May 29, 2024
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Shoftim: Appreciating Jewish Courts and Police

In the first part of Sefer Devarim, Moshe both rehashes desert highlights (and lowlights) as well as cautioning the people about the challenges of life in Israel. The next two sectio, Shoftim and Ki Teitzei, recount a broad list of mitzvot, and it is this “registry” of mitzvot that lends the sefer of Devarim its nickname “Mishneh Torah”—literally a repetition of the Torah’s legal code. The very first mitzvah to be listed in Shoftim is the mandate to assemble a judicial system backed up by an enforcement agency. Judges (shoftim) and police (shotrim) must be designated to ensure justice and order. Placing this concern as the first mitzvah in the “list” mirrors the introduction of a different parsha with a very similar name—Parshat Mishpatim. Immediately after detailing the events at Har Sinai, the Torah delineates the import of a judiciary system and the various social laws that the courts regulate. Religion cannot be founded upon chaos; without infusing society with a moral code, our relationship with God is marred. Already hundreds of years prior to the institutionalization of a judicial system, Avraham understood its significance. God announced: “For I know him that he preserves the path of God in installing judgment and justice” (Bereishit 18:19). Avraham’s selection was based upon his sensitivity to justice and morality.

After thousands of years without sovereignty, our people sometimes underrate the value and function of a Jewish judiciary and a Jewish police force. Though we enjoyed functioning courts for much of our history in Exile, we often lacked the halachic or socio-political authority to enforce the court’s halachic verdicts. Oftentimes, compliance with court-determined conclusions was purely voluntary or was driven by internal communal pressure. Even when our courts did enjoy enforcement capabilities, the overall legal system was hampered by the absence of a full complement of “tools.” Ideally, a Jewish king complements the court system by attending to “loophole situations” that cannot be fully addressed by courts operating squarely within legal halachic parameters. Unlike the courts, a king possessed wide and sweeping powers to correct injustices and unilaterally punish criminals; he could address situations that lay outside the bounds of halachic jurisdiction. Without a king and without a beit din whose verdicts can be halachically enforced, we operate short-handed and sometimes do not fully appreciate the function and importance of a Jewish judicial system.

Throughout our long exile we didn’t merely suffer the absence of these halachic branches; we witnessed the perversion of the legal system in the service of anti-Semitism. Ironically, as humanity advanced and ancient disorganized cultures yielded more civilized societies, the very tools of law and order were marshalled for the purposes of anti-Semitism. Repeatedly throughout the Middle Ages, Christian societies placed Judaism “on trial” for the alleged crime of scorning Christian theology. The most notorious trial, known as the Disputation of Barcelona, occurred in 1263. A Jewish convert to Christianity named Pablo Christiani faced off against the Ramban who valiantly defended Judaism. Though the king awarded the Ramban 300 gold coins for his coherent defense of Judaism, the Christian Dominicans claimed victory. Given the hostile setting and the fear of reprisal, this “victory” for Christianity was predictable. Actually, a lesser-known disputation occurred years earlier in Paris (1240), during which several French rabbis led by Rabbi Yechiel, a well-known Tosafist, ardently defended the charges brought by Nicholas Donin. Sadly, in the aftermath of the Christian “victory,” 24 wagons of the Shas were publicly burned, signaling to many the disappearance of Torah from Europe. Having developed judicial powers, Medieval Christianity warped these institutions to persecute their Jewish subjects.

Of course, these atrocious but generally isolated monkey trials cannot begin to compare to the horror inflicted by the seemingly endless cycles of blood libels and pogroms throughout the past millennia. The earliest-recorded blood libel occurred in the 13th century, while the final one occurred as recently as 1913. These accusations led to bogus trials, coerced confessions, public executions, widespread pogroms directed at Jews unrelated to the fabricated claims, and ultimately triggered the expulsions of entire communities. That many of these libels erupted during the Pesach holiday and surrounded the manufacture of matzah, made these hostilities even more cruel.

Finally, just when we thought we had survived these dark periods and just as we convinced ourselves that we inhabited an enlightened world of modernity, the Dreyfus affair in Paris around the turn of the 20th century rebuffed any hope that judicial-assisted anti-Semitism was a relic of ancient history. Sadly, the grotesque exploitation of judiciary systems to discriminate against Jews was alive and well.

While judiciary systems were being exploited for anti-Semitic use, enforcement agencies oftentimes were the cause of even harsher suffering. Jews always found themselves at the complete behest of foreign soldiers as they could be massacred and abused by invading armies with impunity. In the end of the 11th century, marauding armies of Crusaders massacred three Franco-German Jewish communities on their path to Jerusalem. Four hundred and fifty years later, the Khmelnytsky uprising in Ukraine claimed the lives of over 50,000 Jews. Not surprisingly, many illuminated Pesach Haggadot included a picture of a non-Jewish soldier to illustrate the “rasha” or evil son within the section of the four sons. For 2,000 years, soldiers and policemen were associated with random persecution and widespread terror directed at Jews. In a final twisted irony, during the Holocaust, Jewish policemen were actually forced to assist the Nazis in their persecution and execution of Jews. This horror—reminiscent of the situation in Egypt—punctuated 2,000 years of Jewish suffering at the hands of supposed “law enforcement.”

We have now returned to our land and have witnessed the restoration of Jewish sovereignty. No longer will foreign judiciary systems be employed to discriminate against Jews. Likewise, we are now policed by our own brothers and our own children. No longer will innocent Jews be vulnerable to random violence perpetrated by criminals in uniform. Historical perspective of this painful past allows us to better appreciate these immense gifts. Over the past few decades in Israel, many observant Jews opposed seemingly unfavorable governmental policies. In many cases, the police force and even the civilian army was drafted to implement policies, which were vehemently opposed due to potential long-term threats to our country. Many opposed the withdrawal from Jewish settled areas in Israel and found themselves at odds with the policies of their governments. To be sure, any healthy democracy allows and encourages differences of opinion and endorses peaceful expressions of this opposition. Unfortunately, in a few limited instances, aggression—both verbal and physical—were directed at governmental institutions of law and enforcement. These expressions are politically dangerous as they both foment greater acts of violence as well as cement social division. Additionally, inability to respect these governmental institutions reflects historical myopia and insensitivity to Jewish history. Having suffered at the hands of hostile courts and vicious soldiers, it is imperative to respect and even revere the “office” of Jewish law enforcement.

We are grateful for the restoration of these symbols of Jewish sovereignty. Our state is nestled in a very violent region in which democracy and the preservation of human rights are each rare achievements. Furthermore, our nascent state has faced ongoing security challenges—a condition that further challenges the preservation of private freedoms. Yet, despite these conditions we have fashioned a robust democracy and thereby have unleashed immense human talent. Though we are deeply appreciative of these developments and profoundly respectful of these “offices,” we still yearn for the restoration of a full range of judiciary institutions and the types of leaders who don’t merely maintain order but inspire us morally and religiously. Isaiah promises (1:26): “I will restore your judges to their original state,” and based upon his prophecy, we pray: Hashivah shofteinu k’varishona! One day we hope to witness that full restoration reinstatement.

By Moshe Taragin


Rabbi Moshe Taragin is a rebbe at Yeshivat Har Etzion located in Gush Etzion, where he resides.

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