Amending the Law
By Rabbi Neil
For a society to be functional and cohesive, it needs rules and laws. Yet if the rules are static, progress, whether economic, social, or ethical, may be impeded.
Our Torah foresaw the need for future change:
In our Parsha, Shoftim, we’re adjured to appoint judges (Deuteronomy Chapter 16):
“You shall set up judges and law enforcement officials for yourself in all your cities that the Lord, your God, is giving you, for your tribes, and they shall judge the people with righteous judgment.”
And if a new, complicated issue arises that’s beyond the purview of a local judge:
“If a matter eludes you in judgment, between blood and blood, between judgment and judgment, or between injury and injury, words of dispute in your cities, then you shall arise and go up to the place the Lord, your God, chooses (Jerusalem). And you shall come to the Levites and the Kohanim (Priests) and to the judge who will be in those days, and you shall inquire, and they will tell you the words of judgment.”
The words, “who will be in those days” are superfluous. Who else are we going to approach, dead judges?
Rather, “those days” are written for a reason, for if the mindset and practices of the masses have changed, so should the law.
This week on August 18th was the 100th anniversary of the 19th amendment giving women the right to vote. It was the first step toward women’s equality. While the Declaration of Independence stated that “All men are created equal,” it meant only free, landowning men and certainly not slaves or women.
When Susan B. Anthony voted in violation of the law, she was proud to be arrested, for she wanted to make the point that the time had come, and this law needed to be changed.
This caveat, “And you shall come … to the judge who will be in those days,” is empowering. It frees us from antiquated statutes, allowing us to create a society that meets the needs of its people.
It took Conservative Judaism about fifty years to catch up with the 19th amendment and count women in a minyan. Orthodox Judaism is still not there, but they have made strides, with more and more synagogues now having women rabbis and presidents. My wife, Judy, believes it’s just a matter of time before Orthodoxy becomes egalitarian.
The idea of progressive thought, of the amendment of the law, was seeded thousands of years ago in the Torah. Rules don’t have to be static. The laws serve the people, and as society evolves, so should the law.
Justice vs. Compromise
By Irwin Scharf
Moses continues his last speech to the Israelites before he dies telling the people of Israel to appoint judges and law enforcement officers in every city. “Justice, justice shall you pursue,” he commands them, and you must administer it without corruption or favoritism. Crimes must be meticulously investigated and evidence thoroughly examined—a minimum of two credible witnesses are required for conviction and punishment. But why is the word justice” repeated in the reading? Words are rarely repeated in the Torah and when they are it is for a specific reason. The New English Bible explains that it means “justice, and justice alone. Another view is that it means Justice under any circumstance, whether to your profit or loss, whether in word or in action, whether to Jew or non-Jew, and also means do not use unjust means to secure justice.
Our Rabbis tell us the first “justice” refers to a decision based on strict law and the second, to a compromise Perhaps this is the most interesting and powerful suggestion. We don’t live in a black-and-white world, and we have to always see both sides of the situation, especially when we are caught in gray reality.
Compromise is fundamental to the rabbinic world view. The Talmud is a testament to this very notion as it stakes out compromises between two rabbis’ positions wherever possible. One of the Talmud’s frequent exercises is to explain an apparent contradiction between two opinions by saying one refers to a particular situation and the other to a different situation. The cup of Elijah which rests on our Seder table is a familiar example of this. The Rabbis debated whether there should be four or five cups on the Seder table and rather than ruling definitively on the issue, they declared that the fifth cup be filled, but not tasted. Another is the two versions of the modim prayer in the Amidah and the dispute over which to use and thereby honor one tradition and not another. It was settled by having one version said during the silent amidah reading and the other during the repetition by the prayer leader.
Compromise is essential to any lasting relationship and a relationship based on strict law cannot be sustained. Each partner must in some way give in to the other. In courts of law, a concession is sometimes viewed as sacrificing true justice. Our Rabbis, however, suggest that judges must also compromise, even offering practical advice of how best to achieve this.
They understood that the world cannot be sustained by strict law alone and even God, the judge of all the world, compromises. If God were to judge human beings based on law only, then we could not exist because God might see only the inclination to do evil. In judging human beings God compromises, ruling by compassion rather than strict law. God disregarded law, having faith in our potential to do good and because of God’s compromise, human beings were created and we have the chance to do good.
Our Rabbis tell us that when the Messiah comes and the Messianic era is upon us, the world will be ruled by law only and there will be no need to compromise. It will be a world in which evil would be punished and good rewarded. But the world in which we live cannot survive without compromise. Judging by strict law is full of danger and both parties can be destroyed by holding fast and avoiding compromise. We avoid it because it is difficult and we feel we are losing a measure of our self by giving in, but life cannot be lived without compromise. Relationships depend on it. The world is sustained by it.
When the Torah says that we should seek after justice, it is speaking to the people who are responsible for governing. In today’s world, we are all responsible for governing, and therefore we need ask ourselves what the parameters of justice really are. We should be slow to condemn and quick to forgive. The stakes are very high, too high to ignore. They are outlined at the conclusion of the verse: in the reading today, “Justice, justice, you shall pursue it, so that you may live and inherit the land which the Lord your God gives you.