Parshat Shoftim

By Diane Roosth, Saturday, September 7, 2019

This Parsha speaks to me not just as the anniversary Torah Portion of my Bat Mitzvah, but as one with relevant issues for our time. I lived through times where the pursuit of justice in legal and social spheres impacted what I read, the music I heard, and national military actions I witnessed both in the United States and in Israel. Shoftim speaks of legal and social justice in the context of our relationships with one another, in our local communities, and the larger society.

The Parsha touches upon the organization and basic principles of our legal system. Chapter 16:18 – 20 commands the appointment of “magistrates and officials” for your tribe who must judge fairly, show “no partiality, and not take bribes”. This is followed by the double emphasis of “Justice Justice shall you pursue”. But, as Rabbi Dorff asked in a Drash from September 2009, “How can we know God’s will on any specific question?” What happens when we don’t know what the words of the law mean, or how they should be understood? Who should we turn to? Who is entrusted with interpreting the law?

In Chapter 17:8 – 9, we are commanded to bring our legal questions to “the magistrate in charge at the time”. The sages understood “judge” literally as the translation of the word “magistrate”, explaining that every generation requires a Rabbinical court to apply Jewish Law to that generations particular circumstances. (Etz Haim, Torah and Commentary, quoting Bavli Talmud, Rosh Hashanah 25a-b). Today I wanted to touch upon two examples of how certain Rabbis today are applying Jewish law to pursue legal and social justice in our time.

An article from last week’s Jewish Journal told the story of Meir Kin, who separated from his first wife in 2007 and had a Civil Divorce. However, he did not issue her, and has continued to refuse, a get, placing her in the status of an “aguna”, or one who is anchored. Kin’s elderly mother recently died, and she was allowed to be buried in Israel with the understanding he would give his wife a get. He again refused to give the get and release her.

Eleven well known U.S. Orthodox Rabbis wrote a Letter to the Chief Rabbi of Israel, citing halachic rulings issued previously against the man in question, and asking that the “Chief Rabbi and Chevra Kaddisha” prevent the “erection of the tombstone” for his mother’s grave in Israel, until the son gives his wife an Orthodox Get and she is “released from her awful Aguna situation”. Rabbi Yosef Kanefsky is quoted in the adjacent article as saying, “this is a case in which Jewish law is being mocked, ridiculed, and dragged into the mud”.

According to the Jewish Telegraphic Network, March 20, 2019 article by Marcy Oster, “The Beth Din of America, the religious court of the Rabbinical Council of America, surveyed the RCA’s membership ahead of International Agunah Day” in the current year before Purim. They found that “84 percent of Modern Orthodox rabbis in the United States require couples they marry to sign a prenuptial agreement that guarantees neither side can use the religious divorce, or get, as a bargaining chip”. This is a necessary and bold step taken by Rabbis of our time in interpreting and applying Jewish law in the pursuit of justice.

Another contemporary example is related to Kaparot, a customary atonement ritual dating back to the Middle Ages practiced by some Jews on the eve of Yom Kippur involving passing a live chicken over one’s head. The custom was originally meant to jolt people into recognizing their own mortality and to encourage them to transform sins into good deeds.

The Shamayim V’aretz Institute, also known as Shamayim – Jewish Animal Advocacy, lists almost 100 Orthodox Rabbis on their web-site who have come out opposing practice of using chickens for Kaparot. Other Rabbis in Los Angeles across all Jewish denominations have also come out against the practice.

The Alliance to End Chickens as Kaporos, formed in 2010 as a project of United Poultry Concerns, comprises individuals and groups in The Yeshiva World, both Asheknazi and Sephardi, who seek to replace the use of chickens in Kaparot rituals with money or other non-animal symbols of atonement.

The law isn’t always just and, even when interpreted, doesn’t always lead to a just outcome. Law and justice don’t always go hand in hand – not when I was 13 years old, not today, and probably not in another 50 years. However Parshat Shoftim recognizes this, and reminds us of the importance of trying to continuously pursue justice by means of the law. This includes speaking out about the rights of Jewish women to get a religious divorce and not be held captive as agunot, and a more humane way to offer Kaparot with money for Tzedakah. I am certain that there are many more contemporary issues where Jewish law and American law can, and should, be interpreted to better pursue justice.

Our tradition, the torah and halacha, is a living tradition – an Etz Haim – filled with machlokot, disagreements, about how to interpret the law. Just as in the time of the Mishnah and Talmud, so too today. There are rabbis who, for lack of a better term, are “loose constructionists” and rabbis who are “strict constructionists” when it comes to interpreting our tradition. However, we must, as Rabbi Dorff said in a 2009 drash, “develop a high level of tolerance for listening to opposing opinions and a high level of skill in analyzing their relative strengths and weaknesses”.

As we prepare to enter a new year and head into an election year, both in Israel and in the United States, may we pray for a peaceful new year where we can hear each other’s opinions with respect and dignity and agree to disagree. And may we, our rabbis, leaders, magistrates, judges, and elected officials find the courage to continuously interpret the law to better pursue justice. Shabbat Shalom.


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