Parashat Hashavua for Shoftim 2020

Parashat Hashavua for Shoftim

Rabbi Jonathan Keren-Black
Leo Baeck Centre for Progressive Judaism
East Kew, Victoria

Shoftim v’shotrim’, starts this week’s portion (Deuteronomy 16:18) – usually translated as ‘Judges and magistrates’.  Parallelism is a very common biblical technique, using two very similar words to say the same or a very similar thing.  But is this an example of parallelism – aren’t both judges and magistrates charged with deciding points of law?  One definition I found says not. “A judge can be described as an arbitrator, i.e. the person who decides on a matter in the court. On the contrary, a magistrate is a regional judicial officer who is elected by the judges of the high court of the state to maintain law and order in a particular area or region.”  But isn’t ‘maintaining law and order’ usually something we would expect the police to do?  And another definition seems to contradict the first and says: “A magistrate hears evidence and decides whether a person is guilty or not guilty to an offence as charged.” So whilst I am happy to recognise that Judge and Magistrate are not at the same level, never-the-less I believe that, as we use magistrate today, we understand that both judges and magistrates are part of the judicial, court system. So that indeed does sound like parallelism.  This is reinforced by the collective verb used at the end of the verse to explain what the ‘Shoftim v’shotrim’ are to do: ‘Shaftu et ha-am mishpat tzedek’ – to judge the people with just judgement’.

But what about the original, Hebrew words?  The root of Shoftim, or Shofetin the singular, Sh/F/T, is certainly about ‘judging’.  The root of Shotrim, or Shoterin the singular, is Sh/T/R, whose origin in other Semitic languages is ‘to write’, and we use it regularly via Aramaic as a ‘ShTaR’ – a document such as a Ketubah or Get

The root Sh/T/R is found frequently – for example back in Exodus (5:6) where Pharaoh instructed his taskmasters and ‘ShoTRav’ (translated as ‘his overseers’), and there Rashi (11/12th C. France) explains that ‘the ShoTeR is appointed to rule over the workers’.  But the root of the word suggests adherence to the words or the document, and Samson Raphael Hirsch (19thC. German ‘modern orthodox’ Rabbi) takes a different approach, introducing the idea that the job of the ShoTeR was to enforce the words of a document, or indeed what we might call ‘the letter of the law’.  Eliezer Ben Yehudah, who was instrumental in turning ancient and classical Hebrew into the modern language of Israel (Ivrit), followed this line and used the root to create the new Hebrew word for Police, ‘MiShTaRah’.

If therefore the first two words of our portion ‘Shoftim v’shotrim’ are not parallelism but convey two connected ideas that coexist and require each other, they might be better in the opposite order, chronologically, i.e. ‘Police and Judges’. The introductory section moves on to the famous, repeated and emphatic words ‘Tzedek, tzedek tirdof’ (vs 20), ‘Justice, justice shall you pursue’, or perhaps ‘Scrupulous justice shall you pursue, so that you will live and occupy the land that your Eternal God is giving you. 

Having emphasised the need for a robust system of justice, the portion then goes into a list of rules and regulations that have to be observed when the people enter the land. Yet we know from the subsequent stories that, if they were to police themselves, the people failed over and over. The repeat offending, the blatant disregard for ‘God’s law’ was given as the reason for the eventual destruction of the Northern kingdom, the Babylonian exile and the destruction of the Second Temple and Jerusalem by Rome.

By the time of the establishment of the State of Israel in 1948, the societies of the world understood that a civil law enforcement organisation was required, and Israel’s MiShTaRah was established, along with the court system, all inherited from the British and Turkish periods, along with many of the court buildings. 

In 1986, the Rothschild Foundation organized an architectural competition for the design of a new building for Israel’s Supreme Court. 180 architectural firms worldwide participated and the winners of the competition were architects Ram Karmi and his sister Ada Karmi-Melamede of Tel Aviv - Jaffa.  Their research showed that the Jewish understanding of justice is composed of balancing two aspects – law with mercy or compassion.  Every case and thus every delicate balancing is different, and they wanted the structure of the Court to be a permanent, monumental reminder of that to everyone who worked within it.  Law – Din – is clear and direct – and represented by a straight line.  Mercy and compassion is represented by a circle.  In Psalm 23 we find the words ‘yankheini v’mag’lei tzedek’ (Mishkan T’filah, page 576) which is usually translated as God ‘leads me in paths of righteousness’.  But the root of Mag’lei is agul, circle, not path.  A path would seem to be the opposite of a circle – but it is a ‘derivative meaning’ – for if the circles relate to the wheels of a wagon, they leave straight paths behind them!  As the note on page 577 of the siddur says, our new translation as ‘You set me in circles of righteousness’ invites added layers of meaning.

So, armed with the straight line of ‘law’ and the circle of ‘compassion’, the architects used the language of straight lines (for example the water channels running across the courtyards), parts of circles (the arches over each courthouse doorway) and cones (the combination of straight line and circle), for example inside the foyer. The stunning results have been so popular that daily tours have been running since the court opened in 1992.

So the echoes of our Torah portion, Shoftim, with its emphasis on Scrupulous Justice as the unshakeable foundation of any healthy society, continue to reverberate through our world even today, in Israel and beyond – may it ever do so.  

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