Drash on Parashat Shoftim 2018
Rabbi Fred Morgan
UPJ Movement Rabbi
Recently someone who contacted us about the UPJ Biennial in Melbourne 15-18 November raised an interesting set of questions. Why, they asked, do religious leaders in the Progressive community so often focus on social action issues like environmentalism, the plight of asylum seekers or Aboriginal reconciliation? Surely it is enough that Judaism teaches values like tzedaka, bikkur cholim and tikkun olam. Aren’t these mitzvot intended for all Jews, not just Progressive Jews? Why should we concern ourselves with these other social justice issues, which are basically political rather than religious issues?
The answers to these questions are found in this week’s Torah portion, Shoftim. The Hebrew word shoftim means “judges” and the portion is in fact concerned with a wide range of issues around the theme of justice. Indeed, early on in Shoftim we are exhorted, “Justice, justice shall you pursue (tzedek tzedek tirdof).
Shoftim lays down parameters for several types of authority in its contemporary society, kings, priests and prophets as well as judges. It shows how each of these expressions of authority is limited and balanced by the others. “Balance” is another way of translating tzedek. Tzedek is concerned with the creation of an equitable system of checks and balances to enable everyone in society to live their lives with dignity. So, we’re told, decisions that favour the rich or the poor simply because they are rich or poor do not represent tzedek. They would be inequitable and therefore throw society out of balance.
Tzedek can be applied to every situation of disagreement and potential conflict, from warfare to the treatment of refugees, from food production to lawmaking. Each of these examples is touched upon in Shoftim. Putting them together, we come to realise that all of these apparently political issues are in reality matters of religious concern. They can be used to promote or degrade human dignity. They can create or destroy the balance among people in society. In this sense, they are all elements in God’s world and there are divine expectations that come into play. We reduce these to political issues alone only by disregarding their religious dimension. But that doesn’t make the religious dimension go away.
The mitzvot of social justice and social action, of tzedek and tikkun olam, are not limited to Progressive Jews. As my correspondent suggested, they are for all Jews; indeed, for all human beings. But too often humanity at large and even our fellow Jews overlook them. Their attention is directed to other matters, like self-preservation and security. However, the underlying message of Shoftim is that security and self-preservation are not ultimately possible without attending to the injustices and imbalances in society. Our destinies as human beings are interconnected.
So, Progressive Jews often see it as part of our mission and our responsibility to address these issues, even when a more “traditional” approach would avoid them. This is true in our Diaspora societies and also in Israel, a “state for the Jewish people” (as expressed in the recently legislated Basic Law of Israel) where substantial numbers of Jews cannot practice their religion as they wish. That’s the reality of it.
It’s clear that there are some Jews in all of the Jewish denominations who have recognised the social justice dimension in Shoftim. One of the rabbis who sees what he calls “ecological morality” in the famous verses in Shoftim that prohibit the wanton destruction of fruit-bearing trees (bal tashchit) is Norman Lamm, a past president of Yeshiva University and one of the great Orthodox scholars of our era. Lamm argues that action taken to protect our environment is a matter of halakhah; it is enjoined in Jewish law. Environmental protection is as much halakhah as lighting Shabbat candles or fasting on Yom Kippur. Environmentalism may have been politicised by many in our secular society but to us Jews it is a religious obligation to protect God’s creation. Environmentalism promotes social balance and justice, and that’s part of the divine law.
So, it’s not hard to understand why Progressive Jews favour social action. We read it in Torah. It’s our mission to focus attention on the religious dimension of social issues so that it is not shunted aside in favour of power politics. Alongside like-minded Jews everywhere, we do what we can to restore justice to a society that is dangerously out of balance.