Sedra of the Week: Shoftim

Sedra of the Week: Shoftim

Ariel Abel is rabbi of the Liverpool Old Hebrew Congregation

By Rabbi Ariel Abel

Sedra-of-the-week-300x208This week’s Sedra starts with the concept of judges being present at every city gate.

This concept of the “judge by the gate” reappears in the Eshet Chayil song in Proverbs which reads: ‘Her husband is known in the gates, where he sits with the elders of the land’.

It was these elders who gathered with Boaz to ensure that Ruth the Moabite was restored to a rightful inheritance in Bethlehem.

The idea of justice by the gates may refer to the modern concept of access to justice, promoted in this country by Lord Woolf who introduced the famous reforms to speed up the justice system in 1999.

However, recent cuts to legal aid only threaten to distance justice from those who cannot afford to use judicial process.

However, justice is not automatically accessible, as testimony usually depends on the actions of two witnesses.

Furthermore, interpretation of the law paradoxically requires going “neither to the right nor to the left” from what Torah teaches – and traditional sources are left to work out what that means. The principles of Torah interpretation according to rabbinic Judaism lie in the hands of the rabbis to transmit and apply.

The Samaritans disagree; they follow the ancient method described in the Torah that the priest must interpret the Torah, and that anyone usurping that role will fail to arrive at a lawful decision.

Idolatry, sorcery and royalty all make an appearance in this week’s reading.

The neglectful killer who took less than adequate care and committed manslaughter is allotted a city of refuge to run to.

The theme of attack and revenge continues on to a manual for conducting warfare.

The final section describes a ceremony designed to place equal blame on the governments of two cities that between them cannot determine who is uniquely responsible for the death of an itinerant traveller.

The ceremony includes the washing of hands, which gave rise to the expression of washing one’s hand of responsibility.
The Torah clearly sees itself relevant to every aspect of life, even the most discomfiting: manslaughter, war, homelessness. In each case, the community’s spiritual leadership must stand at the helm, shoulder responsibility and give guidance to the people. The hermetic divide of religious and non-religious roles in society is not acceptable to Torah.

There must be the right sort of synergy between the two for mutual benefit.

Ariel Abel is rabbi of Liverpool’s Princes Road synagogue

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