These and Those

Musings from Students of the Pardes Institute of Jewish Studies in Jerusalem

Dvar Torah for Shoftim

Posted on August 26, 2012 by Derek Kwait

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This week was my last back at my shul Young People’s Synagogue, which last year, raised around $7,000 to send me to Pardes for a year. Yesterday, I delivered this speech to let them know how their investment turned out.

So, how have you all been? For those who don’t know, from September through the end of May, thanks largely to the generosity of YPS, I was living in Jerusalem studying Torah at the Pardes Institute of Jewish Studies, the world’s only non-denominational co-ed yeshiva and widely considered to be the world’s greatest yeshiva above a Mazda dealership. Then from June 8 through August 12, I worked as the mashgiach at Camp Ramah in Wisconsin.

I’ll sum up my experience at camp with the following anecdote: When I told my Rosh Yeshiva at Pardes, Rabbi Danny Landes, that I got the job, but I was nervous since I had never been a mashgiach before, he asked, “Are you a detail-oriented person?” “Yes,” I said “Are you paranoid?” “I’m Jewish,” I said. “I think you’ll do fine.” He was right, I loved my job.

But your investment was in Pardes, so that’s what I’m going to talk about. I can’t write about my year. If I even tried to speak about what the first year of my Pardes experience meant for me, as a Jew and as a human being, I wouldn’t even know where to begin, and, worse for you, I wouldn’t know where to end, either. Besides, if you read my blog, you already know, more or less, what happened. So I decided that instead of telling you about Pardes, I should show you Pardes. Probably the best known passage from this week’s parasha is chapter 16, verse 20:Justice, justice you shall pursue so that you will live and possess the land that the LORD your God gives to you.” At Pardes, we’re all about seeing texts through the maximum possible number of lenses to get the fullest possible picture of any given issue, thus empowering us to make the most educated possible decisions as to its meaning.

When interpreting a posuk from the Torah, we always start, as you must, with the Rishonim, or the classical early Medieval commentators, and we start the Rishonim, as you must, with Rashi. On tzedek, tzedek tirdoffe, Rashi comments “go to a more beautiful court.” In other words, keep searching for courts until you find one that is truly just. He goes on to comment on “so that you will live and possess the land that the LORD your God gives to you” by saying, “The appointment of fitting judges is sufficient merit to keep Israel alive and settled in their land.” For Rashi, then, the repetition of the word tzedek indicates that the pursuit of justice must in itself be just and that those who do justice must act justly, and if you do not live in a place with great sages, you must move to one for the sake of justice, and this is also how the Ramban interprets this Rashi. For Rashi and Ramban, then, there is no such thing as ends justifying the means, justice can only be achieved through just means, and this happening is such a good thing that it in itself is enough for Israel to merit living and prospering in the land even if they are devoid of other merit. Ibn Ezra says the repetition means that whether the justice will result in a recovery or a loss, or if it will strengthen you, you must pursue justice. Ramban quotes ibn Ezra too, then goes on to quote a more esoteric interpretation from R. Nechunya ben Hakana who explained that the two mentions of justice in this verse correspond to two different kinds of justice, one to judging the land, the other to judging yourself. You must pursue an honest judgment of both the inner and outer realms to truly be just, and thus merit to inherit the land and live on it. Sforno offers a different reading. He says that you must select the most righteous people as judges. Even if the best judges available are like total frauds compared to their predecessors, they still have the authority to do their job since they are the best available. I must note that these interpretations could easily be way off since they are based on my own translations from the Hebrew. But I must also note that even if my readings are off, which they almost certainly are, this time last year, I wouldn’t have even known where to begin them.

Torah didn’t stop with the Renaissance, however, modern commentators also have much to add to the conversation. In the Hertz Chumash, R. Hertz waxes at length about the profound implications of our verse. He agrees with the Rishonim that the doubling of tzedekemphasizes that justly distributing even-handed justice to all is our supreme priority. He calls it “the keynote of the humane legislation of the Torah,” and goes on to speak about how the Hebrew concept of fair and equal justice for all contrasts with the Greek conception of justice as concerned with maintaining the existing hierarchical social order and power structure and the implications this has for the Jewish passion for social justice, writing, “Justice is the awe-inspired respect for the personality of others, and their inalienable rights,” then goes on to discuss how justice is so associated with mercy in the Jewish tradition that the colloquial word for charity became tzedaka.

The Conservative Movement’s Etz Hayim Chumash agrees with its predecessors’ readings of the simple meaning of tzedek, tzedek tridofas justice alone; justice and only justice shall you pursue, but then, its more in-depth commentary, quotes Heschel’s exhortation that more than merely respecting or following justice, we must actively pursue it, then brags how, “Inspired by this verse, by the Torah’s vision of a just society, and by a history of living as a mistreated minority, Jews have repeatedly been at the forefront of struggles for social justice.”

A different approach is taken by R. Joseph Telushkin in Volume I of his Code of Jewish Ethics, You Shall Be Holy. He quotes our verse on the first full page of his over 500-page book to explain that it means blind pursuit of justice is not enough, “we also need to study and deduce in every situation what constitutes acting justly.” For Hertz and Etz Hayim the verse is a call to judicial equality and social justice, for R. Telushkin it is about inner justice and discipline, the former 2 emphasize the first half of the Ramban’s drash, the latter the second half. Chadesh yamaynu k’kedem.

But this is only scratching the surface. The modern critical perspective on the verse sees it as one example of many in the book of the Deuteronomist school’s strong belief in reward and punishment—follow justice, inherit the Land, don’t follow justice, don’t inherit the Land. The development of this belief reflects the more abstract religion the book presents—when sacrificial worship was centralized to Jerusalem during the reign of King Josiah, it substantially reduced the role of the priesthood and cultic ritual in daily life, shifting the religious focus instead to following moral laws and building a just society in reverence to God and in remembrance of the struggles you faced as strange and oppressed people yourself.

Then there’s the feminist perspective. Though I have not read it in a source, from what I have learned, I would imagine that the second-wave feminist critique of this verse would be that in emphasizing the typically male attribute of tzedek, justice, as opposed to the more feminine attribute of compassion, this text reinforces the hierarchical patriarchy of ancient Israelite society. From this perspective, the verse should have read “compassion and justice you shall pursue,” or even “compassion, compassion shall you pursue,” which, R. Hertz’s modernist apologetics aside, it most certainly does not. I can imagine someone like Judith Plaskow saying that tzedek, tzedek tirdof portrays a masculine God who feels that a pursuit of pure unbiased justice at the hands of male judges untainted by pesky emotions is possible, let alone desirable. This false ideal only reinforces established hierarchies, which, since we are all equal, are all inherently unjust, rendering this a very ironic verse to say the least (my critique of this feminist critique, btw, is that it is total nonsense, but I’m an American middle-class white male, so what do I know?)

So we have tzedek, tzedek tridof as an exhortation to judge justly, to search out the best courts and the best judges, to be as scrupulous in judging yourself as you are in judging others, as a motivator for social justice, as an egalitarian counter-point to Greek inequality, as a step in the evolution of Israelite religion away from cultic centers towards a more abstract conception of God, and as an example of the inherent injustice of patriarchy. And this is still only a select few of the meanings attributed to this verse. But if a verse has so much more meaning than appears on the surface, then, *thumb dip* kal v’homer, how much more so people? The best part of learning texts at Pardes isn’t the broad variety of perspectives on the page, but the broad variety of perspectives across the table in the beit midrash. I could talk all day about how much I love learning in chevruta and how beneficial I think it is, but again, instead of just telling you, I’ll show you. Learning a text with a woman my mother’s age is radically different from learning it with an aspiring businessman my age. I could talk about how I also wrestled with our holy texts with a Canadian comedienne, a musician, a def poet, future rabbis for all denominations, future Jewish educators, an engineer, a bisexual artist, a bisexual social-worker, a man from Germany, a woman from Venezuela, a fashionista, converts, a grandmother… but that misses the point entirely, because what I learned is that every person you study a text with is a whole other world unto him- or herself and the interaction of two worlds over a sacred text adds a whole new universe of meaning and sacredness to it.

At Pardes I learned that that the Torah is a flowing river and you never step into the same river twice. These texts are holy because, while never changing, they still manage to grow and evolve along with us every year as we read them again and again. We read the Torah every year because every year we are different, and therefore the Torah we read is different, has a different message for us. Since every person has their own special Torah to offer, you can’t find your own Torah until you’ve heard as many voices in the Divine-human conversation that is Torah as possible. Notice that I’m using “Torah” here in the broadest possible sense to include the entire Jewish religious canon. In fact, this whole speech, I’ve only been talking about one line from Deuteronomy and a few varied approaches to it. I haven’t even mentioned most of the other classical commentators, let alone the modern ones, let alone the rest of the Tanakh, plus Midrash, Mishna, Gemara, Halakha, Kabbalah, Mussar, Chasidut, philosophy, and the list could go on, each one a world of learning unto itself, each one a gateway to a whole new universe of conversation, debate, discovery, and holiness when refracted through the personality and experience—the souls—of other Jews. In my year of learning, then, I learned that I myself know nothing. YPS, thank you so much for providing me the life-changing opportunity to learn relatively nothing. And so help me God, It is my goal for the coming year to learn that I know less-than-nothing.

Thank you. Shabbat shalom.