parshat shoftim, deuteronomy 16 – 17
Join Geoffrey Stern and Rabbi Adam Mintz recorded on clubhouse on September 1st 2022. In the same parsha that the Torah concedes to the people’s desire to have a king “like the other nations” it also suggests another leadership model. The Shofet, normally translated as the Judge. We discuss the meaning of Shofet and explore a past and promised age of Shoftim.
Welcome to Madlik. My name is Geoffrey Stern and at Madlik we light a spark or shed some light on a Jewish Text or Tradition. Along with Rabbi Adam Mintz, we host Madlik Disruptive Torah on clubhouse every Thursday at 8:00pm Eastern and share it as the Madlik podcast on your favorite platform. Last year in an episode called: “You are not my Boss” we focused on the Torah’s distaste for the people’s desire to have a king. Today we will explore an alternative leadership model which is actually the name of the Torah portion. The parsha is called Shoftim and Shofet, normally translated as the Judge can also be a decision-maker or person of action. So join us as we discuss the meaning of Shofet and explore a past and promised age of Shoftim in our episode called Restore our Judges.
So welcome, welcome back from Paris rabbi, and welcome everybody. As I said, we do record this, it will be a podcast. And if you do listen to the podcast, make sure that you give us a star and give us a like and share it with your friends and family. But as I said, this parsha begins in Deuteronomy in 16: 18, and it says you shall appoint magistrates and officials, for your tribes in all the settlements that your God is giving you, and they shall govern the people with due justice. You shall not judge unfairly; you shall not show partiality. You shall not take bribes for bribes, blind the eyes of the discerning and upset the plea of the just, justice, justice, shall you pursue that you may thrive and occupy the land that your God is giving you? So, in the parsha, it has the famous צֶ֥דֶק צֶ֖דֶק תִּרְדֹּ֑ף and it starts by saying שֹׁפְטִ֣ים וְשֹֽׁטְרִ֗ים תִּֽתֶּן־לְךָ֙ so judges and law is so seminal to Judaism. We are a people of lawyers. It’s one of the chosen professions. We talked a little bit in the pre-show about the impact of my Maimonides who is a doctor, but certainly law was such an important part of the Jewish psyche. I am the head of 100-year organization (PEF Israel Endowment Funds) that was started by Louis Brandeis, who along with Justice Cardoza, were two absolutely famous Jewish Supreme Court justices, and they did more than just sit on the bench. Louis Brandeis was so involved as a Zionist that there is a kibbutz named after him in Israel called Ein HaShofet. So, Rabbi, what is your first impression when you are given the word Shofet, and Zedek Zedek Tirdof,
Adam Mintz 03:20
So I think that your connection to last year’s class about Kings is very much related. You see, there are different models of leadership. King is an absolute ruler, Shofet. Tzedek Tzedek Tirdoff is a different kind of ruler. Tzedek Tzedek Tirdoff is really saying that we have judges who carry out God’s desire, God remains the ultimate authority, and the judges are under God. But when you have a king, the king seems to take the place of God. That’s the difference between a Melech; a king, and a Shofet… a judge.
Geoffrey Stern 04:08
I love that. I love that. And I love the fact that we both seem to be on the same page that we are talking about alternative leadership roles. There’s the kingdom, and there’s the judge and they are different and they relate to the people differently and they relate to God differently. If we scroll down a little bit in the Parsha, and we go to Deuteronomy 17, 8-9, it says if a case is too baffling for you to decide, be it a controversy over homicide, civil or assault matters of dispute in your court. You shall promptly repair to the place that your God has chosen and appear before the Levitical priests or the magistrate in charge at the time and present your problem when they have announced to you the verdict in the case. So here we get even a third role of leadership, it says that you should come to וּבָאתָ֗ אֶל־הַכֹּהֲנִים֙ הַלְוִיִּ֔ם וְאֶ֨ל־הַשֹּׁפֵ֔ט. So, it seems to me that even at this preliminary stage, a shofet is more than just a judge. He’s a leader. And from that perspective, you can bundle so fat with words like priest and Levi, you’re basically coming to people that make decisions, you’re coming to people that have leadership roles. And I think that’s really the path that I want to explore this evening, is looking at the shofet in a much broader lens, as a leader, and then kind of exploring, how is that leadership different than kingship, for instance, or other types of things? But how does it strike you that you would bring up a shofet, a Levi and a Cohen in the same breath?
Adam Mintz 06:04
You’re bringing up again, an amazing point, you know, the impression you get from the Chumash is that the Cohen and the Levi used to be the shoftim, they themselves used to be the judges. If that’s true, I can’t prove it necessarily. But if that’s true, what you see is that there was a connection between religious leadership and judicial leadership. The judges were the religious leaders. That’s not the way we have it today. Obviously, you know, you’ve talked about Judge Brandeis and Judge Cardozo, they happen to be Jewish. What you didn’t tell everybody was that when, Woodrow Wilson, I think, who selected, who nominated Brandeis to be the supreme court justice, there was big opposition, ironically, led by the New York Times that said that Brandeis could not be a Supreme Court justice, because there was a conflict of interest. They were afraid that his Judaism would influence his decisions. Can you believe that? His Judaism influences decisions? Now, the New York Times lost, and he was one of the great justices we ever had. But that’s what they say. And you see in the Chumash, that it’s exactly the opposite, that the Kohanim actually were the judges.
Geoffrey Stern 07:41
I think that’s fascinating. You know, it is so interesting. I think there’s a very high percentage of Roman Catholics, who are justices, and I think, and of course, President Kennedy came up against the same challenge, because the Catholic religion is so legalistic in many senses as well. But just to finish up, because I think I want to explore some verses that touch upon some of the things we’ve been talking about in in Deuteronomy, 19, which I believe is next week’s parsha. It says the two parties to a dispute shall appear before God before the priests or shoftim, the magistrates in authority at the time, and the magistrate shall make a thorough investigation, if the one who testified is a false witness, having testified falsely against a fellow Israelite. I think the aspect of religion that definitely blatantly, clearly impacts the Law is that they take an oath in the name of the Lord. And of course, we have that even till today. So, so I do think it’s fascinating how religion and justice kind of partner that is, and have a synergy between them. But I think there’s one aspect that I want to touch upon, that we touched upon a few weeks ago, if you recall Rabbi, we had an episode on Challah. And the we talked about that you had to take the challah, you had to take a portion off of the Challah and give it to the Cohen. And you told me and you said but Geoffrey it doesn’t say anywhere in the verse Cohen, it says you should give it to God. So, I was struck by that and in a sense, we have an instance where the priests are referred to as God. So, it was understood by those who read the text that when it says you shall give the piece of the challah to God, it meant to God’s representatives in a sense to the Kohanim. But what is equally fascinating is that many times, judges, are also referred to as God. So in Exodus 21, it says, but if the slave declares, I love my master and my wife and children, I do not wish to go free, his master shall take him before God, and he shall have his ear pierced, and Rashi on Exodus 21 5-6 says, el haElohim, to God means to the court. In Exodus 22, it says, If the thief is not caught, the owner of the house shall depose before God and deny laying hands on the other’s property. He says, וְנִקְרַ֥ב בַּֽעַל־הַבַּ֖יִת אֶל־הָֽאֱלֹקִ֑ים and Rashi again, says, the judges. So it is fascinating that the two groups that we have focused on counter disposition to a king, who, as you said, replaces God, the Kohanim. And the judges are actually referred to God, what do you make of that?
Adam Mintz 11:17
Yeah, that is great. I mean, the word Elohim is the same word for judges and God. Now probably that reflects God to say that one of the roles that God has is He’s a judge. But it also means that the judge has the status of God. You see, you started, the class tonight by quoting the posuk said, Tzedek, Tzedek Tirdof, we should pursue justice. Now, it sounds to me, like that’s a kind of secular comment, right? Pursue justice. But the truth of the matter is that that’s a religious statement. pursue justice is religious, you need to pursue justice, in a religious way, justice is defined in a religious way. And that’s brought out by the fact that the judges are also connected to God and connected to the Cohen and to the Levi.
Geoffrey Stern 12:20
You know, I think that you could easily make a case, that in a sense, that you go to a Cohen, you go to a judge with a difficult case, and you’re almost kind of consulting with an Oracle. And that would be the association with calling them God, you could make the case that they are representatives the human representatives of God, and that’s why you call them God. And finally, and I intimated this before, you could say that you actually do have to swear an oath in the name of God. And that’s why it says that you are approaching God, but I have a kind of a humanistic way of looking at it. And that would be that the way you started, you were saying that our challenge with kings is that they want to replace God. And I think that these leaders are as close to B’tzelem Elohim, the image of God, they do represent God and that in a sense, our leaders; those people that are active in the community, and are trying to decipher what the right and moral way is, are in fact, those people that are imbued with God. Those are, you know, in the words of Erich Fromm, those are the people who are following the dictate of You shall be as gods. So I do think that we are talking not only about leadership, alternatives, but leadership that is totally condoned by the Torah, and it’s condoned, because these people are trying as best they can as humans to represent to channel the Lord in this world.
Adam Mintz 14:20
I think that’s right. And again, I think it goes both ways, which is so great, right? It’s … They’re like God, and God is like the judges, we look at God as a judge, you know, there are two elements of God. There’s one element of God; God as being a compassionate God. And there’s another element of God as God being a righteous God or God being the God of justice. Now, God being the God of justice is a kind of scary God. There’s a wonderful Midrash it’s reflected in the Rosh Hashana davening. When it talks about the Akedah. The Akeda is when God commands Abraham to sacrifice his son Isaac on the altar, and God at the last-minute changes his mind. And what the Midrash says is that Abraham said to God, you know, you’re acting like the God of justice, I want you to become the God of compassion. And that’s what we do all do on Rosh Hashana; we try to turn the God of justice to into the God of compassion. That’s a really interesting idea.
Geoffrey Stern 15:27
You know, it’s not the focus of tonight’s discussion. But there are so many commentaries on why it says Tzedek, Tzedek Tirdof , justice, justice, shall you pursue. And certainly, one of them, the most beautiful in my mind, is that you need to pursue justice, with justice. And I think that’s kind of what you were referring to…. that the strict law of justice, well, maybe that’s easy to do. But to do it in a fair way to do it in a compassionate way, to see the bigger picture. Maybe that’s why it says Tsedek Tsedek twice. But I want to get back to Shoftim. And those of us who pray three times a day and say the 18 benedictions, that Shemona Esrei, the Amidah, we talk about the Shoftim three times a day, there is a one of the 18 benediction says הָשִֽׁיבָה שׁוֹפְ֒טֵֽינוּ כְּבָרִאשׁוֹנָה וְיוֹעֲצֵֽינוּ כְּבַתְּ֒חִלָּה, Restore our judges as before, and our counselors as at first. Remove sorrow and sighing from us and reign over us, God along with kindness and compassion, and make us righteous with justice. And then it says, Blessed are you, oh, God, who is full of compassion and justice. So in this one, prayer is a lot to unpack, because it helps us make the transition from looking at a Shofet as simply a judge to something that is a whole lot bigger, because it’s clear in the big scope of history, that when it says, Bring back our judges and our counselors, it’s actually referring to a period in our history, the beginning of the book of Ruth says, and it was in the days of the Shoftim, it was in the days of the judges, there is a book of the Bible could call Judges that come before the book of Samuel and the book of Melachim, which is the Book of Kings one and two. So there is a whole period, call it a period that we can romanticize that we want to return to call it what you will, but it was a period that was ruled by Shoftim. And I think you would agree with me that the shoftim that it’s referring to are not simply magistrates sitting on a bench adjudicating these were all leaders. And so this is a fascinating blessing, least of which it proceeds a number of blessings that talk about bringing back the Davidic line and bringing back Jerusalem. It also is part of the whole eschatology of ending our suffering and bringing back a new age and it starts with shoftim, what does this blessing mean to you?
Adam Mintz 18:48
Oh, boy. So now you bring up a really interesting thing. That blessing הָשִֽׁיבָה שׁוֹפְ֒טֵֽינוּ כְּבָרִאשׁוֹנָה וְיוֹעֲצֵֽינוּ כְּבַתְּ֒חִלָּה is actually a blessing In Shemona Esrei, in the order of the blessings of the Shemona Esrei, that blessing comes right beforeוְלִירוּשָׁלַֽיִם עִירְ֒ךָ בְּרַחֲמִים תָּשׁוּב that we go back to Jerusalem. It seems to be in the idea of the editor or the author of the Amidah that part of a return to Jerusalem is a return to justice, the way that it used to be. We can’t return to Jerusalem without a return to justice. Wow, that’s great. Right? Who would have thought that? But that seems to be what it’s saying. And it’s הָשִֽׁיבָה שׁוֹפְ֒טֵֽינוּ כְּבָרִאשׁוֹנָה וְיוֹעֲצֵֽינוּ כְּבַתְּ֒חִלָּה, it’s almost like a messianic prayer. We want judges like we used to have judges, then we’re going to have a messianic reality. So the this really elevates the idea of justice. This isn’t just that, you know that the judges are the ones who are going to be fair and all these things. It’s that that’s part of the Messianic vision, not so we don’t have now Which is kind of this, you know, symbiotic relationship between judges and God and religion and Tzedek all of these things together, I’ll just say the word said Tzedek, Tzedek Tirdof, the word tzedek is a great word. Because we always love talking about words, because the word Tzedek is related to another word that we know that word is the word Tzedakah. usually you think of Tzedakah as charity as something that you volunteer to do. Tzedek on the other hand, righteousness is something that you’re obligated to do. And what you see is that you’re obligated to be good. That’s why we choose the word Tzedaka. Being good is not something that you voluntary, in tradition, it’s part of the obligation, you need to be good. That’s what Tzedek, Tzedek Tirdoff means.
Geoffrey Stern 20:59
You know, the, the prayers that we say every day, they don’t come out of a vacuum. And this prayer has beautiful language that you referenced about returning us to the days of old, and it really comes from the most beautiful haftorah that we say, I would say oh a year, and it’s on Shabbat Hazon, Hazon means vision. And it comes from Isaiah, 1:1, the prophecies of Isaiah, who prophesies concerning Judah and Jerusalem. And these are the prophecies where Isaiah says, I don’t want your sacrifices. I take no joy in the bulls or delight in the goats. He goes, bringing ablations is futile. Bringing oblations is futile,-c Incense is offensive to Me. New moon and sabbath, Proclaiming of solemnities, Assemblies with iniquity,-d I cannot abide. . He says, putting down all ritual and he says Wash yourselves clean; Put your evil doings Away from My sight. Cease to do evil; (17) Learn to do good. Devote yourselves to justice; Aid the wronged.-e Uphold the rights of the orphan; Defend the cause of the widow. And then he goes on to say Your rulers are rogues And cronies of thieves, Every one avid for presents And greedy for gifts; They do not judge the case of the orphan, And the widow’s cause never reaches them. (24) Assuredly, this is the declaration Of the Sovereign, the LORD of Hosts, The Mighty One of Israel: “Ah, I will get satisfaction from My foes; I will wreak vengeance on My enemies! (25) I will turn My hand against you, And smelt out your dross as with lye,-h And remove all your slag: And then it says, I will restore your magistrates as of old, And your counselors as of yore. After that you shall be called City of Righteousness, Faithful City.” (27) Zion shall be saved in the judgment; Her repentant ones, in the retribution. So exactly as you said, this is the context of this prayer. They lifted, they paraphrase, they took the exact words of Isaiah, but it really puts doing the right thing above all else, all of the ritual, all of the mouth services, all of the temple worship, it’s one of the most profound messages. And it all is triggered from corrupt leaders, corrupt judges, and judges of Old, it is absolutely powerful. Is it not?
Adam Mintz 23:39
It is I wonder why it is that the judges were so corrupt. Why is it that the book of Shoftim is the wrong model of leadership? You never would have guessed it from this week’s parsha this week’s parsha שֹׁפְטִ֣ים וְשֹֽׁטְרִ֗ים תִּֽתֶּן־לְךָ֙ בְּכׇל־שְׁעָרֶ֔יךָ sounds as if we should make judges that’s a good model of leadership. Where do you come up with this idea that they were bad? Isn’t that interesting?
Geoffrey Stern 24:09
I’m gonna part roads with you. I think that Isaiah was talking literally about the judges. As we know them in the day of, in the period before the destruction of the temple. I think when he says restore the shoftim of old. Yes, he’s referring back to the time of the Shoftim. And like I did last week, I went back and I opened up Shoftim and I read it anew and I do believe that there was a little bit of a golden age zero. It was very strange. Joshua dies. And there are literally 12 judges, one of who is Deborah, the judge, and I say the word judges I’m going to speak about them now as Shoftim because they were not judges in the way we’ve been you using the word, they were decisionmakers. They were people of action. And I think that’s how they can best be described. They were not necessarily the person who would sit in the front pew of a synagogue, one of them had was missing an arm. And he went ahead and killed the enemy by coming into request a private meeting. Deborah was was a warrior. And this is the challenge for us. Not that Isaiah was putting them down, or the prayer that I just referenced from this Shemoneh Esrei puts them down. But in a sense, it does talk about these very human people who are and you know, we grow tired of saying this, that the Torah always talks about, even our greatest heroes have flaws and limitations. But I think what you do when you read the book of Shoftim, and it’s all in the Seforia notes, is there’s a cycle that people have a Shofet, and he rules for 12 years, and then he dies, or he gets killed, and the people start eating off the land. And all they care about is wealth, all they care about is agriculture. They don’t even care enough to defend themselves. These Sophtim more than anything else are people that defended the people, I think that Josephus believe it or not, characterizes the shift in best. He says, After this, the Israelites grew effeminate as to fighting any more against their enemies, but applied themselves to the cultivation of the land, which producing them great plenty and riches, they neglected the regular disposition of their settlement, and indulged themselves in luxury and pleasures; nor were they any longer careful to hear the laws that belonged to their political government: they stopped building armies, they stopped protecting themselves. And they also Yes, went into idolatry. And then a Shofet would come, and he would be a Shofet for 40 years. And then they would fall into the same thing. It was almost, I talked about it so fat as people of action, because I think that what the sin of the people really was, was that they were inactive, that they were just satisfied with the status quo. And that to me, is the read I’ve gotten from looking at the book of Shoftim this week, which is a fascinating read. It’s a fascinating period in our history that we don’t really know we don’t talk about.
Adam Mintz 27:57
So that’s interesting and the reason we don’t talk about that period in our history, is because it was an unsuccessful period in our history. And it was undone with the introduction of kingship, first King Saul, who was a great king. I mean, he failed, but he was a great king. And then of course, there was King David. So what you’re saying, is that really the Shoftim, their problem was that the form of leadership of a Shofet is to take the reality as it is, and to work with it. And sometimes that just isn’t good enough. Sometimes you need a king who can actually change the reality. That’s really good.
Geoffrey Stern 28:40
On the one hand, it was a failed period. And on the other hand, three times a day, we talk about returning us to the period of the Shoftim.
Adam Mintz 28:56
That’s correct. You can say there, you know, it depends; judges are as good as judges can be. But I think there’s a very important piece the religious piece that you brought up about the fact that Elohim means both the judge and means God there’s something messianic about judges.
Geoffrey Stern 29:16
I think there’s something messianic and it is one of the few blessings that we change during the 10 days of repentance during the high holidays
Adam Mintz 29:25
We emphasize HaMelech. הַמֶּֽלֶךְ הַמִּשְׁפָּט Because the 10 days of Rosh Hashanah – Yom Kippur it’s about God being king. We don’t say God is the judge, though that’s there obviously. But it’s God being the king. That’s also something to think about why on Rosh Hashana is God King and not God judge? God obviously could be both why do we choose one and not the other? I don’t know the answer. It’s good question.
Geoffrey Stern 29:57
I mean, my sense is that God has to be I’m king because he has to reclaim the title from humankind. There are humans who wish to steal it. God being a judge, I think he can live with judges who represent him. You know, I think there’s, there’s a lot more synergy I think between God as a judge and human judges, then there is God as the king and the human king, where there’s really only one seat at the throne. But I think it’s a fascinating takeaway. I continue to be intrigued, and I will take it with me for the Shabbat that we want to return to a failed period where at least we were struggling with these issues, and as importantly, that we celebrate people, men, women, Deborah Sampson people of action, and that the worst thing is to grow. Where we don’t care, we go callous, not only to the orphan and the widow, but even to our own needs of moving forward, protecting our families and so forth and so on. And all we want to do is harvest our crop.
Adam Mintz 31:07
I think that’s, I think that’s great. This was a great choice. And it’s really something to think about suddenly thinking about the Shabbos and something to think about as we approach Rosh Hashanah. So thank you so much. Thank you for leading this class from the car and after enjoying a great day at the US Open and we want to wish everybody a Shabbat shalom. Enjoy the parsha Enjoy the holiday weekend and we look forward to seeing everybody next week to talk about parshat Ki Tezei. Be well everybody Shabbat shalom.
Geoffrey Stern 31:37
Shabbat shalom. Thank you, everybody.
Listen to last week’s episode: A time that never was