5 Elul 5781

August 13, 2021

Why would the Torah have a whole section dealing with the appointment of judges? For a society to be functional and cohesive, it needs rules and laws. Yet if the rules are static, progress, whether economic, social, or ethical, may be impeded. Our Torah foresaw the need for future change.

In our portion, Shoftim (Deuteronomy 16:18-21:19), we’re urged to appoint judges: “You shall set up judges and law enforcement officials for yourself in all your cities that Adonai, your God, is giving you, for your tribes, and they shall judge the people with righteous judgment” (16:18). And if a new, complicated issue arises that’s beyond the purview of a local judge: “If a matter eludes you in judgment, between blood and blood, between judgment and judgment, or between injury and injury, words of dispute in your cities, then you shall arise and go up to the place Adonai, your God, chooses (Jerusalem). And you shall come to the Levites and the Kohanim (Priests) and to the judge who will be in those days, and you shall inquire, and they will tell you the words of judgment” (17:8-10). The words, “who will be in those days” are superfluous. Who else are we going to approach, dead judges?

Rather, “those days” are written for a reason, for if the mindset and practices of the masses have changed, so should the law. This month back on August 18, 1920, the 19th amendment giving women the right to vote was ratified. It was the first step toward women’s equality. While the Declaration of Independence stated that “All men are created equal,” it meant only free, landowning men and certainly not slaves or women. When Susan B. Anthony voted in violation of the law, she was proud to be arrested, for she wanted to make the point that the time had come, and this law needed to be changed.

This caveat, “And you shall come … to the judge who will be in those days,” is empowering. It frees us from antiquated statutes, allowing us to create a society that meets the needs of its people. In 1845, rabbis attending the Frankfort Synod at the early stages in Reform Judaism in Germany declared that women count in a minyan, a formalization of a customary Reform practice dating back to 1811. It took Conservative Judaism until 1973 to count women in a minyan. Orthodox Judaism is still not there, but they have made strides, with more and more synagogues now having women rabbis and presidents.

The idea of progressive thought, of the amendment of the law, was seeded thousands of years ago in the Torah. Rules don’t have to be static. The laws serve the people, and as society evolves, so should the law.