Shoftim: Judges and Cops in the Torah

The connection between faith and law.

Rabbeinu Bahya said, “A system of laws without officials to enforce them is a mockery.”


Table for Five: Shoftim

Edited by Salvador Litvak, the Accidental Talmudist

You shall set up judges and law enforcement officials for yourself in all your cities that the Lord, your God, is giving you, for your tribes, and they shall judge the people [with] righteous judgment. -Deut. 16:18


Nili Isenberg, Pressman Academy Judaics Faculty

When asked, my 4-year-old son, dressed in his blue officer’s costume, explained that his job as a policeman was to “smoosh the bad guys.” At a time when policing is under such scrutiny, I wondered: What guidance does the Torah give about smooshing bad guys?

The word “sho’ter” mentioned in our verse means “police officer” in modern Hebrew. Our translation offers the phrase “law enforcement official.” The word “sho’ter” might also be related to “sh’tar” which means “document,” suggesting a bookkeeper for the court.

Rashi (1040 – 1105) tries to explain more clearly: “The ‘shotrim’ are those who chastise the people with sticks and straps.” Perhaps Rashi is connecting the “sho’ter” to the Torah’s punishment of flogging with up to 40 lashes, mentioned later in Deuteronomy 25. In the Talmud, there is an entire tractate named after this form of punishment, called “Makkot.” On an Israeli playground, if the bully tells you he’s going to give you “makkot,” you better watch out.

Today, while flogging is no longer practiced as a matter of Jewish law, some have made a connection between the 40 lashes of punishment in the Torah to the 40 days of repentance between Rosh Chodesh Elul and Yom Kippur. As I prepare myself for judgment this year, I will strive to be my own “sho’ter” and make myself accountable for the trespasses I have committed. And afterwards, I hope that I will also be worthy of a loving smoosh from an adorable 4-year-old, because I’ll surely need it.


Rabbi Ilana Grinblat, Vice President of Community Engagement, Board of Rabbis of Southern California

Recently, on a short car ride, we passed homeless people in tents and enormous mansions. The neighborhoods were a few miles apart but seemed worlds away.

The commandment to appoint judges is the first verse read in Elul, the introspective month building up to the High Holidays. What a fitting sentence for our cheshbon hanefesh, the soul’s accounting, this year!

The verse is personal and communal. Rabbi Abraham Halevi Horwitz noted that each individual has seven “gates” – two ears, two eyes, two nostrils and a mouth. This verse reminds us to carefully monitor our sensory gates.

Nowadays, our internal guards busily check everything that enters our body to ensure our health. As vigilant as we are now about these entryways into the self, we should equally examine our communities to advocate for justice.

The Coronavirus exposes and heightens inequities. In a Board of Rabbis High Holiday workshop, Rabbi Michael Knopf noted that since both hurricanes and viruses move randomly, theoretically they should impact rich and poor, old and young, black and white people equally, but that’s not the case. He said, “Indiscriminate calamities actually do discriminate not because of willfulness on the part of a hurricane, virus, or cancer, but often because of the choices that we make” as a society.

This verse prompts us to ask ourselves painful questions in approaching the new year: How can we sleep in our beds while others sleep on the streets? Why do so few have so much and so many have so little?


Rabbi Tal Sessler, Sephardic Temple

Gershom Scholem observed that modern-day Chassidism represents the psychologization of Lurianic Kabbalism. In other words, the Chassidic tradition understands Torah as a spiritual journey that unshackles the soul from constriction into the expansive cosmic awareness known as “Unio mystica.”

The same hermeneutical principle applies to the verse at hand. Rather than focus on its endorsement of a strong legal system for the collective good, Chassidus sees in this verse a message about the soul of each individual Jew. We must exercise our own private spiritual jurisprudence, and the “judges” of the verse refer to our own conscience.

Each individual can ascertain which actions are congruent with Torah and decency in order to create a successful outcome in what Kabbalah calls “the world of actuality.” The actualization of our judgment is the responsibility of our proverbial internal policeman. Here Chassidism anticipated the Freudian ontological dictum of “where id is, ego shall be.” The judges of this verse are thus akin to Freud’s concept of the superego, whereas the policemen represent Freud’s understanding of the ego as a moderating self, which tempers, tames and reigns in those acts if the id which are incongruent with Torah’s sublime benevolence.


Rabbi Aaron Finkelstein, Division Rabbi, Milken Community Schools

It’s hard to read this verse and not think about the current conversation and crisis around injustice in our country. But what kind of system of justice did the Torah imagine? Our verse’s repetition gives us a clue. The shoresh (Hebrew root) for judgement, shin-pay-taf, appears three times in our verse, signaling three distinct parts of the justice system: the individual judges, the process of judgement, and a just set of laws.

Already in the biblical period, there was a grave concern that a human judge might be prejudiced. Rashi (commenting on Chronicles 19:6-7) paints a disturbing, but all-too-likely scenario. “Do not think in your heart ‘what difference does it make if we pervert justice to acquit our friend or wrest the judgement of the poor… Surely judgement does not belong to God?’” Rashi’s conclusion is both staggering and beautiful. “If you have convicted the innocent, it is as if you have taken from your Creator and perverted the judgement of Heaven…ntherefore consider what you do and conduct yourselves in every judgement as if the Holy One were standing before you in judgement.”

While a society’s justice system may adjudicate human conflict, Rashi suggests that there is something more at stake. True justice – what is right and fair – both involves and honors the ultimate Judge. In a country as religious as ours, we have a long way to go before our justice system resembles the righteous judgement described in the Torah.


Salvador Litvak, accidentaltalmudist.org

In recent months we have heard mounting calls of “Defund the Police!” in order to create justice. Multiple police departments have been surrounded and even invaded by protesters. Police officers have been attacked and killed. Have these protests made our nation more just? Recent spikes of violent crime in cities where support for the police has most eroded would suggest otherwise.

The protesters are correct when they say that corrupt or abusive law enforcement undermines justice, but the answer to “bad cops” is not “no cops.” Rabbeinu Bahya (1255-1340) said, “A judicial system without an apparatus to enforce such decisions is a mockery.”  He also noted that the Torah places our verse after the laws of the Jerusalem pilgrimage festivals in order to teach that we cannot rely on judges in in a far off capital to settle our disputes. Every city and town must have its own judges and law enforcers, or the system crashes. Rabbeinu Bahya cites King David’s reign as a model to emulate: wise and compassionate judge issues rulings, and a competent officer like Yoav enforces them fairly. Absent such a partnership, the people will suffer the chaos of unchecked violence and/or the oppression of unchecked authority.

Our verse addresses the Children of Israel, yet the command to establish courts and appoint officials to enforce laws fairly is the climax of the seven Noahide laws which obligate allhumankind. Wealthy people can always hire private security to ensure their safety. The rest of us rely on wise leaders to fulfill the words of our verse.

With thanks to Nili Isenberg, Rabbi Ilana Grinblat, Rabbi Tal Sessler, Rabbi Aaron Finkelstein, and Salvador Litvak

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