The dirty marriage of politics: When justice is not pursued
I am dedicating this blog to my grandnephew whose bar mitzvah is this week, and to my favorite (and only) niece whose wedding anniversary is on the same weekend. It is three years since I traveled to the US (then it was for my grandniece’s bat mitzvah) and vowed during Covid that I would not be getting on a plane again. However, vows can be broken and here I am, jetlagged in the US and looking forward to the celebration that will take place for the Torah portion (parasha) of shoftim and reading it and the haftarah very carefully, just in case my niece asks me to say something “spontaneously learned” during the family gathering.
Shoftim, the parasha of this week, famously begins with the appointment of Judges and other officials:
You shall appoint magistrates and officials for your tribes, in all the settlements that the Lord your God is giving you, and they shall govern the people with due justice. You shall not judge unfairly: 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. Justice, justice shall you pursue, that you may thrive and occupy the land that the Lord your God is giving you (Deut 16:18-20).
The laws concerning kingship occurs later on in the parasha:
If, after you have entered the land that the Lord your God has assigned to you, and taken possession of it and settled in it, you decide, “I will set a king over me, as do all the nations about me,” you shall be free to set a king over yourself, one chosen by the Lord your God. Be sure to set as king over yourself one of your own people; you must not set a foreigner over you, one who is not your kinsman. Moreover, he shall not keep many horses or send people back to Egypt to add to his horses, since the Lord has warned you, “You must not go back that way again. ” And he shall not have many wives, lest his heart go astray; nor shall he amass silver and gold to excess. When he is seated on his royal throne, he shall have a copy of this Teaching written for him on a scroll by the levitical priests. Let it remain with him and let him read in it all his life, so that he may learn to revere the Lord his God, to observe faithfully every word of this Teaching as well as these laws. Thus he will not act haughtily toward his fellows or deviate from the Instruction to the right or to the left, to the end that he and his descendants may reign long in the midst of Israel (Deut 17:14-20).
Note that the monarch’s authority is restricted and he has no control over the justice system. Kings should serve the people and not vice versa. Moreover, there is and should be complete separation between the ruler and the judge. It’s a little like the checks and balances in the US system of government. Kings are not, or at least should not be, above the law.
JUSTICE NOT SERVED
Before I continue and be “learned”, I find myself paying attention to the state of the two democratic nations of which I am a citizen: the US and Israel which seem to be subverting both of these passages. The state of the two nations is very problematic and teetering towards becoming very undemocratic. It is almost as if this week’s parasha was meant to be a running commentary on the appalling state of affairs in both countries. “Justice, justice shall you pursue, that you may thrive” is the message; but justice seems to be running amok in the US and in Israel. In Israel there is the real threat of having the rabble rousers Bezalel Smotrich and Itamar Ben-Gvir, the latter, a supporter of racist Jewish power, enter the government. And the same type of rightwing elements that support them, are active in the US as well. What is happening in the US is that a former president can get away with warning the nation that “terrible things are going to happen” if justice is pursued against him and a senator concurs by saying that there might be “riots in the streets”. Moreover, there are pronouncements about attacks on those who are investigating the former POTUS. This type of behavior serves as a worldwide model for those people who do not trust centralized government and feel comfortable taking law in their own hands, getting away with it and not having to worry about the consequences. Democracy is under siege and government without justice is dangerous to its citizens. Thus in Israel people like Ben Gvir act with impunity and our former prime minister can shamelessly attempt to regain power, even while on trial for perverting justice and accepting bribes.
THE HAFTAROT OF AV AND ELUL
There are usually two criteria which determine the selection of a particular haftarah. When there are no other considerations, the choice is determined by the similarity of the contents of the prophetic portion to those of the parasha. Often this criterion is abandoned, and the choice of the haftarah is determined either by the calendar or by historical circumstances. So before Tisha B’av (the ninth day of av, commemorating the destruction of the temple) we have three haftarot which foretell calamity and doom and then after Tisha b’av we have seven haftarot which are more hopeful in their message to the Jewish people.
MARRIAGE AND WEDDINGS
Almost all of these seven describe the relationship between God and Israel as one of Husband and wife. After a shaky marriage in which God almost destroys his people, God promises Israel that he will take her back, comfort her and will not do to her what he has done before, especially if she takes responsibility for her having sinned and promises not to do so anymore. What began as an abusive relationship in which Israel drank of God’s wrath will now change; she will no longer be a doormat for God to stomp on when he is angry with her.
During the three weeks before Tisha B’Av, there were no Jewish marriages performed. Starting from the middle of Av and during the month of Elul, is THE season for marriages in the Jewish faith. In fact the acronym of E-L-U-L ( א ל ו ל) is used very often by rabbis performing marriages citing Shir ha-shirim:—Ani le dodi, ve-dodi li ( אני לדודי ודודי לי ) — I am there for my beloved and he is there for me. And of course these rabbis refer to the relationships based on the haftarot since they talk about marriage between God and Israel. So God is there for his beloved and Israel is there for Him. The officiating rabbis very often charge the newlyweds under the chuppah to model their marriages on this loving relationship between God and Israel.
THE HAFTARAH OF SHOFTIM
The haftarah of shoftim starts in the middle of Isaiah 51. Chapter 51: 1 is not part of the haftarah, but could serve as a segue between the parasha and the haftarah. It could be considered to be a form of introductory statement and perhaps why this chapter was chosen to be the haftarah:” Listen to Me, you who pursue justice, You who seek the LORD” (Isaiah 51:1).
The haftarah from Isaiah 51:12-52:12 describes God’s renewing His kingship over Israel in a public manner, like a marriage, with the entire world serving as witness. It is the fourth haftarah of consolation. As part of His redemption of Zion, God affirms to Israel that they are His people (v. 51:16) and not to worry about his previous treatment of the nation, for he has removed his wrath from her. God is engaging in Justice! Israel is told to remove her clothing of mourning for this celebration and those who went into exile will be redeemed. God is back and the people are commanded to be cheerful and to believe that all will be well (Isaiah 52:7-10). Some of these words are familiar to us from the piyut we recite on Shabbat “Lekhah Dodi” when we also tell the bride not to be ashamed or imprisoned (לא תבושי ולא תכלמי). This is how God speaks to his bride Jerusalem in the second part of our haftarah:
“Awake, awake, O Zion! Clothe yourself in splendor; Put on your robes of majesty, Jerusalem, holy city! For the uncircumcised and the unclean Shall never enter you again. Arise, shake off the dust, Sit [on your throne], Jerusalem! Loose the bonds from your neck, O captive one, Fair Zion!”
God tells female Zion to clothe herself and get ready for their renewed relationship. What they are doing is akin to the vows of marriage. You will continue being in an exclusive relationship to Me and I will take care of you. In exchange, you won’t go astray; worship other gods; the unclean and uncircumcised will not be in control of you again, you will not be entered into again by others. You are Mine and I am yours.
“Assuredly, My people shall learn My name, assuredly [they shall learn] on that day That I, the One who promised, Am now at hand. 7How welcome on the mountain Are the footsteps of the herald Announcing happiness, heralding good fortune, announcing victory, Telling Zion, “Your God is King!”
Jerusalem is put on a pedestal. God has returned to her. God is her king and ruler. God is now here, He will solve all her problems and in return for this protection, in exchange for happiness and good fortune Israel will relinquish its independence. Justice and redemption is being served at the same time. The female Jerusalem is the bride, God is King.
This might be how some prophets and sages conceived of the relationship between God and Israel, but it is not a healthy relationship for a marriage. It is unfortunate that newlyweds are encouraged to model their marriages on this relationship. A better relationship on which newlyweds should model is what I mentioned earlier: the phrase from Shir ha-shirim—Ani le dodi, ve-dodi li—I am there for my beloved and he is there for me. Mutuality and Respect should be the name of the game.
DOUBLING DOWN ON JUSTICE
But all marriages get stormy—just think about the ever-growing divorce rate. Part of this is because of the emphasis on justice. If we were to introduce justice into this equation of marriage, what would be the result? Justice is blindfolded, evenhanded; it has two balanced scales. Surely the goal should be as stated in the beginning of the parasha: “Justice, justice shall you pursue, that you may thrive and occupy the land that the Lord your God is giving you (Deut 16:20). Even though in the Declaration of Independence humanity’s inalienable rights are listed: “Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness” (John Locke thought the pursuit of property was more important than happiness), perhaps, Justice should be one of the rights.
Why is the word Justice tzedek mentioned twice and not once? And if we are talking about justice, is that the image we should be looking at as a model for marriage? Or does it mean we have to look at both sides of the case before determining what is right? Does it mean that there may be two rights that have to be taken into account?
NUANCES ASSOCIATED WITH JUSTICE
If we look at rabbinic literature seeking answers, we find one in the commentary of Abraham Ibn Ezra, (1089–1164). He wrote that the double use of tzedek might mean that it is possible that the plaintiff might win in one case and in another case or situation he might lose. Another commentator, the Ramban (Moses b. Nahman (1194–1270) writes in answer to his question why the need for tzedek twice: that the first is a reflection of God’s will and that the second is where the opportunity for tzedek is lost. More to the point is in midrash tanhuma (16th century) where the reason for tzedek tzedek twice is a warning to judges who judge capital crimes, not to take only one day to make a decision, but to sleep on it overnight.
TWO SHIPS PASSING IN THE NIGHT
The Yalkut Shimoni (Simeon of Frankfort) quotes Rav Ashi, who writes that one use of tzedek is for din (uncompromising strict justice) and the other use of tzedek is peshara (lenient justice or justice that takes compromise into account). To illustrate this, he tells the story of two ships crossing a river. If they both go through at the same time both will sink; if they take turns crossing, then both will get through safely. The same is true of two camels. If both try to go up a mountain pass at the same time, both will collapse; if one goes after the other, it will work out. How? Normally the heavily laden one will have the right of passage; or the one who came first, will go first. But if they are both equally loaded down and both got there at the same time—who has the right of way? The suggestion is that when both have a just cause, a compromise decision has to be arrived at.
Marriage is also a two-way street—both partners have to be pursuing justice together, at the same time yet, somehow not at the expense of the other. Marriage is an art, not competition. In marriage we do not have to score, we do not have to prove a point. I would hope that during the marriage season all couples have a good life brimming with togetherness, doing the right things together and constantly engaging in reality adjustment and compromise.
POLITICS: THE MARRIAGE OF STRANGE BEDFELLOWS
In connecting politics, justice and marriage, we expect our leaders to be in a contractual relationship with their people and to be looking out for their welfare: just like the ideal marriage. However, so much of politics is what we call a marriage of convenience; there is no faithfulness; there is constant switching of partners and alliances. It is a dirty and cynical business. Even the stronger partner is willing to subsume all of his/her ideals in order to get “elected” and to be “popular”. There is a tremendous amount of lying and cynicism. Tremendous amount of money is spent, not only on bribes. Promises are made and everyone knows they will be broken. It is the very opposite of what marriage should be. There is an attitude of après moi le deluge—no one cares about the polis, the people. It is all about gaining power and holding on to it.
Hiding in plain sight in the haftarah, is the marriage contract and the so-called social contract we have with our leaders. In these contracts when one side lets the other side down, all sorts of punitive action can be summoned by the stronger parties. The threat that is caused by one side’s dissolution of the marriage calls into question the whole idea of a “just” society. There are too many sides in these marriages, and no one is willing to budge from the position they have chosen: husband vs. wife, God vs. Israel, Ship/Camel One vs. Ship/Camel Two, citizens vs. their legal government, partners in political parties against each other. We descend into chaos when no one is willing to see the other side as being deserving of their equal rights. Everyone is justifiably suspicious of the other.
We are long overdue for an ombudsman, a divorce counselor, (in Hebrew a megasher, someone who builds bridges) an arbitrator as opposed to lawyers, whose main interest are billable hours and who thus encourage their clients’ unreasonable demands. Were we to find such a person or groups of people, then perhaps chaos could be averted. I no longer hope for a better world to leave to my grandchildren; just a sustainable one. Would that I could believe a responsible leader could be chosen and save our fractured society like the God of Isaiah. Then perhaps we could once again shout for joy together and be redeemed (paraphrase of Isaiah 52:8–9).
“How welcome on the mountain Are the footsteps of the herald Announcing happiness, Heralding good fortune, Announcing victory, Telling Zion, “Your God is King! ” Hark! Your watchmen raise their voices, As one they shout for joy; For every eye shall behold The Lord’s return to Zion. Raise a shout together, O ruins of Jerusalem! For the Lord will comfort His people, Will redeem Jerusalem” (Isaiah 52: 7-10).
That is my prayer for this coming Shabbat and it is time for me to suspend my cynicism and celebrate with my family the bar mitzvah of my grandnephew.