Shabbat Shoftim

Candles Friday September 9th 6:54pm
Havdalah 10th 7:47

This week the Torah we read, Shoftim, contains the main elements of the Jewish Judicial process.

It includes the important proviso that if there is anything unclear in Jewish law, any unresolved disputes or new issues that have to be decided upon, one approaches the Judicial authorities for a binding “learned opinion.” It is, in its way, like having a Supreme Court.

The Torah suggests that such a court be made up either of Priests or Judges. Both types of were entrusted by the Torah with the management of the law after Moses. Over time both priests and biblical Judges, one representing religious authority, the other the civil, changed. Either because they were not longer necessary (the Temple was destroyed) or superseded (by kings).

Two thousand years ago the role of deciding on law and custom, was transferred to the great Talmudic rabbis. They included brilliant men of fierce integrity, knowledge and authority and their decisions have remained the core of our constitution. The Torah if you like is the constitution. What the rabbis introduced was like the amendments to the constitution.

Over time, as we were scattered, the authority of a single institution disappeared. Each community and its rabbis made their own decisions as circumstances arose. All based of course on or derived from the constitution. But adding according to custom and circumstance.

Now we no longer have a single authority. However, the constitution remains intact. But nowadays we have no final Court of Appeal. And that is what explains all the differences even amongst the most Orthodox. In one way the lack of unanimity and authority is confusing and complicated. But in another, we have the advantage of variety and alternatives.

It is now up to us as to decide which authority we choose to obey or which community we join. And indeed the Talmud approved of this, saying that each person should “Get their own rabbi,” that is, someone to consult. But they also said one should not just go from one rabbi to another until one gets the answer one is looking for!