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Judges -- Chronicle Online/The WORD 02/16/23

Weekly On-line Rabbi's D'var-Torah

February 16, 2023

25 Shevat 5783

Shabbat Shekalim

Parashat Mishpatim

In last week’s Torah portion, upon the advice of his father-in-law Yitro, Moshe established a system of judges to hear cases so that he would not have to adjudicate each and every conflict. Only the most complex and contentious of cases would be brought to Moshe. Yitro said to Moshe that if you set up a court system properly for the people, “al mekomo yavo veshalom – this people will come to its place in peace – עַל־מְקֹמ֖וֹ יָבֹ֥א בְשָׁלֽוֹם (Exodus 18:23).” After all, it would free Moshe up to deal with his political responsibilities and it would further divide up the power since Aaron was already the primary religious leader. Moshe liked that idea so much that by the time we get to the Book of Deuteronomy, Moshe’s valedictory, he sought to ensure that the judicial system he set up would endure: “Hear out your fellow people and decide justly between any two people – Israelite or a stranger. You shall not be partial in judgment: hear out low and high alike. Fear no human being, for judgment is God’s (Deuteronomy 1:16-17).” The rabbis who created Judaism picked up on this love of judges. Throughout rabbinic literature, there many expressions of admiration for a good judge and instructions on how to be one. In a commentary based on the story of Moshe and Yitro, the Talmud teaches: “Every judge who judges truthfully, even for a single hour, is credited as though he had become a partner with God in the creation of the world (BT Shabbat 10a).” This love affair with the judiciary has continued into the 21st century. Here in this country, the eight Jewish Supreme Court Justices were virtually household names when they served. The Jewish community has taken great pride in their contribution to our democracy and society. In Israel, the strong and independent judiciary has been a badge of honor for the State of Israel in a neighborhood of the world where kangaroo courts are the norm. That is why the proposed changes to Israel’s courts are so disturbing. That is why so many Israelis have been marching in protest of these proposed changes. (If you’re not familiar with what’s been going on, click here for the basics.) As things stand, the Supreme Court is the only check and balance on the Knesset. The bill being considered by the Knesset would give the Knesset more power over the selection of judges and, therefore, it would undermine the court’s independence. In today’s Israel, a right-leaning Knesset is seeking to weaken a left-leaning court. However, at some point in the future, the roles could reverse with a left-leaning Knesset and a right-leaning court. What seems like a brilliant solution today may not look the same in a few years. The only lasting result will be the weakening of the independent judiciary. Regardless of one’s political leanings, this is a bad idea. Ever since Moshe followed Yitro’s advice and set up that court, we’ve come to expect strong and independent courts. It would be a shame if the Knesset chose to overturn centuries of precedent. Shalom, RAF.

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