Diana Lipton
A Bible scholar on the streets of Jerusalem

Judges and Justices — in the parasha and at the protests (32)

Ruth Bader Ginsburg in pink, Central Park, NY. Photo: Diana Lipton

This is my 32nd consecutive post connecting the parasha and Israel’s pro-democracy protests. To receive e-mail notifications for future posts, write to me using the contact form above on my banner.  

Since I started my weekly parasha/protest posts back in January, I haven’t known in advance what I’d write about. This week is different. It’s been clear from day one that — assuming I was still posting seven months later — my subject for this week’s parasha, Shoftim, Judges, would be … judges.

18You shall appoint judges and officials for your tribes, in all the settlements the Lord your God is giving you, and they shall judge the people with righteous justice. 19You shall not judge unfairly: you shall show no partiality; you shall not take bribes, for bribes blind the eye of the wise and disturb the words of the just. 20Justice, justice you shall pursue, that you may thrive and inherit the land that the Lord your God is giving you (Deuteronomy 16:18-20).

In the legal sections of Deuteronomy, which move back and forth between the singular ‘you’, atah, and the plural ‘you’, atem, it’s not always clear who is being addressed. The opening instruction to appoint judges is addressed to an individual ‘you’, perhaps to emphasize that every single Israelite both shares responsibility for the appointment and is subject to the authority of judges who are appointed.

But then the focus shifts. The ‘you’ addressed is not an ordinary Israelite, but a judge: You shall not judge unfairly, you shall not be biased, you shall not accept bribes (v. 19). This move from ordinary Israelite to judge may imply that, unlike priesthood, an inherited office passed from father to son in a particular family, anyone can be a judge.

But what explains the strong emphasis on corruption? Although priesthood is inherited, priests are ordinary human beings. They can become intoxicated by their own power, as illustrated perhaps by the example of Nadav and Avihu, the sons of Aaron who made an offering that God had not commanded (Leviticus 10:1-11). And they can become corrupt, as shown by the example of the sons of the Eli, the priest who encountered Hannah at Shiloh. Eli’s sons, themselves priests, were scoundrels who stole meat from sacrificial offerings (1 Samuel 2:12-17).

But the starting assumption is that priests will not become intoxicated by their own power or corrupt. This helps explain, I think, why the laws about priesthood – as opposed to some narratives about priests – deal with procedure, ritual, clothing and so forth, not the behavior of individual priests. In the case of judges, by contrast, there are few instructions pertaining to the office — how to be a judge — whereas, as we saw above, the warnings about the potential for individual corruption are explicit and upfront.

Judges, especially Supreme Court justices, represent a flash point in Israel’s current political crisis. Right now, at least, Israelis either love or hate the Supreme Court and proclaim their feelings loud and clear.

Pro-democracy protesters love the Supreme Court. One of the earliest slogans to appear on posters and T. shirts – though in the latter case it’s now fighting for attention in the very competitive protest T. shirt market – was ‘I heart Bagatz’ (the Israeli Supreme Court’s Hebrew acronym).

‘I heart Bagatz’, near the Knesset, Jerusalem, February 2023. Photo credit: Diana Lipton
‘I heart Bagatz’, Silo Cafe, Jerusalem. Photo credit: Diana Lipton
‘I heart Bagatz’, 20 Feb Knesset demonstration. Photo credit: Diana Lipton

Protesters found other ways to express their admiration for the Supreme Court, such as this placard playing on a Badatz kashrut certificate.

‘Under the supervision of the Supreme Court of the Democratic Congregation, Jerusalem’. Photo credit: Diana Lipton

And images of Attorney General Gali Baharav-Miara and Supreme Court President, Esther Hayut appeared everywhere.

‘A woman of valor who can find?’, 18 Feb Jerusalem demonstration. Photo credit: Diana Lipton
‘Strength and Courage. We are with you!’, 20 Feb Knesset demonstration. Photo credit: Diana Lipton
‘I appointed watchmen on your walls’ (Isaiah 62:6), Esther Hayut and Gali Baharav-Miara, 11 March Jerusalem demonstration. Photo Diana Lipton

For some Americans, the Israeli pro-democracy love affair with the Supreme Court must be puzzling. The very Israelis who see their Supreme Court as the country’s ultimate protection from tyranny would, if they were Americans, perceive America’s Supreme Court as a threat to US freedom of choice and minority rights.

Beyond deeply unpopular US Supreme Court political interventions, such as overturning the right to abortion, Americans are reeling from news about the lifestyle of one of its justices. As one political commentator put it last week, Who among us hasn’t paid for a Clarence Thomas vacation?

To understand exactly why Israel’s Supreme Court is seen as democracy’s greatest ally, while America’s Supreme Court is perceived as a threat to democracy, read this article by Jon Gould and Jacob Abolafia. But here’s a short answer.

The US political system is full of ‘veto points’ that make it difficult to pass legislation. Legislation must be agreed upon by the President and two legislative chambers, each of which is elected separately and often controlled by different parties, and one of which (the Senate) requires a supermajority to overcome the filibuster. Israel has only one chamber, the Knesset, with no veto points to prevent a slim majority from passing legislation.

In addition, in America, elections take place regionally, so elected politicians may have disparate regional commitments, whereas in Israel, the entire country votes for the same parties. A very small number of votes can create a Knesset majority, as was the case in the last election.

For better and worse, it’s very hard to pass new laws in America, where legislation is subject to scrutiny by politicians in the two chambers. In Israel, by contrast, legislation can be passed with a tiny political majority. Problematic legislation, such as laws that harm the rights of minorities, that would have many opportunities to be blocked by politicians in America, can easily make it through the Knesset. In America, the Supreme Court weighs in on legislation that has already gone through a lengthy gamut. In Israel, the Supreme Court is the only body with the power to block harmful legislation.

We often hear Prime Minister Netanyahu say that no other country’s Supreme Court is as powerful and active as Israel’s. The Supreme Court has, in fact, been quite restrained, and many would say it should have been far more active, but that’s not my point here. Other democratic countries have different ways of preventing elected governments from acting against the interests of the country, interfering with future elections, for example. Members of the Coalition Government are already speaking about banning Arab citizens of Israel from voting. The Supreme Court is Israel’s only safeguard. Why haven’t the Coalition Government proposed alternative mechanisms for checks and balances? Because what they really want is not judicial reform but unlimited power.

This week, my friend Meira and I went to Yes Planet, Jerusalem to watch Barbie. It’s more broadly political and much funnier than I expected, and I was happy to hear that Barbie too is preoccupied by the theme of my post last week: cognitive dissonance. I had in mind the Occupation. Barbie was talking about ‘the cognitive dissonance required to be a woman under patriarchy’. We laughed loudest when, during Barbie’s guided tour of Barbie Land, she pointed out the Supreme Court, explaining that all the judges were Barbies. We knew that America’s Supreme Court was the reference point, but still it resonated. Maybe a Barbie Supreme Court could fend off our government of contemptible Kens… (Sorry, real Ken — you don’t deserve that.)




About the Author
Before I moved to Israel in 2011, I was a Fellow of Newnham College, Cambridge (1997-2006), and a Reader in Hebrew Bible and Jewish Studies at King's College London (2007-2011). In Israel, I've taught Bible at Hebrew University's International School and, currently, in the Department of Biblical Studies at Tel Aviv University, where I am a Teaching Fellow and chair the Academic Steering Committee of the Orit Guardians MA program for Ethiopian Jews. I give a weekly parsha shiur at Beit Moses home for the elderly in Jerusalem. I serve on the Boards of Jerusalem Culture Unlimited (JCU) and Hassadna Jerusalem Music Conservatory, and I'm a judge for the Sami Rohr Prize. I'm the very proud mother of Jacob and Jonah, and I live in Jerusalem with my husband Chaim Milikowsky. My last book was 'From Forbidden Fruit to Milk and Honey: A Commentary on Food in the Torah'; proceeds go to Leket, Israel's national food bank. The working title of my next book, co-authored with Micha Price, is 'A Biblical Guide to the Climate Crisis'.
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