On the Other Hand: Ten Minutes of Torah: The Pursuit of Justice - Parashat Shof'tim

In this week’s Torah portion, Parashat Shof’tim, Moses tells the people of Israel to select judges for every city. Rabbi Rick Jacobs discusses the standards that Moses set for those judges, how they are still relevant today, and what we must we do when those standards aren't met.

Three ways to listen:


[URJ INTRO] Welcome back to On the Other Hand-- Ten Minutes of Torah, a podcast presented by ReformJudaism.org. Each week, Rabbi Rick Jacobs, the president of the Union for Reform Judaism, shares a little bit about the weekly Torah portion in just about 10 minutes or less. This week, Rabbi Jacobs teaches us about Parashat Shoftim, and he asks us what it means to be an honest and true judge in the time of the Torah and today and how we can balance the scales of justice.

[Rabbi Rick Jacobs] This week, we focus our attention on Parashat Shoftim from the book of Deuteronomy, shoftim literally meaning judges. And it comes in the opening verse of the Parashat which says [SPEAKING HEBREW]. (meaning) You shall appoint judges and officials for your tribes in all your sentiments.

And then it gives them very specific instructions about how to administer justice. Justice, not such a simple obvious thing. It says you shall not judge unfairly. Well, I don't think anybody sets out to judge unfairly. But then it gets specific and says, you shall show no partiality. Well, that's an easy thing to do, right? If I am in a landlord-tenant dispute. It's very easy if I'm a landlord, if I'm a tenant, to take the side of the one who I identify with. But this is an absolute. Then it says, don't take bribes, as bribes blind the eyes of the discerning and upset the plea of the just.

And then we have one of the most quoted lines in all of Torah. Certainly, if you're a progressive social justice warrior, you know this verse by heart. Justice, justice shall you pursue. What I love about this is it reminds us that justice isn't handed to us. Justice is something we have to really reach for. We have to work for. We have to pursue. And that's one of those really essential teachings.

Well, I want to reflect today on the podcast about the ancient way we administer justice and some modern ways. So you have a whole section of the Babylonian Talmud called Sanhedrin, which is built on the notion of this ancient court, a kind of Supreme Court of the Jewish people back in antiquity. It had 71 judges. Well, they also had smaller groupings. You could have a sitting of 23 judges. And the smallest unit was 3 judges. Well, it turns out in the Israeli Supreme Court they also sometimes will have a three-judge panel, sometimes larger. And obviously, it has to do with what is the thing before them.

What I love is the following details from Tractate Sanhedrin, the Babylonian Talmud. It says the members of the Sanhedrin had to be familiar not only with Jewish law and tradition, but also with many languages and science. I love that you had to be also a person of the world. Couldn't only be a person who was fluent and knowledgeable about Jewish sources and Jewish teachings and ethics. You also had to have a sense of what goes on in the larger marketplace. What goes on in the kind of larger fishbowl of ideas.

And then it also lays out seven qualities that a judge must have. So the judge has to be wise, humble, god-fearing, meaning a sense of there's something larger than the judge. And this one is hard. It says a hatred of money. A love of truth. Amiability-- a kind of open-heartedness, I would translate that as. And a person of good reputation.

Now the hatred of money sounds a little bit harsh, but I think what it means is this is a person who simply cannot be swayed by the possibility that there is a monetary gain or there's some dimension of the money part that would override the justice part.

I also loved in the Jewish tradition, judging is theological, too. They have an amazing story, you know it, where Abraham argues with God over the fate of Sodom and Gomorrah. And then finally, Abraham's really calling on God, holding God accountable, says [SPEAKING HEBREW]. (meaning) Will the judge of all the Earth not judge justly?

And in that we also see that the Holy One, blessed be God, is held to this notion of judging. Judging individuals, judging societies and all of the larger arcs. But there is a kind of bar that we're held to.

It's a little uncomfortable to remember that in the ancient sources it says a woman or a convert was disqualified for judgeship. Well, that's just one of many places where we not only dissent but we have changed that tradition. Women serve in the non-orthodox and reform in particular in every one of the key leadership roles, professional and lay. I also love there's an age thing. They said some say that no one under 40 should give a decision. Later rabbis said a person of 18 could actually use the title judge. And some even get it down to the lowest number of 13 could administer justice. So you have all these notions.

One of the great teachings is equality before the law. It says in Sanhedrin, a case involving a prutah, literally like a couple a sense, should be judged and regarded with the same gravity as one involving thousands.

It says if a unlearned person comes in a dispute against a learned person, do not show deference. Now if you think about a judge, a judge is likely to be a learned person. Learned people probably identify with a person of learning. Maybe you know the individual from your own circle of friends and colleagues. It's deliberately going to the places where we could get in trouble.

One of my favorite sources is the discussion in Sanhedrin about capital and non-capital cases and the young and the senior members of the panel of judges. So it says in "Sanhedrin 4 Mishnah 2", in non-capital cases, the individual judges give their verdict beginning with the eldest judge, who speaks first. But in capital cases, the judges begin to speak with the youngest.

It's an amazing teaching, because what it's telling us, I believe, is that when everything's on the line, when a human life is on the line, let's not have the youngest judge be influenced by going last and having to go against all of the luminaries of the day and maybe be the dissenter.

If the youngest judge goes first and has a contrary view, let them have the courage of being first and also the liberation of being firs, even if every one of the subsequent judges rules the opposite.

You have in Pirkei Avot, the sayings of the sages, all these amazing teachings. In chapter 4, Mishnah 9 of Pirkei Avot, the sayings of the sages, it says, and one who is too self-confident in handing down legal decisions is a fool, wicked, and arrogant of spirit.

That's an unbelievable teaching. Think about it. If you're just too certain when you hand down a ruling, that in itself makes a mockery of the complexity of pretty much every decision. So it's not saying that you should be completely lacking confidence of the judgment you're handing down. But you always have to be that person who knows how to weigh. And then Hillel in Pirkei Avot says, don't judge another person until you have reached that person's place, telling us judging is not just what judges do. Judging is what all of us do. And oftentimes, we judge people before we've ever been anywhere near their position. And Hillel knew that particularly in families and relationships, in work settings, it's a good thing to kind of hold back a little bit.

Now one of the most remarkable justice warriors I've met in my lifetime is Bryan Stevenson. Many of you know him as the author of "Just Mercy" and the founder of the Equal Justice Initiative in Montgomery, Alabama. He has taken up the challenge to bring justice to places in the American Society where there have been such egregious examples of injustice.

So let me tell you a story or two. Walter McMillan, a black man who was convicted and sentenced to death for the murder of a young white woman who worked as a clerk in a dry cleaning store in Monroeville, Alabama. Listen to this.

Mr. McMillan was held on death row prior to being convicted and sentenced to death. How is it possible that they already put him in death row before the judgment? Trial lasted only a day and a half. Can you imagine? Three witnesses testified against Mr. McMillan and the jury ignored multiple alibi witnesses who were there who were black who testified that he was at a church fish fry at the time of the crime. The trial judge overrode the jury's sentence verdict for life and sentenced Mr. McMillan to death. Well thank God, in walks Bryan Stevenson from the Equal Justice Initiative. He takes on the case in post-conviction. And he shows that the state witnesses lied and there were multiple, multiple injustices in the case. And in 1993, Mr. McMillan is released after spending six years on death row for a crime he did not commit.

Now it's not just one. Listen the story of Anthony Hinton. Mr. Hinton spent 30 years on death row for a crime he did not commit. One of the longest-serving death row prisoners in Alabama history and among the longest-serving condemned prisoners to be freed after presenting evidence of innocence. Mr. Hinton is the 152nd second person exonerated from death row since 1983. The pattern is overwhelming. And these cases break us apart, because we also know that of all these ones where we've been able with people like Bryan Stevenson and his legal team and many other lawyers that I know who take on pro bono cases.

But for every one that we are able to overturn an unjust decision, we all know that there are others that we were not able to. So it turns out for Anthony Hinton, after 12 years of litigation, it gets to the Supreme Court. And the Supreme Court reverses the lower courts and it grants a new trial. The judge finally dismissed the charges after the prosecutor said that scientists at the Alabama Department of Forensic Scientists tested the evidence and confirmed that the crime bullets could not be matched to Hinton's weapon.

These are just examples, friends. Justice, justice you shall pursue. And I'm just going to say it plainly on this podcast, friends, because we've been through a lot of text together. Or maybe this is your first podcast. But if you are an African-American in many states in this United States of America, you're going to have to pursue justice in mighty, Herculean ways. Because justice is oftentimes going to be beyond your reach. And sometimes it takes someone like Bryan Stevenson or one of the judges along the way to just say, I'm going to not show partiality. I am not going to fit into the racial bias.

I'll just share one other detail that just was astonishing that in the South, really until just a few decades ago, when an African-American was being sworn in in a court of law, they had a separate Bible that was only used for black people. Oh, my, God. Can you imagine that? For a white witness you put your hand on one Bible, and if you're an African-American you put your hand on a different Bible. They segregated the Bible.

Friends, if you start hearing evidence from witnesses with that kind of symbolic gesture, you've already said that the scales of justice are not only tilted, they've completely tipped the other way. Sometimes it's racial bias. Sometimes it's a person just didn't have the funds to get a real legal representation. So when we're studying Parashat Shoftim, it's about how I judge my friend, maybe my spouse, my kids, my colleague. And we sometimes judge a little harshly. And remember, this Torah portion always comes a few weeks before the high holidays. I know somebody's saying, the High Holidays? They're not for a month.

But that's the period when we also think about our own actions and we ask the Holy One to be compassionate in judging us. It kind of starts with how compassionate we can be in judging others. And Hillel's teaching of don't judge others until you're in their shoes. Well, that's a pretty good one. But we're also responsible for our society of justice and for the criminal justice system. And some people might say it's too complex a system to repair. I would say it's too urgent for us not to repair. So wherever we are, and some of you listening to the podcast are lawyers. Some of you are in public interest law and are in criminal defense.

Some of you are involved in whatever way. God bless you for doing that sacred work. And if you have time to do some of the pro bono work to defend those who have been the victims of a very at times unjust system-- I'm not saying the whole. The system is filled with amazing people, and there are some egregious places where we need to fight back. I hope that you'll hear the opening words asking us not only to appoint judges but to pursue justice. Let's not be lackadaisical. Let's not hope. Let's not just pray for more justice. Justice is upon all of us, whether we're lawyers or judges or just citizens. And whether we're in Canada or we live in Israel or some other place. Because obviously, the podcast goes out to all places. Let's all be those people who fight for justice. Do so with impartiality. Do so with a sense that there's a higher calling In having justice live in our midst.

So I call all of us to this charge. And I just think if we are willing with a lot of courage and determination to chase after justice, justice will be no dream.


Thanks for joining us on this week's episode of "On the Other Hand-- 10 Minutes of Torah." Want more? You can download a new episode each Monday on Apple Podcasts or Google Play or Stitcher or wherever you get your podcasts.

And if you like what you hear, write us a review or share the podcast with a friend. For daily, ongoing conversations about Jewish holidays, pop culture, rituals, current events, and more, visit ReformJudaism.org and follow us on Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, and Pinterest. You can also follow Rabbi Jacobs on Twitter at @URJPresident. "On the Other Hand-- Ten Minutes of Torah" is a project of the Union for Reform Judaism, a leading voice in the discussion of modern Jewish life. 

Until next week -- l'hitraot!