political rulers be chosen? How will potential abuses of power be prevented? How will the most vulnerable in society be protected, especially those falsely accused?

Amidst an onslaught of new issues facing the Israelites creating a new society, the authors of Deuteronomy seem optimistic that these challenges can be managed if the right forms of leadership are in place and if there is an appropriate balancing of powers. The Deuteronomist proclaims: Yes, there will be complex problems in our new civil society, but here are the systems and forms of leadership that will enable us to overcome them.

The establishment of a working multilayered system of communal leadership is the genius of the Deuteronomist. Judges, kings, priests, and prophets separately and together are needed in order to allow for the Israelites to create the kind of society worthy of their history and their destiny. But were these four major types of leadership enough to secure our future? Do we, today, have the right kind of Jewish leadership to meet the challenges that we face?

Parashat Shof’tim not only presents many different leadership dilemmas, but also succinctly offers multiple forms of leadership. The message is clear: No one single type of leader is sufficient. Each of these different forms and philosophies of leadership is both necessary and liable to fail. By himself, Moses dramatically failed God and the Israelites on many occasions. And Joshua, while a worthy warrior, by himself could not transform a nomadic rebellious tribe into a strong and just society. Not only were—and are—different leaders needed for different historical contexts, but also different strengths are needed—different skill sets, and different ethical sensibilities and sensitivities. Each kind of leader, however, is rooted ultimately in the same foundational Torah ideals of religious freedom, justice, and peace. Questions emerge for each of the kings, judges, priests, and prophets around how best to fulfill those ideals: Who will make the decisions and how will they be made? Which risks should be taken and what prices should be paid in order to achieve a goal?

Leadership, by definition, is a messy business. Presciently, the Deuteronomist knows how problematic leaders themselves can be. The text emphasizes that human beings ultimately are not able to accurately choose or even evaluate whether or not a leader is worthy of his or her role. While the Israelites can evaluate whether a potential leader possesses the necessary characteristics and capacities, only God can establish and determine a leader’s suitability, and only God can be trusted ultimately to limit a leader’s authority.

Judges and justice: Establishing and maintaining just courts is foundational to creating a just society. Parashat Shof’tim, "Judges," as it is aptly called, begins by clarifying the inherent ethics of the judges themselves in who they are and how they adjudicate. We need judges who will not pervert justice, who will not succumb to bribes to be appointed (Deut 16:18-19). After all, as we read, tzedek, tzedek tirdof: “Justice, justice shall you pursue!” (Deut. 16:20; see also Deut.17-20). But even with the right judges in place, rebellion and perversion will likely ensue in society. The Deuteronomist accepts this as part of the human social condition and seeks to create ways of diminishing its negative impact on innocent people. But judges, while necessary as a single system of leadership, will not be enough to maintain a civil society.

Royalty is from God: A second and crucial category of leadership emerges here—kings. This kind of ruler was something foreign and yet necessary for the Israelites. A king was necessary for ancient sovereignty, and for military and political leadership. But unlike Egyptian kings, an Israelite king was expected to know and apply the laws of the Torah, not to become the law itself nor to be an absolute ruler himself. In fact, because of the potential power of a king, choosing one was thought to be too weighty for the Israelites to elect or select themselves, and therefore God must choose him. The Israelites—indeed, all human societies—are constantly challenged to recognize and remember that the power of a human being can never be absolute (Deut. 17:14-20).

In addition, the king couldn’t just be a powerful ruler, he must also meet clear requirements for what were at the time considered to be ethical standards: not the standards of surrounding nations, but Jewish ethical standards (Rambam on Deut 17:15). A Jewish civil society needs ethical political leadership.

Priestly power: A religion based on sacrificial practices will need priests to officiate and pass on sacred codes and modes of serving God. Accepting sacrifices and receiving the gifts of the people three times a year were essential for maintaining a connection to the sacred and to history. They too, the commentators tell us, needed to be reminded not to abuse their power.

Religious critics: And what about the prophets? Those who are sensitive to abuses of power, brave in spirit, and charismatic will become the religious critics of society. All societies need to be accountable to uphold their own values and standards. Otherwise, the Israelite rulers and all people become blind. We lose track of what’s most important, we turn a blind eye to the innocent suffering in our midst, and most often, we ignore our own failings. 

What does this have to do with Jewish leadership today? While much has changed in civil society and in the Jewish community, and while many Jewish leaders and political leaders have come and gone, we need a new interpretation of Deuteronomy that can help us hear wisdom from many forms of leadership so that we might learn new possibilities for what troubles our people and our society today. To a surprising extent, each of the four categories—judges, kings, priests, and prophets—remains, albeit in new forms. Each remains but perhaps each is sufficient and similarly not sufficient. Yes, we have moved historically far beyond the idea of kings, but we Jews in North America and in Israel still often believe that a particular political leader can save us. Yes, there are a few prophetic voices keeping us mindful and hopefully even ethical—but not enough. And yes, the priesthood has been redefined as clergy, and judges are embedded in infinitely complex legal and political systems. But some of the same challenges and limitations of the human condition remain.

Shockingly, the Deuteronomist suggests a radical, if temporary, remedy that can allow for life to triumph and society to cope: For times when the systems of leadership reveal their imperfections, in Parashat Shof’tim, the law prescribes a safety net to protect the innocent—the “cities of refuge,” arei miklat. These cities were to be set up in the Land of Israel to offer sanctuary to those who inadvertently caused the death of another or were falsely accused, and to protect them from the retribution of others (Deut. 19:1-13; see also Deut. 4:43; Num. 35:1-34).

Even after the powerful four-part leadership system of judges, kings, priests, and prophets is established with the greatest sacred and ethical values in mind, sometimes the system of justice and rule of peace will fail. But the genius of the Deuteronomist is to preemptively create a salve. The cities of refuge enable society to embrace those situations, and to go above and beyond to preserve the lives of those whose blood should not be shed, to protect the vulnerable and the endangered. No lynching should occur in a civil society. Even though the whole society is designed in order to ensure justice, nonetheless, there must be places established beyond all the ugliness of what people might conspire to do to each other. The greatness of the Deuteronomist is the capacity to create an incredible plan for an ideal society, and at the same time to predict and prepare for so many injustices and communal dilemmas that will still emerge. Just as the Deuteronomist predicted the need for new systems and recognized the eternal imperfections and inadequacies of even the most powerful forms of leadership, so too do we in our time need to know that our systems of leadership are still short of perfection, and that in the future other new solutions will be needed, and that new modes and forms of leadership must be prepared.

Rabbi Rachel Sabath Beit-Halachmi, Ph.D. serves Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion as the National Director of Recruitment and Admissions, and Assistant Professor of Jewish Thought and Ethics. She was also named President's Scholar in 2013. Prior to this appointment, she served as Vice President of the Shalom Hartman Institute in Jerusalem. Rabbi Sabath earned a Ph.D. in Jewish Philosophy at the Jewish Theological Seminary and has co-authored two books and published numerous articles in the Jerusalem Post, the Huffington Post, the Times of Israel, and other venues. She is currently writing a book on covenant theology and co-editing a volume with Rabbi Rachel Adler, Ph.D. on ethics and gender.


Not Blind, But Fair

Daver Acher By: Rabbi Matt Dreffin

Lady JulsticePeople who search for the origins of Lady Justice might investigate 16th-century depictions of a blindfolded woman holding scales. They might trace the imagery back to the Roman goddess Iustitia. Perhaps they might recognize an allusion to this figure in Parashat Shof’tim when the Bible commands us to dispense and uphold justice: “You shall not twist judgment. You shall not recognize any face or take any bribery, for a bribe blinds the eyes of the wise and perverts the words of the righteous” (Deut.16:19). This warning is one of many the Torah provides us regarding the danger of twisting justice (see Lev. 19:15, Deut. 1:17). According to Robert Alter,1 the text stresses that even the wisest of the wise can lose the guidance of their wisdom if they succumb to bribery No matter how many books we study, cases we adjudicate, or students we teach, we can undermine our authority and expertise when we allow ourselves to be partisan or partial.

Whether we sit as judges or we are school teachers who like to watch reruns of Law & Order, the Shof’tim instruction applies to every one of us. We are not meant to be completely blind to everything—we must hear both sides of any story before rendering judgment. Jewish law permits us to hear one litigant’s version of events only when the other litigant is present to dispute the testimony: all litigants must be present to offer their versions of the story. (For more information on Jewish principles of justice, see Joseph Telushkin’s Jewish Wisdom: Ethical, Spritual, and Historical Lessons from the Great Works and Thinkers.2) In the stories we read online, the cable news shows we watch, and the gossip we hear from our friends, we need to ensure that we have all the information before rendering personal judgment.

Perhaps just as importantly, Parashat Shof’tim gives us instructions regarding our public judges. In many of our countries of residence, we’re privileged to be able to elect some of our judges. Therefore, we must educate ourselves on their policies and practices, making sure they render verdicts that are neither twisted nor tainted. And we need to pay attention to those duly elected officials once they take office to ensure that they continue to deliver ethical, honest, and unbiased judgments. By choosing to hold others accountable, we can uphold the values of the Bible both in our personal lives and when we cast our votes at the ballot box.

  1. Robert Alter, The Five Books of Moses: A Translation with Commentary (NY: W.W.Norton & Company, 2004), p.962
  2. Joseph Telushkin, Jewish Wisdom: Ethical, Spritual, and Historical Lessons from the Great Works and Thinkers (NY: Harper Collins, 1994)
  3. Note that various websites like Vote411 will give you information on your local races.

Rabbi Matt Dreffin, MAJE is the incoming director of education services at the Goldring/Woldenberg Institute of Southern Jewish Life (ISJL) in Jackson, MS.

Reference Materials

Shof’tim, Deuteronomy 16:18–21:9
The Torah: A Modern Commentary, pp. 1,456–1,477; Revised Edition, pp. 1,292–1,315
The Torah: A Women’s Commentary, pp. 1,141–1,164
Fourth Haftarah of Consolation, Isaiah 51:12–52:12
The Torah: A Modern Commentary, pp. 1,607–1,611; Revised Edition, pp. 1,316–1,319

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