The next Torah portion is called “Shoftim” and it means “Judges.” It goes from Deut 16.18 to 21.9. In Deut 16.18 it says, “You shall appoint for yourself judges.” This was the authority to rule and establish a judicial system and these judges were to be appointed by the people (not God, or the king or a prophet). These were to be selected in “all your gates” meaning towns.
Some have suggested that the Sanhedrin goes back to the time of Moses, but these verses shows that there was no central Sanhedrin in existence. Why select judges? The first historical record of the body known as the Sanhedrin was during the administration of Aulus Gabinius, a Roman statesman, general and supporter of Pompey. He was a Consul of the Roman republic in 58 B.C. According to Josephus he organized five “Synedra” in 57 B.C. because a Roman administration was not concerned with Jewish religious affairs unless sedition is suspected. Only after the destruction of the Temple was the Sanhedrin made up only of “sages” (see the article ‘Sanhedrin” by Wikipedia). Its origin can be traced back to about 200 B.C. and the Hasmonean Period. There is no mention of this body in the Tanak.
However, there are some who believe this body is established in portions of Scripture like this one, but that is rabbinical interpretation. The rabbis considered themselves “Shoftim” since the destruction of the Temple. They made rulings in the Oral Law and this was seen as their main responsibility. In modern times, Messianic leaders have raised themselves up following the rabbinic model. This is a mistake. Yehovah is clear about the application of this and the modern day application is inappropriate in some cases.
Deut 16.20 is a very important verse. It says in part, “Justice, justice you shall pursue.” There is an article called “Judges Reflect on Judaism’s Influence on Justice” by Eric Fingerhut. It appeared in Jewish World Review, February 10, 2000. It has some good points and we would like to quote from some it now. The article says, “Justice, justice you shall pursue. Those words from Deuteronomy serve as somewhat of a motto for Jews involved in the legal profession, as a panel of federal judges and the U.S. solicitor general recounted on recently at the International Association of Jewish Lawyers and Jurists’ annual meeting in Washington. All said, in varying ways, that the Jewish view of justice, as set forth in the Torah and other Jewish sources, has guided their outlook on the law and how it should be interpreted and implemented.”
“Solicitor General Seth Waxman, whose job it is to argue the federal government’s position on cases before the U.S. Supreme Court, said that in having a “Department of Justice” and not a “ministry of laws” like other countries, the United States demonstrates that it understands the concept of justice as outlined in Judaism. “No one pursues laws, justice is the ideal we are commanded to pursue” he said.”
“That concept of justice is outlined in a midrash Waxman cited. It says that the world could not exist if God ruled only by strict laws; otherwise, the first transgression would bring about the end of the world. But if God ruled only by compassion, there would be too much evil in the world. Combine the two, and one gets what Waxman called the “essence of Judaism”-the marriage of strict law and compassion. The same ideal is set forth in Hillel’s famous words: “Do not do unto others that which you would not have them do to you-that is the whole Torah, the rest is commentary.” Waxman said that while that phrase is a “distillation of Judaism” it also is “an expression of justice in its loftiest form.”
“That is why, Waxman said, the solicitor general’s office credo has always been not to achieve “victory” in a case, but to achieve justice, and that “the government wins its point whenever justice is done in the courts.” The judges who followed Waxman on the panel, “Judging and Judaism: The Influence of a Judge’s Jewish Background and Jewish Values on the Adjudicative Process” all seemed to agree implicitly or explicitly with Waxman’s view of justice through a Jewish filter.” The article went on but we have got the essence of what the concept is.
Why is justice repeated in this verse? Because we are to pursue justice with justice. The “means” as well as the “ends” must be just. Now, justice in Hebrew is “tzedek” and it also means “righteous.” This concept is also related to the concept of “Kedusha” because finding equitable solutions to complex practical solutions is part of the pursuit of justice. You don’t have to be a court to pursue justice. We wear several “hats.” We adhere to the letter of the law, but we should safeguard the spirit (essence) of the law as well. Once a “case” has ended according to a procedure prescribed, ask ourselves “was justice served?” If not, seek the “spirit or essence of the law.”
In this Torah portion we will have five positions or functions described. We will have “Shoftim” (Judges) in 16.18, “Shoterim” (officers) in 16.18, the “Melek” (King) in 17.15, the “Kohen” (priest) in 18.1 and the “Navi” (prophet) in 18.15. A judge is appointed before a king and it is to be done in a just way. They were not rush to judgment, but they were not to ignore wrong doing by rich, powerful and popular people either. Honest judgments are only possible when extra details are set aside, and one has the patience to hear all sides before rendering a decision.
In Deut 16.19 bribery is discussed. It has nothing to do with justice because it blinds the eyes of the wise, and bribery can come in many forms. Any outside area can side-track us if we are not alert. Beauty says nothing about what kind of wife or mother a woman will be. Just because someone is rich doesn’t mean they are intelligent or discerning. Being poor doesn’t mean you are innocent either. We should not look for ways to accuse people, but we should judge on the side of virtue at first.
A judge must be fearless on behalf of justice, and truth is determined by God’s word and commandments. The death penalty is appropriate in some cases, but only after multiple eye witnesses and no contradictions (Deut 17.1-7). If there are no eye witnesses, or only one witness, there can be no death penalty (17.6). We cannot incriminate a person in a capital case with his own testimony.
Deut 17.8-10 talks about lower courts that should be established, with a higher court of appeals. An appeal process was available. The kohen (priest) is involved here in verse 9 because there is an element in this that is presented before the altar of God (religious law). Judges were appointed by the people. A wise man can qualify as along as he knows the Torah. Paul alludes to this in 1 Cor 6.1-7 when he talks about a Beit Din (court) in a congregations and asks whether there were competent people in their congregation to sit on a court to judge matters there. Their power comes from the people (Deut 16.18).
In Part 15 we will pick up here and examine Deut 17.8-13 to see whether these verses give the rabbis authority to make and decide law and how this relates to a believer in Yeshua.