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Parashat Shoftim 5772 – 08/22/2012

Parashat Shoftim


Submitted by Robert Rabinoff

According to the teaching that they will teach you and according to the judgment that they will say to you, shall you do; you shall not deviate from the word that they will tell you, right or left. (17:11)

Even if the judges tell you that right is left and that left is right, you must obey them [Rashi ad loc, from Sifrei].

Now the need for this commandment is very great, for the Torah was given to us in writing, and it is self-evident that the opinions in issues that subsequently arise will not always concur, and so disputes will proliferate and the Torah will be transformed into several different Torahs, as it were.  Scripture therefore dictated to us the law that we must listen to the High Court, which stands before Gd in the place that He will choose, regarding all that they say in elucidating the Torah, whether they received its explanation in an unbroken testimonial chain from Moses and from the mouth of the Almighty, or they say such explanations based on their understanding of the Torah’s implications or its intent.  For on the basis of their understanding Gd give us the Torah, even if they will be in your eyes as one who exchanges the right for the left. … And all the more so should you obey them, because you should consider that, contrary to your opinion, they are saying about the right that it is right and about the left that it is left, for the spirit of Gd, may He be blessed, rests on the stewards of His Sanctuary and “He will not forsake His devout ones; they will be eternally protected” [cf Ps. 37:28] from error and from stumbling. (Ramban ad loc)

Our passage and the commentaries on it relate to a question we have been considering over the past few weeks – how do we ascertain whether our knowledge and beliefs about Gd and Gd’s creation are true.  In this case however, we are more concerned with practical issues – how we determine the truth of competing claims in court, and how do we decide which halachic principles apply in different situations.  While it is true that these questions were more pressing when we all lived as a sovereign nation in our own land, with a full complement of religious courts to adjudicate disputes according to Torah, they are certainly applicable today in those many areas where we are able to live our lives according to the halachah.

From the time that Yitro, Moshe Rabbeinu’s father-in-law, visited the encampment in the desert, the Jewish people had a court system, with local courts, appellate courts, tribal supreme courts and the Sanhedrin of 71 members sitting in the “Chamber of Hewn Stones” in the Temple complex.  Our passage comes to explain that the word of the Sanhedrin is final and we are commanded to obey their rulings, no matter how convinced we may be that they are wrong.  There are a few caveats to this.  Torah clearly anticipates that the Sanhedrin will make mistakes, as it specifies a particular sacrificial ritual by which the resulting sinful behavior may be expiated (see Lev. 4:13ff), once the error has been recognized.  Clearly the Sanhedrin itself can revisit its decisions; since it will only do so after someone protests, continuing the discussion is not prohibited.  In a similar vein, although a Sage who rules contrary to the Sanhedrin in practice is executed, he is permitted to teach his opposing view as a theoretical alternative.  Of course the Talmud (much of which was compiled after the destruction of the Temple and the disbanding of the Sanhedrin) is full of disputes, many of which are not resolved in the Talmud itself, and some of which persist to the present day.  The bottom line is that diversity of opinion is fine, but diversity in practice needs to be strictly limited in order to keep the nation unified.

Now that we understand why it’s a good, practical thing to have one central body with final authority in deciding the halachah, how can we justify its existence theoretically?  That is, the Sanhedrin is a human organization – why should it have a special status with regard to determining Truth?  Ramban, following our Sages, explains that the location of the Sanhedrin is critical. 

Certainly we are charged with appointing only the most qualified individuals to be judges.  The qualifications are given in Parashat Yitro: Seek out Gd-fearing men, capable, men of truth who hate injustice/ill-gotten gain.  First on the list is personal piety – a judge in Israel must be of the highest spiritual level, committed to the truth rather than ideology, with great insight, who can see the consequences of their actions.  (How many of our distinguished jurists would make that list?!)  Now spiritual development really means opening and expanding our mind till it becomes as one with its own infinite basis, and that infinity is Truth – that is, that which does not change.   Therefore, if we are diligent about selecting the best individuals as judges – people whose very nature is Truth – we will go a long way towards guaranteeing their judgments will reflect Gd’s Will as it is to be expressed in that place, time and situation.

That is the background of the Sanhedrin.  But Ramban emphasizes that the Sanhedrin is the court that stands before Gd in the place that He will choose.  This place, of course, is the Temple.  The Temple is the holiest place on earth – that is, the place where the infinite has suffused itself into the finite to the greatest degree possible.  In the Temple, Gd is almost a palpable reality.  When the Sanhedrin sits in this atmosphere of the utmost sanctity, both their individual and their collective powers of discernment and understanding are enhanced.  In a smoky room, the most clear-sighted person cannot make out what’s in front of his nose.  Once the smoke is cleared out, vision is restored.

Ramban goes even further than this.  While the effect of the place is significant in and of itself, it is enhanced immeasurably by Gd’s actual presence in that place.  The latter part of Ramban’s comment implies that Gd does not take merely a passive role in the Sanhedrin’s decisions – clearing out the impediments to their understanding as it were.  Rather I imagine a scenario something more like an academy, with the Sages learning directly from Gd, with Gd actively guiding their deliberations, so that they are “protected from error and stumbling.”  This is much the way our tradition describes the World to Come – a world where our souls sit around Gd and learn Torah constantly from the Source of Torah.  And indeed, were we to have a Sanhedrin of enlightened prophets sitting in the Temple and teaching the nation Gd’s Torah of Truth, we would be living a true heaven on earth!  May it happen speedily in our day!


Pirke Avot, Chapter 6

Mishnah 6

Kingship is acquired with 30 attributes…

Rav Lau lists these 30 attributes (listed in Sanhedrin).  Included in the list are: The king cannot be judged, he cannot give testimony nor can testimony be given about him.  When he judges he must keep by his side the copy of the Torah that he has written.  Now it is clear that the king is in some ways above the law, although the presence of the Torah by his side when he is judging is a constant, powerful reminder that his judgments must be in accordance with Torah.  This is because the king has a unique function in the Jewish legal system.  There are cases, perhaps many cases, that cannot be adjudicated by the courts, perhaps for lack of evidence, or lack of reliable witnesses, etc.  These cases can come to the king, who can go beyond the letter of the law to rule based on his intuition of what justice demands.  This is an important safety valve for a system which, though Divinely inspired and based on absolute Truth, sometimes finds itself caught up in the limitations of human implementation.  If the king is to use his intuition, how close must he hold to the Torah, and how much active help must he get from the Author of Torah!