Engage All Texts
At a time when Jewish influence has increased, how do we approach unethical commandments?
Even more challenging to progressive sensibilities, judges and officers were expected to enforce religious law, not just civil and criminal law. In a stark articulation of this requirement, Sefer HaHinuch, a medieval commentary on the 613 commandments, explains the job of the shoftim and shotrim as follows: "To appoint judges and officers who should enforce the observance of the mitzvot of the Torah, and should return to it, against their will, those who stray from the path of truth...For with this method we can establish our religious system of law, while fear of our officers and judges is cast over the mass population."
According to Sefer HaHinuch, the commandment to appoint judges and officers is aimed at establishing a society ruled by religious law with enforcement that generates fear among its citizens. Hardly a pre-modern form of constitutional liberalism!
Dealing with Unethical Teachings
None of this is new, of course. We are all aware that when we turn to Jewish tradition for teachings that inspire us to work for social justice, we often turn a blind eye to texts that can inspire the opposite: religious paternalism, inequality, brutal forms of capital punishment, and yes, even race-based genocide.
But is this okay? Can we credibly cite Jewish teachings that encourage a better world when there exist parallel teachings that could lead to a worse one? I think yes, but only with these conditions: that we are honest about which texts we are excluding from active duty and that we study not only those traditions that promote our social agendas, but those that contradict it--because neglected texts left unattended have a nasty way of coming back to life in more virulent forms.
A Modern Approach
Historically, Jews have not had to worry too much about our racist and anti-social texts because we, as a corporate entity, have not had power. The existence of the State of Israel and the influence wielded by Jews in America and elsewhere in the Diaspora has changed this and upped the ethical ante.
Parashat Shoftim is the perfect reminder that scattered amongst Judaism's most noble and righteous teachings are passages that are anachronistic at best and immoral at worst. We must identify these teachings--biblical, rabbinic, medieval, and modern. As we engage texts that inspire us to pursue social justice, we must, at the same time, engage those that can inspire violence and oppression.
Whether we condemn these texts or merely note their difficulty, they are our responsibility. If we ignore them and fail to forge communal opinions about them, we risk the possibility of them being resurrected and reclaimed.
Perhaps we can see this consciousness-raising re-examination as the fulfillment of another famous command in Parashat Shoftim: U'Viarta HaRa mi'Kirbekha -- You shall purge the evil from your midst.
Did you like this article? MyJewishLearning is a not-for-profit organization.