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August 16, 2007

Being Our Own Gatekeepers

Parshat Shoftim (Deuteronomy 16:18-21:9)

http://www.jewishjournal.com/torah_portion/article/being_our_own_gatekeepers_20070817

"Judges and officers shall you place at all your gates."

Thus begins our parsha, which is one of the richest in rulings, teachings and commandments, and which is therefore concerned about enforcement. Rashi teaches us the difference between the two functionaries: Judges decide ambiguities and dictate the correct path to take, and officers are the police -- in Rashi's language they enforce the rulings of the judges with sticks and whips until the people accept the ruling of the judge.

This is the part where most of us start to squirm. Most Jews today reject the notion of an external authority that can compel behavior. Even (most of) those Jews who accept the binding authority of our tradition are offended by the idea of mitzvah police. We have seen what the combination of religious and police authority has done in some Islamic societies and what it sometimes threatens to do in Israel, and it is not attractive. We love our teachers, but would not want to see them armed.

The Torah does not seem to share such qualms. A few verses later into our parsha we are taught: "You shall act in accordance with the instructions given you and the instructions handed down to you; you must not deviate from whatever they tell, either right or left." On this verse the Babylonian Talmud (also brought by Rashi) offers: "Even if they tell you that right is left and left is right."

When religious rulings fly in the face of reason, what are we to do? Deuteronomy is clear: If the Torah says it, it must be moral and reasonable, even if we can't see it.

This, of course, is not the last word on the subject. The Jerusalem Talmud has just the opposite interpretation: Listen to your judges, unless they tell you right is left and left is right. But if their teachings, rulings and interpretations are unreasonable, they are not God's word. If there is a teaching that, after careful analysis, is immoral or illogical, we must have erred in our understanding of the teaching and must find an alternative.

Interestingly, the biblical accounts of the life of Abraham affirm both of these dispensations. Genesis 22 (familiar from the Rosh Hashanah reading) extols Abraham for suspending his own sense of morality to offer his son Isaac as a sacrifice, while Genesis 18 sees an Abraham boldly challenging God to act in accordance with God's own moral world: "Will the judge of the world not act justly?"

Shall we have a show of hands to see how many prefer the Babylonian Talmud and how many prefer the Jerusalem, or Abraham 1 to Abraham 2?

Alas, that would be wrongheaded. Judaism embraces both of these traditions, contradictory though they are. Throughout the generations, some Jewish philosophers have insisted that everything Jewish is logical and compelling, while others have maintained that God is not bound by the human limitations of reason or even ethics.

One way around this dilemma is to follow the path taken by every president: appoint judges who will rule the way we want them to. Then, we hope, we will never have to have our loyalty to Torah challenged by our own sense of right and wrong. But who would want a tradition that only teaches (and demands) things we already agree with? This would be not only pointless, but boring as well.

The mystics remind us that "at your gates" can mean the gates to our bodies, that is, our ears, eyes, mouth and other organs. We are bidden to have strict scrutiny as to what goes in and what goes out. We can think of this as a sort of airport security for the soul. There are some innocent things, like gels and liquids that are fine in one place, but potentially dangerous if carried past the gate. Some foods are best left outside the mouth, some words best left inside.

The judges and officers we appoint for our eyes must be especially vigilant. Advertisers bombard us with images that objectify and debase, and we are obliged to consider carefully where and how to look. Jewish law has an important category called hezek re'iyah, or illicit looking. When we invade someone's privacy, or laugh at someone's embarrassing faux pas, we've let something in that should have been left out.

On the other hand, horrific images of human cruelties, on the television and on the streets, can deaden our senses so much that we stop seeing what we must see. A little personal police action to make us open our gates might be welcome here.

For these gates, we need to be the judges and officers and bouncers ourselves. We need to remind ourselves constantly -- and, in our synagogues and other sacred convocations, remind each other -- that not every thought should be spoken, not every joke should be repeated, and not every image should be shared. For these gates, the weapons we must deploy are not sticks and whips, but reason, consideration, and compassion.

Rabbi Dan Shevitz serves Congregation Mishkon Tephilo in Venice.

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