Earlier this week several women rabbinic students from HUC-JIR were subjected to humiliating strip searches as they prepared to enter the Western Wall Plaza area for services with Women of the Wall celebrating the beginning of the Hebrew month of Elul. Rabbi Josh Weinberg, Executive Director of ARZA, shares these words of Torah, inspired by this week’s portion, Shoftim, and events in Jerusalem.
Despite another week of division and discord both in our country and in Israel, I do hope and pray that you can retreat into the peace of Shabbat, away from the news cycle, and discover moments of calm, clarity and joy.
For those celebrating Shabbat in the Home tonight, have an enjoyable evening; remember we are having just a brief service at TBE tonight from 5:00-5:45 so that people can get to their hosts homes in time for Shabbat.
Rabbi Chuck Briskin
From Rabbi Josh Weinberg:
A working judicial system lies at the heart of any basic civilization. What differentiates human society from other species is our ability to regulate our own collective behavior by establishing societal codes. The goal of a judicial system is to create positive incentives for moral behavior and to punish those who break the rules. In essence, the judiciary is there to maintain a just society and to preserve the rights and freedom of those who are powerless.
Parsha Shoftim gives us a glimpse into the political structure of what Jewish society should look like once we cross over the river into the Land of Israel. We learn that among the first things we must do is to appoint judges to “govern the people with due justice.”
The beginning of the parsha further emphasizes the notion of justice by stating the now oft-quoted verse:
“Justice, justice shall you pursue, that you may thrive and inherit the land that the LORD your God is giving you.” (Deuteronomy 16:20)
The medieval commentator Sforno suggests that our possession of the Land is directly conditional based on the establishment of a just society: “such qualities are of even greater importance in the Land of Israel, as a failure to comply would result in the ancestral right to that country being denied to you.”
I’m not aware of any other society or nation-state for which the ability to live in their land is predicated on the moral fabric of their society and the establishment of justice.
Does this apply in modern times as well? Do we presume to say that our having a Jewish State is conditional? If so, how are we doing? Have we managed to establish a society with a strong foundation of social justice? If we follow the logic of the Torah and commentators here, we could deduce that this is, in fact, the entire basis of Zionism – to establish a society that respects the rule of law and builds a system to provide for those who are powerless.
This upcoming week in Israel, much of our attention will be focused on the judicial system as Israel’s Supreme Court is set to hold a hearing on the egalitarian section of the Western Wall on August 31st. The hearing comes after a very difficult scene in which protesters disrupted Rosh Hodesh prayers this past week and security guards unnecessarily strip searched women coming to pray, a humiliating and illegal practice.
Israel is a country that operates under the rule of law, and in which the court system functions independently of the executive or the legislative branches. If the Supreme Court rules in our favor – insisting that the government physically alter the site, appoint a separate administrative body to oversee the egalitarian section, and more– then the issue becomes how to enforce the ruling. The government must abide by the ruling and should heed very closely the words we’ll read on Shabbat:
“According to the law they instruct you and according to the judgment they say to you, you shall do; you shall not divert from the word they tell you, either right or left.” (Devarim 17:11)
The situation as its stands today is simply unjust. There is great debate within our community and from outside about the importance of this deal. We are asking that even if you feel that the Kotel is not central to your Judaism or connection to Israel, you raise your voice and insist that the violation of women’s rights not receive government approval. Standing together we will appeal to our judges to judge justly and urge our society to fulfill our commitment to justice and the rule of law.