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Bribery in Parshat Shoftim and Today

To start off the month of Elul, Rabbi Avi Novis-Deutch, Dean of the Schechter Rabbinical Seminary, gives us a tip to help us prepare for the High Holidays. He connects his insight to our parsha, Shoftim, as well as to yesterday’s Rosh Chodesh Elul and the upcoming Israeli elections. Using texts from the parsha, he explains an additional reason as to why bribery is so insidious.

This week’s parsha is Shoftim, “Judges” and coincides with the beginning of the new month of Elul. Elul is the month in which we prepare for the holidays and start the process of introspection and self-improvement. The parsha of Shoftim opens with verses that are very relevant to these days, especially in Israel as we anticipate  the coming election that will take place in about two months. 

The parsha opens, “You shall appoint magistrates and officials for your tribes, in all the settlements that your God יהוה is giving you, and they shall govern the people with due justice. You shall not judge unfairly: you shall show no partiality; you shall not take bribes, for bribes blind the eyes of the discerning and upset the pleas of the just.” (Deut. 16:18-19).

The parsha starts with the need to appoint judges and police to make sure we have a government and a judicial authority as well as people that will implement the policy, the police officers.

The text tells us to avoid bribery because it tempts judges to rule in favor of the party that has done wrong. Usually we read it as a very direct outcome: when a person takes bribery he doesn’t judge according to what’s correct and incorrect, rather the money he receives makes him lean toward one opinion. Even if the person giving the judge money is correct, the money makes the judge no longer objective.

I want to offer a different reading that I think has lots to do with trying to analyze the reality in Israel and the atmosphere that I see here. When we say that you shouldn’t divert the sentence and you shouldn’t take bribery, it doesn’t blind you as the judge, rather it blinds the people who observe you. It actually makes the people who look at the judges, the authorities, the government and all these people who rule, as people that they cannot trust. As people that they cannot truly believe anymore. Regardless of whether they are doing a moral or immoral action, and even when they actually do the moral option, we already are under the impression that they’re doing an immoral action. 

When we reach the month of Elul we need to shift from this perspective and from the damage that is done when we hear once again about corruption. We need to return to trusting our judges and the judicial process so that we truly believe the verse later in the parsha that says what the judges declare is right is right and what they declare is left is left. Shavua Tov, from Schechter

Avi Novis-Deutsch is the former Dean of the Schechter Rabbinical Seminary. Ordained as a Masorti rabbi by the SRS in 2003, Rabbi  Novis-Deutsch also holds an MA in Jewish Studies from JTS. He served for nine years as a pulpit rabbi at two Masorti congregations in Israel, most recently, at Haminyan Hamishpachti Masorti Kfar Veradim. Rabbi Novis-Deutsch also worked for two years as a Jewish educator in Berkeley in the Bay Area, California.  He is married to Dr. Nurit Novis-Deutsch. They and their three children live on Kibbutz Hanaton.

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