Monday, September 1, 2008

Judgment or justice

The reading portion of the forthcoming week is taken in the Book of Devarim/Deuteronomy 16:18-21:9: “Shoftim\שפטים – you shall appoint judges (said the Lord to Moses)\שפטים [ושטרים] תתן לך”. The process of “Mishney Torah\משנה תורה – repeatedly repeating the Torah” shows God knowing how much Moses looks with insights at the Israelites. He feels they hardly accept to observe the Mitzvot.

Jewish memory can easily be compared to some elephants whose trunks throw the stored memorized elements to the trash out of some odd boredom. We can be so lazy, on the verge of sloth, about learning the Mitzvot and then teaching them adequately.

We may have the impression that exerting judgment and being a decision-maker, a manager, sort of heading a ruling entity is a knock-out activity full of prestige and might. Most of the soap operas and serials would rely on recurring patterned events: wedding and divorce, lawsuits and court quibbling. Moses followed the advice given by his father-in-law, Jethro. He appointed “anshey chayil\אנשי חיל – men of value, discernment” and councils to resolve the problems. The Israelite community was lost in the wilderness. Moses humbly found how to avoid quarrels among the people.

He was the leader, heading the nation. As Jethro told him, he could not handle or govern everything. We do see in many countries how politicians or economists, of whatever profession can be driven to power; life-long presidents or Chief High Guides of the People. Sometimes the period would legally be reduced to four-five-seven years but there is a real thirst for might. These people of power do exist of course in the world of laws and regulations that vary in different countries. Interestingly, Moshe Rabbenu humbled himself. He listened to Jethro’s wisdom and assigned the first “judges or justices\שופטים ו שוטרים”. At this point, from the Sinai Revelation and Giving of the Torot\מתן תרתנו (Oral and Written Torah) onwards, the Israelites try to reach one essential goal, i.e. God's righteousness. This deveoped special abilities with regards to: Words (writing, reporters, journalists), Law (lawyers, justices, attorneys, judges), Health or language of the body & soul (physicians, surgeons, psychotherapists, therapists, nurses).

Legal matters cover all these activities because it may either cause terrible sufferings. They aim at delivering individuals and groups from serfdom. Legal [Mitzvot] rules make them feel and act freely. Thus, Law is at the heart of every Jewish prayer and non-Jews would even be astounded of the “legal aspect” of many Jewish demands made to the Lord: "You have favored us with the knowledge of Your Law” (on Shabbat, Berachot 33a).

It is striking that the Jews are submitted to a constant call. This consists in memorizing the earlier times of Moses’ decision for the Israelites. It appears in the benediction included in the Amidah\עמידה (18 Blessings): “Hashivah shofteynu kev’rishonah\השיבה שפטניו כבראשונה / Restore our judges (justices) as in prior times, veyoatseynu kev’techilah\וועצינו כבתחלה / and our counselors as of yore; remove from us sorrow and sighing (yagon veanachah\ויגון ואנחה) and reign Alone over us, Lord, with kindness and compassion, righteousness and justice (betsedek uvmishpat\בצדק ובמשפט) (during the ten days of penitence/slichot\סליחות = Melech HaMishpat\מלך המשפט – King of Judgment).

The first phrase is taken from Prophet Isaiah 1:26-27. This presupposes that these people of the Law could exert a compassionate legal authority allowing to remove sufferings, guilt and failures. The second part of the blessing suggests that the ancient appointment of the judges-advisors in the wilderness permitted a correct monitoring of the society. This was not the case when foreign dominions and judges were arbitrarily ruling over the Jewish nation, in particular the Romans by the time of the Second Temple. The Palestinian version of the benediction has “Ohev mishpat\אוהב משפט – Who loves judgment” instead of (Melech/King of judgment\מלך המשפט) as in Isaiah 61:8.

There is a strong connection between the Amidah blessings 9 to 11 about Redemption, the ingathering of the exiled and the restoration of the judges. Curiously enough, the demand was not introduced after but before the destruction of the Temple as explained in Talmud Sanhedrin 41a, seemingly written forty years before 70 C.E.

Are we really that legal-oriented? The State of Israel repeatedly insists that we live in a “medinah chukit\מדיה חוקית = state of legacy”. The police and the soldiers acting as policemen, but also all kinds of “courts\בתי משפט – batey hamishpat” or “beyt shalom\בית שלום – court of peace” for marital and penal disputes constitute a major part of the Israeli stand of justice. Or, at least there is a genuine and firm desire to resolve any societal or individual issue with righteousness.

People can of course be tricky and cheat each other. We are truly a friendly nation, rather spoiled like churlish children. Money… money… “kessef/massar oder gelt\כסף מעסר אודער געלט”.

Lawless rule can lose an spiritual meaning. We see at the present the highest legal bodies (the Supreme Court, then new Attorney General) embattled in upgrading the power of legacy. Now, there are also the rabbinic tribunals and the dayanim\דינים – rabbinical judges. This should be good provided that nobody is corrupt or twisty. The problem with the twist is that it hardly can be detected overtime. As we grow foxy, crooked, we insidiously leave and forget what is at the core of the Mitzvot and we are getting lost. Strange how at times we can get astonished or amused to get misled. True, Israeli society is going through rising hooliganism, opportunism, self-ruled and self-autonomous decisions taken with less and less respect for the State regulations.

Israel has often become for some people like the “shalosh arim\שלוש ערים – the three cities (of refuge)” determined in our reading portion of the week. These three cities existed in order to protect the “rotz’chim\רוצחים - murderers” who had killed or harmed somebody “by mistake”, unwillingly. By the time the mitzvah was decreed, it was evident that legality was respected. The mitzvah showed to be a very humane provision. It secured a murderer who had not intentionally killed or wounded somebody.

One of the formulas used for the ancient ordination of the rabbis is: “Yadin\ידין-ידין – yadin: you want to exercise judgment, you will judge / yattir- yattir\יתיר-יתיר: you want to deliver, release, make free – you will authorize / Yoreh – yoreh\יורה-יורה: you want to teach (the Laws), give birth to souls: you will open them so that they can reach their goals”. In Hebrew “Din, dinim\דין-דינים” often corresponds to what the Christians would call “grace, blessings”.

We forget that a judgment is not a punishment. It has a prophetic aspect that enables a society to comply with senseful rules. Thus, the moral commandments “You shall not kill, you shall not commit adultery,…” are composed of very subtle points that most people trespass everyday. The question is how to correct public life and reinforce freedom, release and a spirit of prophecy! The problem is how to inject good will and teach the commandments with a joyous spirit.

Intriguingly, the Noahide Laws require the setting-up of a tribunal in every town. Justices, lawyers, shoterim\שוטרים-officers-policemen and women as the rabbis and pious people do have an immense preventive responsibility to bring forth the value of Laws.

Jesus said: “Whoever breaks one of the least of these commandments and teaches others to do the same, will be called least in the Kingdom of Heaven; but whoever does them and teaches them will be called great in the Kingdom of Heaven. For, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the Kingdom of Heaven”. (Matthew 6:19-20). The realm of the Mitzvot is far beyond any denomination, party, judgment. It calls to be cool, quietly cool and balanced.

av Alexander Winogradsky Frenkel

September 2, 2008 – ב באלול תשס"ח

Photograph: Heichal HaSefer, the Shrine of the Book\היכל הספר, Israel Museum, roof in the shape of the top of a scroll.{credit: Galit].

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