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Must We Listen to Our Leaders? Dr. David Frankel on Parashat Shoftim

In Parashat Shoftim, Moses instructs the Israelites to appoint judges, beginning a system of governance that will also serve the people after they enter the Land of Israel:  “You must not deviate from the verdict that they announce to you either to the right or to the left” (Deut. 17:11).

Dr. David Frankel, Senior Lecturer in Bible at The Schechter Institute of Jewish Studies discusses a little known version of this same verse that appears in the Jerusalem Talmud. Is it ever permissible to disagree with our leaders or must we always follow their instructions?

Read the accompanying article below.

In this opening verses of the week’s Torah reading we encounter the phrase “חוקים ומשפטים” which is generally understood as the distinguishing between commandments that have a reason and those which do not have a rationale. This is the way that Hazal understood this phrase. They argued that mishpatim are commandments and that even if they were not written we should know that they are obligatory hukim whose rationale is hidden from human beings (if they even possess a reason). This distinction was reaffirmed by Rav Saadia Gaon, the medieval Jewish philosophers who also distinguished between a group of commandments whose reason is obvious which he called mitzvoth sikliyot and other commandments whose reason is hidden which he called mitzvot shimiyot.

What we see from this distinction is that a large group, if not most, of the commandments have rational reasons—that is a ta’am–which are discernable by human beings. According to most Jewish thinkers even the commandments whose reason is not apparent nevertheless possess a reason, albeit one that is more difficult to apprehend.

But there is one Jewish thinker who vehemently disputes the notion of tamei ha-mitzvot—the notion that the commandments have rationales and argues that none of the commandments possess a reason that would make a human being perform them. Indeed, for Yeshayahu Leibowitz, the requirement to observe the commandments demands that the commandments not be performed for any human need, want or value–moral, social or national, but only for the service of God. The commandments have no utility or rationale (tamei ha-mitzvah) apart from serving as vehicles for subjugating ones’ will to God’s. The life of halakhah is a means whereby the Jew transcends his human nature and sets aside his interests and needs in order to worship God.

Now why does Leibowitz oppose tamei ha-mitzvot in such a radical fashion? His argument is fairly simple: If the commandment was done to benefit the person, we would not be worshiping God; it would not be a form of avodat hashem.

And for Leibowitz this is what distinguishes Judaism from those religions that are concerned with the redemption of human beings, the Jewish people, or humanity as a whole. These religions—and for Leibowitz Christianity is the most prominent—are anthropocentric and are not genuinely interested in worshiping God. They are more focused on using religion to further human interests and desires. In contrast, halakhah is the geocentric and places the worship of God as its most seminal and defining value.

David Frankel is Associate Professor of Bible at the Schechter Institute of Jewish Studies. He has been on the faculty since 1992. He earned his PhD from the Hebrew University of Jerusalem under the direction of Prof. Moshe Weinfeld. His publications include “The Murmuring Stories of the Priestly School,” and “The Land of Canaan and the Destiny of Israel.”  From 1991 to 1996, Frankel was rabbi of Congregation Shevet Achim in Gilo, Jerusalem.

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