Josh Feigelson
President & CEO, Institute for Jewish Spirituality

On My Honor: Shoftim 5783

Used with permission of the author
Scouting was an important part of my family’s life when I was a kid. My grandfather, my father, my two brothers and I all became Eagle Scouts. My dad was our troop’s scoutmaster. (The picture above is from my Eagle Scout Court of Honor.) Being the youngest of the bunch, I was pretty well immersed in Scouting long before I even put on a uniform. It didn’t take long for me to memorize the Scout Oath, which begins with the words, “On my honor…”

With that formative part of my background, it’s no surprise that I’ve thought about honor a lot. How do we develop our moral intuitions? How do we raise children and educate them in a way that nurtures an internal compass? How do we cultivate leaders–in government, law, business, religion, media, and every other sector of society–who have a strong inner commitment to doing what is right and just, and a concomitant inner discipline not to abuse their power? That work has been one of the main aims of Scouting in its 110-plus years of existence.

One of the very first requirements of becoming a Boy Scout is to explain the Scout Oath in your own words. Reflecting on the word ‘honor’ in this context leads to a realization that the kinds of things it’s talking about are ultimately beyond the ability of external systems to govern. Yes, we can create social systems and legal regimes to incentivize or disincentivize behaviors, and that’s quite important. But the reach of the law is limited–especially if there are those in a family or a society who don’t have an inner sense of honor or dignity or shame, because they will be perfectly willing to act outside the bounds of those shared commitments enshrined in laws and norms. Ultimately, as the great American jurist Learned Hand observed, “Liberty lies in the hearts of men and women; when it dies there, no constitution, no law, no court can even do much to help it. While it lies there it needs no constitution, no law, no court to save it.” In other words, the law can only do so much. The heart has to do a lot more.
Parsahat Shoftim is, of course, all about laws and justice. But it’s also about honor, about the practices necessary for maintaining it. “You shall not judge unfairly,” the Torah instructs. “You shall show no partiality; you shall not take bribes, for bribes blind the eyes of the discerning and upset the plea of the just” (Deut. 16:19). Why is taking a bribe bad? Quoting the Talmud, Rashi answers, “As soon as the judge has accepted a bribe from from one of the parties, it is impossible for them not to incline their heart to the party, trying to find something in their favor.” Bringing a different statement from the Talmud, Rashi elucidates the words “you shall show no partiality”: “even if it be only during the pleadings of the parties. This is an admonition addressed to the judge that she should not be lenient to one and harsh to the other, e.g. letting one stand and the other sit; because as soon as the party treated harshly observes that the judge shows more respect to the other party, they lose self-confidence and cannot present their case with assurance.”
Rashi reminds us that faith in the law and the justice system rest on the honor of judges–which itself requires an ongoing practice of mindfulness: to be aware of their own predilectiosn, interrupt them, and act in such a way that all parties can feel confident in the fairness of the proceedings. The honor of a judge is the foundation of the legal system. That’s the Torah’s point.
But the Torah’s observations extend beyond judges and courtrooms, because while the judge’s honor is necessary, it’s not sufficient. Our systems of law and justice require honor from the rest of us too. Again, think on the most basic level: It is only through the shared recognition of all the participants in a trial–and, by extension, larger society–that a person in a black robe on a bench becomes a judge. And what do we call that person (in the United States, at any rate)? Your Honor.
The month of Elul is upon us. This is the time when, as the tradition puts it, Hamelech Basadeh, the Sovereign is in the Field. We often think of that as meaning that the Divine is particularly available to us during this period. Yet I also think it might be an invitation to imagine our spiritual work during this season as examining and deepening our practices of honor: Recognizing what is inherently worthy within us; reminding ourselves that we are, blessedly, part of something much larger that our own selves; noticing where our hearts lead us away from our best intentions; and returning, with a renewed sense of honor and dignity, to our joint project of just and righteous living.
About the Author
Rabbi Josh Feigelson, PhD is President & CEO of the Institute for Jewish Spirituality. He is the author of "Eternal Questions: Reflections, Conversations, and Jewish Mindfulness Practices for the Weekly Torah Portion" (Ben Yehuda Press, 2022) and the host of the podcast, "Soulful Jewish Living: Mindful Practices for Every Day," a co-production of Unpacked and the Institute for Jewish Spirituality.
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