The Torah’s Protest Against Religion – Parshat Shoftim

Religion certainly encourages worship. It even appears correct to say that worship is at the core of religion as we usually know it. So how could it be that the Book of Deuteronomy, which we are now reading in our cycle of weekly Torah portions, makes a point of outlawing the worship of God in just about all places and under just about all circumstances!?! Upon reading last week’s and this week’s Torah portion, you’d almost have to conclude that the Torah, at least in part, is a blatantly anti – religious book!

The portion called Shoftim – Judges – opens with an admonition that

“You shall appoint judges and bailiffs for all your tribes, in all your settlements … and they shall govern the people with due justice”.

The Torah goes on to demand that “justice, justice shall you pursue” and details the workings of the judicial system which will adjudicate cases covering the broad gamut of human life, dealing with homicide, civil law, assault, as well as matters of ritual and religious law.

This call for the erection of a court system ‘for all your tribes’ must be contrasted with what we were commanded in last week’s Torah portion, namely,

“do not worship the Lord your God …except at the site that the Lord your God will choose from amidst all your tribes”.

What a powerful and unequivocal declaration! The idolatrous nations of the Land of Canaan, so the preceding verse tells us, were wont to worship their gods “on every lofty mountain, and on the hills, and under every luxuriant tree”. The Israelites are to tear down and destroy all the idolatrous alters and to NOT replace them with shrines for the worship of the One true God, but rather to limit even their own monotheistic worship to one place where there will be one shrine, a place which later in the Bible turns out to be Jerusalem. The destroyed altars are NOT to be replaced with comparable monotheistic modes of worship, but rather with ‘judges and bailiffs for all your tribes’.

What a radical message! Worship, even monotheistic worship, is not primarily what God is looking for. Worship is to be circumscribed, limited, and the vacuum created is to be filled with jurists and legal scholars who can teach us and guide us in our daily behavior. Houses of worship are to be superseded by houses of justice and of Jewish Law.

The Torah is making a stark demand here. In biblical times worship meant almost exclusively sacrificial worship. This was the means that people had to feel close to their gods. And the Israelites too wished to worship, to offer up sacrifices to the One True God. They certainly felt a need and a burning desire to do so. They wanted to ‘be religious’ and to express that religiosity as they knew how. But the Torah denies them that opportunity and instead warns, “Take heed for yourselves lest you offer sacrifice wherever and whenever you please”. Rather – only in Jerusalem. For most people that meant that they could not worship God more than two or three times a year! The Torah effectively secularized the countryside!

And the vacuum is filled by the judicial system which the Torah commands must be ubiquitous. Worship is virtually eliminated, for what God primarily wants are those things that are within the purview of the courts – proper behavior, correct action, whether it be observance of commandments between man and man or those between man and God: Integrity in business, fidelity in marriage, honesty in trade, punctilious observance of shabat and of holidays, full remittance of tithes, family purity, tefillin, tzitzit, the whole gamut.

The message for our own time is crystal clear. We define religion differently than our neighbors do. Judaism is less about worship and more about observance. Synagogue worship has its place, an important place – after all, it consists of prayer and not of sacrifice – but still, if it becomes the be all and end all of our Jewish lives then something is remiss. Judaism cannot be limited to what goes on inside the sanctuary. Idolatrous religion was focused on worship; Jewish religion is focused on daily life in the real world!

About the Author
Rabbi Hanan Schlesinger resides in Alon Shvut Israel. He serves as the Director of Memnosyne Israel, promoting interfaith, bridge building projects betweens Israeli settlers and local Palestinians. As the Executive Director and Community Rabbinic Scholar of the Jewish Studies Initiative of North Texas, he also flies to Dallas, Texas once a month to teach adult education classes within the Jewish community and to spearhead interfaith dialogue.