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Connecting contemporary politics to Parashat Shoftim with Eitan Cooper

Eitan Cooper
| 16/08/2020
Pluralism and Politics
Shavua Tov @ Schechter

The first verse in Parashat Shoftim is a commandment to appoint Judges and Police and place them in city gates throughout the country, to make and carry out just decisions (Mishpat-Tzedek).

Eitan Cooper, Executive Vice President and Chief Operating Officer at the Schechter Institutes, sees the similarities between appointing judges in Biblical times and in modern day Israel. He notes the tension between rule of law and rule of the majority through the politics Biblical Israel. and reveals an important message based on Parashat Shoftim: The Executive branch should defend the judiciary and its agents, not undermine them for political or personal gain.

Read the article below:

 

This week’s Torah Portion, Parashat Shoftim (Judges) describes the political institutions of Biblical Israel – Judiciary, Monarchy, Prophet and Priest. It is the closest thing to a political constitution in the Torah, so, it is worth exploring in the light of contemporary politics.

The first verse in Parashat Shoftim is a commandment to appoint Judges and Police and place them in city gates throughout the country, to make and carry out just decisions (Mishpat-Tzedek).

The next verses appear to admonish judicial impartiality and honesty. However, Sampson Raphael Hirsch, following the line taken by Sifri (an early collection of Midrash), interprets the entire section as instructions for setting up a court system. The term “Mishpat-Tzedek”, he interprets as establishing local law courts throughout the land. The guidelines are for those appointing the judges.

This begs the question – Who appointed the Judges? A national authority, the body of 71 Elders called the Sanhedrin in 2nd Temple times, appointed the regional and local courts, and acted as the ultimate authority for interpreting the Law. The Sanhedrin met in the Office of Hewn Stone in the Temple Courtyard. As opposed to the judiciary, the Torah’s description of the executive branch more resembles a constitutional monarchy. The limitations defined a King more than powers – strict adherence to the Torah, prohibitions on excesses in wealth and consorts. Moreover, according to rabbinic tradition, foreign wars (Milhemet Reshut) would also require ratification by the Sanhedrin.

In the contemporary Jewish State as well, judges control the appointment of judges. The panel that selects judges is composed of five professional jurists (judges and lawyers), and four elected or appointed officials. Right wing parties are calling for a change in the balance of power on the panel. They claim that decisions by the High Court of Justice (Bagatz) often ignore nationalist sensibilities and security concerns. Over the past year, the Prime Minister amplified this populist campaign. He claims that the judges and police are currently acting in conspiracy to unseat him against “the will of the people”. Now that he has postponed annexation of part of the Territories, he could be counting on new allies on the Center-left to ignore his legal problems for the sake of peace negotiations.

Our judiciary often also finds itself at odds with religious sensibilities. We already have a parallel religious court system to adjudicate personal status. But there are other challenges. About 20 years ago, 250 prominent Zionist rabbis decided it was time to re-establish the Sanhedrin. They appointed the Talmudic Sage Adin Shteinsaltz, who passed away last week, as its President! Many of these Rabbis thought that the Sanhedrin should become Israel’s Supreme Court. Rav Shteinsaltz was by many measures the most influential teacher of Torah in our time. At the time of the Separation from Gaza in 2005, he thankfully clarified that this “Sanhedrin” would not address political issues – neither as an apologist for the Settler Movement, nor as a defender of government policy.

With no fixed constitution and all court decisions made by judges (Israel does not have a jury system), judges indeed wield great power and often seem from the outside to act as a closed club, oblivious to popular sensibilities. Yet, in liberal democracies, this is at times, their role, and the separation of powers requires an independent judiciary. Parallel with the extension of voting rights, nation-states in the West established the rule of law. Democracy is a balancing act. If the Knesset and Government express the will of the people, then, the courts guarantee equality before the law.

In our Torah portion, we can see some of the tension between rule of law and rule of the majority through the politics Biblical Israel. Courts had to apply the law blindly without prejudice, completely free of personal considerations. It was actually the demand of the people in the time of Samuel (Sam 1, Ch. 8) that led to the appointment of the first King. Therefore, the Torah’s guideline to Israelite monarchs, as well as its message for today, seems clear: The Executive branch should defend the judiciary and its agents, not undermine them for political or personal gain.

Eitan Cooper is the Executive Vice President and Chief Operating Officer of The Schechter Institutes. Since coming to Schechter in 2000, he has served in various capacities, including TALI Outreach Coordinator and Vice President for Development. Mr. Cooper holds a BA from the University of Chicago and an MA from the Hebrew University. He is a graduate of the Mandel School for Educational Leadership and a licensed Israeli tour guide.

Eitan and Anita Cooper made Aliya from the United States in 1983, and are proud parents and grandparents to their growing Israeli family.

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