Religious Life

Appointing Judges – A Weekly Letter From Rabbi Davis – September 7, 2018

Shalom Chaverim,

In between writing High Holy Day sermons, I have caught snipits of the raucous Supreme Court confirmation hearings. I am not a legal historian so can’t say if what we are seeing is unprecedented. But the proceedings interest me and the questions being raised concern me.

Watching the appointment process unfold, I am reminded of a midrash on the Book of Deuteronomy:

Rabbi Yitzchak said: Two things are in God’s hands- the soul and justice. The soul, as it is written, “In God’s hand is every living soul” (Job 12:10). Justice, as it is written, “My hand lays hold on judgement” (Deut. 32:41). The Holy One of Blessing said: “You watch out for justice and I will watch over your souls.” (Deut. Rabbah 5:4)

The midrash is surprising. Initially, it says that justice is in God’s hand. But then God entrusts judgment to humans.  Why does God recuse God’s self? After all, God is the “True Judge.” Why does God give this power over to humans? Like a parent who raises her child to be independent, God expects us to wrestle with our problems rather than pass them off to the Judge. God wants us to take responsibility for our lives, for each other, and for our world. In this way, God shows great faith in humans for God places in our hands the awesome responsibility to judge with fairness, impartiality, and independence as God does.

The midrash teaches, “You (plural) guard justice.” God is addressing the collective. Society as a whole is responsible for establishing a fair justice system. But what does it mean to “guard justice?” It refers to the rules themselves and to the procedures of the court. In his book, To Do the Right and the Good: A Jewish Approach to Modern Social Ethics, Rabbi Elliot Dorff explains, “By mixing procedural concerns (like the placement of courts in convenient places) with substantive issues (like the prohibitions against bribes and prejudice), the Torah indicates its awareness that the two are inextricably intertwined, that procedure affects substance and substance demands certain procedural rules.”

Finally, the midrash concludes, our souls are bound up with our laws. The soul of our people and our nation are intricately bound up with these rules and procedures of justice. Failing to establish a respected and respectable justice system will inevitably lead to corruption and a breakdown in civil society. But it is even bigger than that. The proof text in the midrash says, “In God’s hand is the soul of all that lives.” Our entire world literally depends on justice.

Next week is Rosh Hashana. We usually think of this Yom Hadin, this Day of Judgment as a time when God ascends the court on high to judge our lives. But it is also a time when we must judge ourselves.  Indeed, the Hebrew word for prayer, l’hitpalel, means to judge one’s self. We must ask ourselves, have we been fair in judging others and ourselves? Have we pursued justice?  Have we acted with justice and with compassion?

By taking responsibility and holding ourselves accountable for our lives, for the health and holiness of the society we establish, we pray that God will do God’s part to guard our souls.

Shana Tova,
Rabbi Alexander Davis