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Shoftim: Law and Disorder

Like my ninth grade classmates and I, some of you might have had the dubious honor of reading Lord of the Flies by William Golding. The 1954 novel describes the plight of a group of young boys floundering to function on a deserted island, disturbingly illustrating the disastrous consequences of a lack of government, law, and order in the maintenance of a just and moral society. As a foil for this idea, some of you will likely also recall learning about Hammurabi’s Code, one of the first official sets of written law, which governed society in ancient Mesopotamian times and dates back to approximately 1754 BC. Hammurabi’s Code is well known because it is evidence that sustainable societies are only possible within the structure and boundaries of predetermined judicial systems. Both of these cultural data points highlight the centrality of law and order to human and societal functioning.

Rabbi Ken Spiro, researcher and lecturer at Aish HaTorah, notes in his class entitled “The Jewish Impact on Civilization” that in truth, Hammuarabi’s code is not really the template for a just society that historians make it out to be. In fact, while we estimate that the Torah was given in approximately 1312 BC, we can confidently claim that our forefathers were in fact abiding by Torah law more than four hundred years prior, before Hammurabi was even a twinkle in his father’s eye. Rabbi Spiro explains that despite the world’s frustration with and hesitation to accept Torah as truth, the basic tenets of the Torah dictate a means of maintaining law and order in society in a just and effective manner.

The influence of religion, particularly monotheism, on societal law is well founded. Many of the most important monuments, buildings, and documents in history bear verses from scripture as mission statements or odes to their fundamental function. One such verse appears in our Parsha. The pasuk (16:20) says, “Tzedek Tzedek Tirdof,” - justice, justice shall you pursue. We know that there is never an extra word in the Torah, and thus any time a word is repeated for emphasis, we wonder why this is so. The Ramban explains that the purpose of this double language is to exhort both the judge and the judged to doggedly pursue sound, ethical justice at all costs. Furthermore, the pasuk warns us: “Shoftim V’Shotrim Titein Licha B’Chol Shiarecha,” - appoint judges and magistrates throughout all of your cities (16:18). Rashi notes that it is not enough to have judges, or an existing set of laws; rather, the “shotrim” are meant to be like policemen, those who can enforce the law on a daily basis.

The need for law and order is a complex psychological concept. While human beings need structure, rules, and boundaries to survive, we also experience strong urges to break those rules. As evidenced by countless experiments in social psychology, including the work of Drs. Stanley Milgram[1], Philip Zimbardo[2], Wim Meeus, and Quinten Raaijmakers[3], human beings are simultaneously wired for both obedience and disobedience. This is crucial, because while law and order sustain society, sometimes one needs to question and attempt to challenge authority in order to make positive changes or prevent injustices from occurring.

At the same time, once rules are set, the urge to break them is also triggered. As Shlomo Hamelech, knower of all wisdom, writes in Mishlei (9:17), “Mayim Genuvim Yimtaku,”- stolen waters are sweeter. The literature on parenting and behavior management bears this out most clearly; when parents set a rule, they must know that they are immediately planting the seed of desire for that rule to be broken, and must respond accordingly. It is for this reason that the Torah’s conception of justice entertains a dialectic where laws must be set, despite the immediate reflexive urge to rebel that might develop as a result. In response, we appeal to the human instinct to avoid punishment, and apply a corresponding set of consequences for breaking those laws.

The Torah’s sensitivity to human error in pursuit of justice is clearly apparent throughout the pesukim at the beginning of the parsha. Judges are warned not to take bribes, and to try as much as possible not to demonstrate an iota of favoritism toward one party in a lawsuit, because, as Rashi (16:19) explains, if the defendant thinks the judge might be even slightly more persuaded to side with the prosecution, he will be significantly less motivated to plead his case - if he does not give up entirely.

This week’s parsha emphasizes that there is so much about human nature to take into account when it comes to making laws, and none but a Divine source could truly anticipate it all. While Hammurabi might have understood the need for black and white, you-break-it-you-bought-it justice, only the Torah could truly recognize and address the complexity of human nature that so often disrupts justice. Pursuing justice is a crucial prerequisite to enacting justice, because true justice is often quite elusive, even in an apparently just society. So often, peoples’ personal biases cloud their judgment, and centuries-long judicial systems founded on pride and prejudice become difficult to uproot. The need for a set of laws that can withstand these human faults and foibles is timeless. The Torah outlines a foolproof system that inherently recognizes all of the human frailties of which such a system needs to be wary. We are warned (twice) to pursue justice because if we simply are left to our own devices, chaos will ensue.

These days, it is all too easy to turn our noses up at the disorder and chaos in the world around us, the movements to disrupt and unhinge all sorts of established order. Yet, beyond the political and social ramifications of these issues, there is a simple lesson for each of us. The Torah and its dictates are meant to be followed by humans - fallible, biased, complicated beings influenced by reason and emotion sometimes in unequal parts. It can often be inconvenient to pursue justice, to consult poskin regarding wrongdoing we’ve experienced or perhaps perpetrated. Yet, to fall back on the safety net of “good enough” law and order is in fact a disordered approach according to the Torah. Though we might think, ‘if Mrs. Nextdoor does XYZ, it’s probably good enough for me,’ this is passive justice, and the Torah implores us to some degree to become activists.

This week, consider an area of Halacha, particularly with regard to Bein Adam L’Chavero in which you have faltered, or about which you have some confusion or lack of clarity. Though it can be vastly uncomfortable to ask certain questions or to search out answers when it is far easier to just “coast,” this is one way to truly seek out justice.

[1] Meeus, Wim HJ, and Quinten AW Raaijmakers. "Obedience in modern society: The Utrecht studies." Journal of Social Issues 51.3 (1995): 155-175.

[2] Bocchiaro, Piero, and Philip G. Zimbardo. "Defying unjust authority: An exploratory study." Current Psychology 29.2 (2010): 155-170.

[3] Milgram, Stanley, and Christian Gudehus. "Obedience to authority." (1978).

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