D’var Torah: Shabbat Shoftim

Written by Rabbi Colin Eimer — 15 September 2016

Outside my childhood synagogue, Hendon United, there used to be a noticeboard. On it they displayed Jewish ethical texts. It was here that I discovered the Mishnaic tractate, Pirke Avot, the ‘Sayings of the Fathers.’ I then found that it was in Singer’s Prayer Book and I spent many happy hours in synagogue reading them. It introduced me to another side of the Judaism that I was taught in cheder, where the prime focus had been on ritual matters.

It was only in my teens, when I encountered Reform Synagogues, that I heard the phrase ‘Prophetic Judaism referring to the great Biblical prophets who spoke about justice and injustice, about feeding the hungry, clothing the naked and so on. Isaiah, Amos, Micah and the others who spoke of our moral responsibility not just to our fellow Jews but to the world, of a God who cared about all human beings, not just Jewish ones. That resonated with me and in part it’s why I’m in this part of the Jewish world.

In the last 10 days I’ve been involved in a number of related events.

Citizens UK organised a demonstration outside the Home Office in support of those unaccompanied children in the Jungle at Calais who have family in this country, who have permission to come and live here but who have somehow not actually been brought into the country. Last Wednesday I was at a meeting jointly organised by Rene Cassin and Tselem. Rene Cassin works on human rights issues; while Tselem’s subtitle is a ‘Rabbinic voice for social justice.’ It is an initiative that was set up largely by Leo Baeck College students and speaks out of that preoccupation with Prophetic Judaism. A young man from my old synagogue was there. “I thought you would be here,” he said, “and some other Progressive rabbis and College students. But why,” he asked, “are Orthodox rabbis not involved?” In fact, Orthodox rabbis are involved in Tselem but I guess they are a bit maverick, not over-concerned about how they will be seen (and maybe judged) by others in their part of the Jewish world.”

Finally, yesterday’s ‘Jewish Chronicle’ reported on an initiative by Rabbi Mirvis. Young people, he argued, are living in a sort of bubble where the horizon of their concern is Israel and the Jewish world. He wants to get more young people involved in social action issues beyond their ‘comfort zone.’ It’s interesting because we don’t normally see, or sadly, expect such initiatives from the Orthodox world.

I saw this not to have a go, not in anger but in regret. Judaism has this great prophetic tradition of concern for the world and all its inhabitants and yet somehow it’s fallen to the Progressive part of the Jewish world to engage on this.

All of this is just a foreword, a prelude to this Shabbat’s sidra and those three words at the beginning – “Tsedek, tsedek tirdof,” ‘Justice, justice shall you pursue.’ (Deuteronomy 16:19)

I thought it would be interesting to see what some of the traditional commentators said about this verse.

Rashi says it means to appoint a proper beit din; Ibn Ezra looks to the repetition of the word ‘tsedek’ – pursue justice, he says, be it to your gain or your loss; it is repeated, he adds, to suggest that justice is to be done time and time and time again; another commentator, Rabbenu Bachya, says that justice and injustice can be done in two ways: by word or by deed – hence the repetition of ‘justice.’

‘Tsedek’ is actually hard word to translate. In Leviticus there’s a verse which talks about having fair weights and measures. Your scales should be ‘tsedek’ it says (Leviticus 19:36) your ‘yard’ should be ‘tsedek,’ your kilo ‘tsedek’ and so on.

We usually translate ‘tsedakah’ as ‘charity’ but with its connotations of the donor doing a good deed ‘charity’ isn’t always the best way to translate it to draw out the Hebrew understanding.

I’m not a fan of ‘Fiddler on the Roof’ but I do like the bit at the beginning where we are introduced to the characters in the shtetl, in particular the schnorrer. He goes to the rich man and demands, rather than asks for money. The rich man gives him a coin; the poor man looks at it and says, “5 kopecks? Last week you gave me 10!” The rich man explains that he’s had a bad week in business to which the schnorrer responds “you’ve had a bad week in business and I should suffer?!”

In the anthology in the siddur there’s a marvellous quotation from Leviticus Rabbah: “more than the householder does for the beggar the beggar does for the householder.”

So ‘tsedek’ has a sense of ‘honest’ ‘correct’ or ‘fair.’ In that Leviticus verse, ‘evenly-balanced’ may be the best way to translate ‘tsedek.’

This means that that householder, giving ‘tsedakah’ to the beggar isn’t doing anything special. They are doing simply what is fitting and correct, no more than what anybody should be doing if they want to consider themselves a human being. In that sense, the beggar might be doing much more for the householder than vice versa – by giving the householder the opportunity to do tsedakah, the beggar enables the householder to remain a human being, to deserve that title.

When we see ‘tsedakah’ in that light it changes the dependency relationship completely. They are each helping the other: the donor helps the beggar materially; the beggar helps the householder ‘spiritually,’ by enabling them to behave in the way that any human being should. Each is doing the other a favour.

But what happened to that idea of Prophetic Judaism? It never disappeared, of course: JCoRE, Steve Miller’s Tsedek, both of them going for well over 30 years – are Prophetic Judaism finding practical expression, outing into practice those teachings of the Prophets.

Rabbinic thought divided mitzvoth into two categories: those between us and God – the ritual ones – and those between one human being and another – the ethical ones. Both are necessary for a full Jewish life.

But the 1970s saw a shift to the right in all parts of the Jewish world. It meant a greater emphasis was placed on ritual mitzvot. In the early 1980s, in a book called “Judaic Ethics for a Lawless Age,” the scholar Robert Gordis suggested that if you put too much emphasis on the ritual mitzvot, you risk relegating the ethical mitzvot to second place not only in the amount of time you devote to them but also to second place in your thinking: “they’re in second place and therefore of secondary importance.”

So ‘tsedek, tsedek tirdof’ reminds us of the Biblical prophets and of their teachings, 2,500 years old now. Sadly, the imperatives which they placed on us are still with us, demanding action from us all.