This week, August 14th, the Torah lectionary portion is Shoftim (Judges) (Deuteronomy 16:18 – 21:9). It is primarily concerned with different strata of leaders. Interestingly, this section does not describe so much what the leaders should do, but focuses on the ways that leaders frequently, maybe naturally, abuse their powers and seeks to prevent those injustices. We will address the centralized figures first, and then return to the local judges that the parashah is named after.
The author understands that the Israelites want to have a king like other nations. Concentrating power in one person is, in itself, dangerous for justice, so the actions of the king are circumscribed immediately to prevent the baser temptations of power. The king must not acquire many horses, and especially must not return to Egypt, the land of slavery, to acquire those horses. The king must not acquire many wives so that his heart will not turn away. And the king must not greatly increase wealth (Deuteronomy 17:16-17).
However, even after God’s warning that anyone with the power that comes from being a monarch will automatically become abusive (1 Samuel 8:10-18), the people begged for a king. Soon, King Solomon was importing 666 talents (about 25 tons) of gold a year (1 Kings 9:28), importing thousands of horses from Egypt (1 Kings 10:26-29), and married or held in his harem hundreds of women who led him to worship other gods and construct temples for those other gods within eyesight of the temple to the God of Israel (1 Kings 11:4-10). Solomon was exactly the kind of king that Deuteronomy warned about.
The Levitical priests were forbidden to have a portion in the land or have any inheritance. The temptation for priests would be to use their position to accrue wealth and acquire whatever they want of the offerings that people brought. This was precisely what was prohibited in Deuteronomy 18:1-5. In a time when land wealth was everything, they were not to acquire land, nor transmit it to their children nor receive it from their fathers. The priests were only to receive food by helping the people worship God. They received a generous portion, to be sure, but there was to be no possibility of hoarding transferable wealth (Deuteronomy 18:1-5).
If a Levite lived in a walled city, he could sell his house (without any land outside the walls, because they were forbidden to own any) and live off the proceeds (Deuteronomy 18:6-8) as he ministered. Priests could sell homes in cities, but could not acquire riches. Put another way, the religious leaders should not have any sustainable wealth, not be able to acquire any such wealth, and only have daily provision that came from helping people worship God.
Sadly, taking whatever and as much as they wanted from the offerings was exactly the sort of narcissistic abuse of worship and authority that some priests practiced (1 Samuel 2:12-17, 22-25). Note also that the wicked priests also used their power to sexually abuse their female coworkers (2 Samuel 2:22). Far too many religious leaders today build wealth from offerings and/or sexually abuse their coworkers or congregants.
The prophet was a unique institution that sought to make sure that God would have a human voice with which to speak to the people. The temptation here, of course, was/is to abuse the trust that people have and say anything that grants the “prophet” power or authority over others. In setting out this office, God orders capital punishment for the prophet who speaks of his own accord in the name of God. Telling people lies in God’s name was incredibly dangerous then (Jeremiah 28), as now with COVID-vaccine denialism, among other deceptions.
These three were the centralized forms of power to which people could appeal if they did not find justice locally (Deuteronomy 17:8-9). But the Torah portion opens by insisting that people should be able to easily find justice locally:
“Judges and police shall be appointed in [and available] in all gates of towns… and they shall judge the people with righteous judgement” (Deuteronomy 16:18).
The Talmud (BT Sanhedrin 16b) and midrash (Sifrei Devarim 144:1-5) insist that the work of judges and the police must be available to people at all levels of society, officers, and geographic location. Their work to bring righteous judgement cannot be denied to anyone. So the judges and police should be in all the gates of every town and there should be no area where people live that does not have equitable access to the justice system.
God knows that humans with a little bit of power tend to oppress others unfairly, and so warns about the temptations for judges and police. Three things are forbidden to the judges and police: 1) do not pervert justice, 2) do not be partial and 3) do not accept a bribe.
Working backwards on the list, we know that bribery, inducements, kickbacks and financial “favors” render a justice system completely unable to live up to its name. But the command for police and judges to “not be partial” is an inexact translation. The Hebrew says “לֹא תַכִּיר פָּנִים Lo takir panim” <<You shall not recognize faces>>. The LORD understands that humans are tempted to make snap judgments based on what different faces look like. Further, God knows that judges or police making judgements based off whether they recognize themselves in the face or skin of the other is something that must be avoided categorically.
We do not need to wait thousands of years for Critical Race Theory to be drafted. Scripture already knows and testifies that those with power and charged with upholding justice tend to abuse the power.
One of the most dangerous vectors of that abuse is the tendency of police and judges to recognize some faces and not recognize others. The inclination to recognize faces, to be especially kind to people we know and trust, and to be hostile to people whose features make us uncomfortable is insidious, and scripture categorically forbids it.
We are left with the command to not pervert justice. If bribes and being partial to certain faces are also proscribed in the verse, what could not perverting justice be referencing? Jewish commenters noticed the apparent redundancy and understood that nothing perverts justice like unjust judges and police (Sifrei Devarim 144:7). If judges and police are to be present to give righteous justice to all (Deuteronomy 16:18) and they are to pursue “justice squared” (Deuteronomy 18:20), a dishonest, racist, corrupt police officer or judge distorts the whole justice system immediately.
God knows and scripture confirms that power is dangerous, and humans like to control things. Kings like to get rich; religious leaders like to control resources and people; prophetic folks loved to be listened to and trusted; and judges and police do not always provide justice without corruption or partiality. When each of these things happens, there are consequences for the normal people living under their power.
The good news is that thousands of years ago, God gave scripture to God’s community. We who have eyes to see and ears to hear can learn to look out for impediments to justice from God’s words, and follow the path toward wisdom and wholeness.
We must ensure that those in power do not succumb to human weakness, depriving those in their charge of the justice that God so passionately wants for all.