Worthy Judges

Shofetim By :  Matthew Berkowitz Former Director of Israel Programs, JTS Posted On Sep 10, 2005 / 5765

This week opened with the mournful news of the passing of Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist. While we subscribe to a wide spectrum of views with regard to his decisions, he was undoubtedly a brilliant legal mind. Of his leadership on the Supreme Court, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg noted, “Chief Justice William Rehnquist was the fairest, most efficient boss I have ever had . . . he cautioned that a judge steps out of the proper judicial role most conspicuously and dangerously when the judge flinches from a decision that is legally right because the bottom line is not the one ‘the home crowd wants.’ I hold him in highest regard and affection and will miss him greatly.” Justice Ginsburg’s tribute to Chief Justice Rehnquist speaks volumes about the extent to which a judge must be fiercely deliberate, independent, and fair in his or her decisions. Truly, we have lost a leader in that respect. Appropriately enough, our parashah this week, Parashat Shof’tim, addresses the responsibility of appointing worthy judges and, in so doing, raises a curious juxtaposition at the outset of the narrative.

The Torah reading opens, “You shall appoint judges and officials from 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 nor take bribes, for bribery blinds the eyes of the discerning” (Deuteronomy 16:18-19). Curiously enough, after the Torah’s legislation concerning the appointment of judges, we read immediately of a law that appears to us a non sequitur: “You shall not set up an idolatrous post next to the altar of God” (Deuteronomy 16:21). What is the connection between the appointment of judges and a warning against idolatry?

A Talmudic sage, Reish Lakeish, offers one answer. He taught, “One who appoints a judge that is unfit is as though he had planted in Israel a post sacred to an idol . . . Rav Ashi added, ‘and if such an appointment is made where a disciple of the wise is chosen, it is as though a post was planted next to God’s Altar’ ” (BT Sanhedrin 7b). The rabbis acknowledge the difficulty of choosing responsible and worthy judges. An irresponsible judge is as an idolater – neglecting the command to pursue justice. And judges who take their work to heart bring the Presence of God into their midst.

The challenge before our nation became all the more complex this week with the need to fill two vacancies on the Supreme Court. While the weighty decision rests first and foremost in the hands of the President, it is one whose ramifications are shared by all Americans. Thankfully, we live in a country that reveres justice. The checks and balances of our government will ensure the selection of two individuals who are eminently worthy of this honor. In this week of national loss, we hope and pray that our new justices will continually plant sacred posts by God’s Altar – bringing the Presence of God into their midst by judging fairly, knowledgeably, and with a deep respect for the democratic pillars of the United States.

The publication and distribution of “A Taste of Torah” commentary have been made possible by a generous gift from Sam and Marilee Susi.