This is the first part of a series of reflections on the weekly Torah portions. For those of you unfamiliar with Judaism, we read the Torah in sections. There are 52 parshot (or portions), one parshah (portion) is read each week (most often during Shabbat morning services). It is common for rabbis, prayer leaders or someone of the congregation to offer reflections on the week’s parshah at Shabbat services.
The parshah for this week is Shofetim. It is Devarim/Deuteronomy 16:18 – 21:9 and will be read this Shabbat, 18 August. Shofetim discusses a range of topics: setting up of a system of judges to make important decisions for Israel; the entitlements of the Levites; the rules of warfare; the importance of justice and just governments; and the acknowledgment of G-d as the true and highest Judge. It also warns Israel against false prophets and practices of idolatry. Shofetim contains a number of well-known verses including ‘justice, justice you shall pursue…(16:18),’ and notorious punishments like “…a tooth for a tooth; an eye for an eye…(19:21)”
There seems to be no central message in this parshah which might be why most of the reflections I’ve heard concentrate on the pursuit of justice (16:20). Clearly, there is plenty to question about justice. For example, what is justice? Whose version of justice do we go by? How do we ensure that justice operates in our systems of government? How do we balance justice with other concerns? Does justice bring equality? Is there one definition of justice that fits every situation? If not, how do we apply nuanced versions of the concept? How do we stand up to injustices? Obviously, I could go on.
Another reason many reflections may stop at justice is that it is considerably easier to discuss than punishments which advocate stoning as a method of execution (17:5) or a “life for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth…” (19:21). It is also considerably more comfortable than the slaughter of the Hittites, Amorites, Canaanites, etc. (20:16-17) or the taking of women and children as the spoils of war (20:14). Likewise, who wants to discuss the ritualized decapitation of a calf to atone for an unsolved murder (21:3)? Not me.
Yet, what exactly are we supposed to do with these difficult passages? There is a midrashic teaching that says: every Jew who has lived or ever will, whether Jew-by-birth or Jew-by-choice, stood at Sinai. There, each one of us heard the Torah a little differently. If we take the Torah to be what Moses heard (as tradition teaches), then we are each invited to reflect on what Moses heard and respectfully agree or not.
That being said, even from a not particularly feminist lens, modern society, governments and justice-seeking organizations condemn much of these prescriptions. For example, in many places, stoning is not an acceptable form of capital punishment, and capital punishment itself is unjustifiable. (The recent pronouncement from the Pope speaks to this!) Likewise, in the court of law, justice is rarely fair, and we are beginning to acknowledge and however slowly work to fix that. Large international bodies have concluded that both rape and genocide are war crimes. There are many organizations and people who advocate compassion for animals and concern for the environment.
Of course, a feminist perspective takes this one step further and acknowledges the root of these unacceptable ideals as patriarchy and its companions of violence, misogyny and xenophobia. Nonetheless, I’m not willing to throw it out because I’m deeply committed to the belief that the Jewish tradition has much to offer the world, and the Torah itself is, ultimately, about more than just what’s on the page.
There are kernels of wisdom here that should direct our behavior! For example, as already mentioned, there is the requirement of just systems of government in order for peace and people to flourish. There should be sanctuary cities set up for people to flee to in the event that they accidentally kill someone. This illustrates compassion and forgiveness towards human mistakes on a grand scale. This parshah also includes offering peace before waging war. Peace is clearly an ideal to be striven for, while war is to be avoided whenever possible. There are prohibitions against cutting down fruit bearing trees, and room for declining to participate in war. Here, the basic needs of humans and animals alike are taken into account, and compassion grants room for people and their temperaments to avoid participation in war.
If it is anything, Shofetim is clearly a problematic parshah. Nonetheless, our task is to find meaning in the midst of it all. Shofetim contains ways to practice peace, compassion, forgiveness and justice as well as arguments for their necessity. Come to think of it, even if we had stopped at pursuing justice, we still have a long road to a just society, just governments and just behavior. The Torah reminds us of that. And, Shofetim, in particular, reminds us in its own way just how many ideals once thought holy clearly harm people, animals and the planet and how many holy ideals we still have to fully implement.
Ivy Helman, Ph.D.: A feminist scholar and faculty member at Charles University and Anglo-American University in Prague, Czech Republic where she teaches a variety of Jewish Studies and Feminist and Ecofeminist courses.