The Philosophy of Judges in Judaism 3.0

Paraphrasing the Talmudic injunction, "If someone comes to kill you, rise up and kill him first", this current Israeli bumper sticker reads: "If someone comes to hug you, rise up and hug him first". Photo by Ilan Rubin.

Parshat Shoftim, Judges, is part of Moses’ final discourse before his death, just, just before the Children of Israel cross the Jordan River and establish their new society in the Promised Land. The law-giving prophet Moses instructs the ex-Hebrew slaves how to set up their new political society, including the establishment of Hebrew judges, priests, kings, prophets and army.

It has long been my belief, which I first read in the book by Yoram Hazony, “The Philosophy of the Hebrew Bible”, that there is a false dichotomy, between, on one hand, the Greeks, whose Golden Age produced the famous works of Greek philosophy, and the Hebrews, whose first Golden Age produced the famous Hebrew Bible, as though the Torah is NOT a work of philosophy; as if the Torah were merely a work of history and religion.  But Hazony says: no; the Hebrew Bible IS a work of philosophy, but its philosophy is not expressed in Aristotelian dialogues, or lists of principles; rather, the Torah elucidates philosophy through narrative.  And not only the grand narrative – the historical Exodus from Egypt, which models the philosophical liberation from slavery to freedom – but in countless smaller narrative aspects.

For example, the Hebrew Bible favours shepherds; the shepherd Abel versus the farmer Cain; the shepherd Jacob over the hunter Esau.  All the great biblical heroes were shepherds: Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and all his sons; Moses; and King David. And this also conveys a philosophic point: the Torah values the free shepherd, who wanders the land in search of pasture for his flock, over the undomesticated hunter or the sedentary farmer, or worst of all, the Egyptian slave.  And so from out of the narrative emerges political philosophy, and it is all the more resonant, since the story is told in such a dramatic, evocative and totally memorable narrative; such a powerful narrative, that we have been retelling, for example, the Exodus story, and the liberation from slavery to freedom, at our Passover seder, every Spring for two thousand years.

In these and a hundred other ways, out of the narrative, the commandments, the speeches and the poems, emerges the core of “Jewish philosophy”.  And then of course, our Sages vastly expanded upon this, by drawing out from the Torah’s narrative a thousand-fold rules, stories, arguments and traditions, which in turn became the core of Rabbinic Jewish philosophy.

So Plato makes a statement about justice: “Justice is the principle of doing things equally in public and private”.  I agree – but not memorably.  In Shoftim, Moses says: “Tzedec Tzedec tirdof! – Justice, Justice shall you pursue!”  The poetic doubling of the word “Tzedec” gives that line a ring to it that makes it memorable.

Like in the Kabbalistic vision, that the letters of the Torah are black fire written on white fire.

But this idea – that the Torah’s political philosophy emerges from narrative, rather than being explicitly stated, has some exceptions, and the Torah parsha Shoftim, Judges, is one such exception. This is not a narrative story about justice, but a somewhat systematic set of rules and precepts about how a society is to be organized. There are to be judges appointed, and rules about how judges must act; priests, and rules about how priests must act; kings, and rules about how kings must act; armies, and rules about how armies must act; and prophets, with tests for distinguishing false prophets from true.

In this parsha, as in almost every other, the Torah does not espouse any explicit theology. There is no discussion of afterlife, or heaven or hell; it of course never mentions once the words Jew, Yehudi; or Judaism, Yahadut; or religion, Dat.  And indeed, other than a focus in detail on Temple ritual circa 7th Century BCE, the Torah doesn’t have much to do with what we today call “religion”. What we Bnei Yisrael – the Children of Israel – practice (or do not practice) today is not “Torah Judaism” but Rabbinic Judaism, with only indirect connections to the Torah narrative. Rabbinic Judaism was a post-Temple development, an immensely complex series of literary works that evolved to sustain the Jewish people in their disruption and exile, in the wake of the great historical change wrought by the Roman destruction of the Second Temple in 70 CE. After a thousand years of Temple-centred Judaism 1.0, the Sages invented Judaism 2.0

And it’s all good. Rabbinic Judaism continues to be a legitimate expression of Hebrew civilization. However, ever since my Senior year at Brandeis University, as editor of Focus, the North America Student Zionist monthly, I have believed that, in reverse parallel to the destruction of the Temple and the Exile, out of which emerged Rabbinic Judaism, the ingathering of the Exiles and the creation of the State of Israel was the beginning of an entirely new era in Jewish civilization.  So I was very excited to learn that Gol Kalev, in his book “Judaism 3.0: Judaism’s transformation to Zionism” shares my view and proposes that what the Zionist revolution has produced is another version of Judaism – Judaism 3.0.

In my understanding, Judaism 3.0 builds on Rabbinic Judaism, and on the Torah narrative. But what we today call “the Jewish people” are once again sovereign in their own land, with their own political autonomy, their own independent nation state, and living in a completely new Hebrew society, even if greatly influenced by Judaism 1.0 and 2.0.

For two thousand years of exile, Jews would read Parshat Shoftim and think abstractly about judges, priests, kings, armies and prophets, all, of course, in the past.  And what of Shoftim in Israel today? How do we read Shoftim in Judaism 3.0?

Former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is currently on trial for three separate charges of corruption. In the case that has most captured the public imagination, the former premier and his wife Sarah accepted expensive cigars and champagne, worth hundreds of thousands of shekels, from Hollywood billionaire Arnon Milchan. Lurid details have emerged as to how Sarah Netanyahu dealt with this billionaire’s personal secretary in organizing discreet drop-offs of these gifts, and angry complaints when they were of insufficient quality.  Beyond the tawdriness of these tales, and of Sarah Netanyahu’s behaviour, is the legal question: if these are just gifts, and Netanyahu did nothing specifically in return for Milchan’s expensive gifts, other than allow him to be close to the Netanyahus, is it really a bribe? And is a prime minister just receiving valuable gifts, doing something wrong? Shoftim says:   וְלֹֽא־תִקַּ֣ח שֹׁ֔חַד כִּ֣י הַשֹּׁ֗חַד יְעַוֵּר֙ עֵינֵ֣י חֲכָמִ֔ים וִֽיסַלֵּ֖ף דִּבְרֵ֥י צַדִּיקִֽם: “You shall not take a gift; for a gift will blind the eyes of the wise and pervert the words of the righteous.”

That’s pretty clear.  Shoftim says a Prime Minister, just by receiving valuable gifts, is doing something wrong.

It seems that in the current Israeli political reality there is no shortage of “Justice Justice” Shoftim-related issues. There is the whole question of who is to be selected to be on the Supreme Court, how that selection process is to be implemented, and who is to be on the committee choosing those Supreme Court justices.  This is a central political issue, particularly for the right wing, which accuses Israel’s well-regarded Supreme Court of being elitist and undemocratic, in that its positions are generally far to the left of most Israeli voters. For decades, the Supreme Court always had a predominance of similar like-minded justices.

There is also the current criminal justice issue of crime in Israel’s Arab communities, especially violent crime, which has been problematic and growing, despite significant efforts by the Israeli police to reign it in. A subset of this is a number of high-profile cases in which married Arab women have been killed by separated husbands, and whether the police and court systems are sufficiently protective of the Arab Israeli women in the circumstances. This is all the more sensitive in that Israel’s two million Muslim Arab citizens are the very definition in Judaism 1.0 of the Ger, “the non-Israelite who lives among you”.  True, the Torah’s narrative calls for the conquest of Canaan by the Israelites; but it also repeatedly commands us to treat the Ger with loving kindness, because Israel, having been strangers in a strange land, Egypt, understands the Ger’s plight; for ethical laws, there is to be one standard for the Israelite and the Ger.

And the year-long Naftali Bennet-led anti-Netanyahu “Change” government fell over another justice-related issue: the renewal of the extension of Israeli law to Israeli citizens living in the disputed territories of Judea and Samaria, or the West Bank.  The November 1 Israeli election is not just for an executive government, but for the “justice justice” law-making power of the Knesset.

On its face, Shoftim talks about specific job categories: judges, priests, kings and prophets; and limitations on their conduct, to guard against corruption, a problem then, and, as Netanyahu’s trial shows, a problem now.  In this sense, Shoftim is a work of political science, or even a rough constitution for a just society.  But in which way is it philosophy? The philosophy lies behind Shoftim’s descriptive narrative, in the underlying concept of what is true. Because behind the societal roles of judges, priests, kings and prophets, the forms of which have changed over the years, there is something more permanent. Behind the concept of the judge, is the concept of justice; for the priest, purity; for the king, responsibility; for the prophet, truth.

And so today, in Judaism 3.0, Shoftim’s philosophical concept of Justice, which Moses commanded us to pursue, has evolved.  In the State of Israel, Shoftim, judges, need still to be appointed, to pursue “Justice, Justice”. But how exactly are they to be chosen?  Israeli law provides that there be a committee of representative persons – current Israeli justices, lawyers and politicians, and they choose Israeli justices of the Supreme Court.  And because Israel is a democracy – one citizen, one vote – how Shoftim are chosen, and who does the choosing, are hot button electoral issues in Judaism 3.0

Judaism 3.0.  Israel today has the same capital, Jerusalem, and the same language, Hebrew, as in Judaism 1.0; the same Mediterranean shoreline and the same hilly places and deserts; but now we have a complex democratic government system that for 74 years has managed well in the difficult circumstances which Israel has found itself – militarily, diplomatically, mass immigration, economic development from poverty to prosperity; managed well even compared to other Western democracies.

So maybe this argument: that what we call “Judaism”, which in the time when the Temple stood, was one kind of practice, rooted in the Torah, but also primarily about a location-based temple, run by priests, combined with governmental authority based on kingship, judged by judges, and informed by prophetic poetry; then, when the Temple was destroyed for the second time, this version of “Jewish civilization”  was replaced for two thousand years by what we could call “Judaism 2.0” –  Rabbinic Judaism, well suited for surviving and developing in exile from the land, and from the sovereignty and governmental authority which the Jews no longer had; and now, after the 20th century Zionist revolution, now that the majority of the world’s Jews live in the State of Israel, under a democratic government elected by its citizens, we are struggling with the same basic components: judges to judge in the pursuit of “justice, justice”; rabbi-led communities which carry on the work of priests in diligently performing religious rituals, transformed, by Judaism 2.0, into prayer and study; kings, now parliamentary-democracy elected prime ministers, cabinet members and the Knesset, in a political system influenced by a complex history of minyan collectivism, British mandatory governance, and the evolution, through elected Zionist congresses and subsequently, of a system of government, parties and courts; and “prophets”, people, now, as then, dedicated to the truth (as they see it) though not necessarily of a divine origin, and expressing itself in the form of blogs, books and newspaper articles, and poetry and popular song.

Paraphrasing the Talmudic injunction, “If someone comes to kill you, rise up and kill him first”, this current Israeli bumper sticker reads: “If someone comes to hug you, rise up and hug him first”. Photo by Ilan Rubin.

And so I am thrilled that we are finally going to be spending half our time living in Israel.  For me personally it is exciting to be part of the real-time narrative of Judaism 3.0; with all of Israel’s many challenges, to live, where all this is happening, in Hebrew, in the land of Israel, with this complex interaction of the biblical, the rabbinic and modern Zionism; as a pilgrim and a witness to the emergence of Judaism 3.0.


About the Author
Benjamin Rubin, a Toronto lawyer, was Chair of Limmud Toronto 2018, elected to Zionist Congress, and VP of Canada-Israel Chamber of Commerce. Under his pen name eBenBrandeis, he composes YouTube poems, translated from Hebrew a pre-war Pinsk biography, edited and published a book of contemporary Jewish humour, and created, a Zionist conceptual art project. Lived in Israel four years. Loves Israeli music and Spain’s Golden Age Hebrew poets. Writer, producer and director of the Zoom teleplay series, "Golden Age Travel" about the 12th century Hebrew poet and Jewish philosopher, Yehuda HaLevi, travelling through time. GAT episode VI, "Berlin 28, Paris 38, Jerusalem 61" was premiered at Limmud Toronto November 2021.
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