Shalom uvrachah! This week’s parashah, Shoftim, is the first parashah during which I served as rabbi of Shaarey Tphiloh. I would like to express my excitement at this important anniversary!

The Torah reads (Devarim 17:8-11): If there arise a matter too hard for thee in judgment, between blood and blood, between plea and plea, and between stroke and stroke, even matters of controversy within thy gates… And thou shalt come unto the priests the Levites, and unto the judge that shall be in those days… And thou shalt do according to… the law which they shall teach thee, and according to the judgment which they shall tell thee, thou shalt do; thou shalt not turn aside from the sentence which they shall declare unto thee, to the right hand, nor to the left.

These verses serve as the basis for rabbinical authority. In the absence of priests in a Temple, or of a Sanhedrin (great rabbinical court) in the Temple precincts in Jerusalem, it is the rabbi of each community that fills the role described above.

Herein lies a deep divide between traditional Jewish teachings and fundamental democratic ideals. American democracy demands a strict separation of religion and state. Religion is a personal matter, not to be governed by the state in any way. State institutions are to be utterly secular. Clergy are forbidden by law to demand from the pulpit that their congregants vote for any particular candidate, although they may express their personal views elsewhere, like any other citizen.

According to the language of the Written Torah and of the rabbinic literature, religion is the state. At the very least, religion is law. The Hebrew word for religion, dat, means “law.” The Torah is the law, and it is given by God and interpreted by rabbis.

How, then, do we reconcile our ideals of American democracy with those of traditional Judaism? What is an appropriate and halachically valid way of staying true to the demands of the Torah as well as our values of freedom?

The answer lies in both respecting and limiting the authority of the local rabbi. The rabbi’s ruling is only binding in the sense that the Torah describes when it comes as an answer to a pointed shaylah, a request for halachic instruction. It is the rabbi’s responsibility to help the questioner weigh all relevant aspects of their issue; to treat requests for instruction as chances to listen, ask, discuss, and explore.

Today, a rabbi is a spiritual guide and counselor, as well as a teacher. My ordination parchment says “yoreh yoreh be’issur veheter,” literally meaning “he shall teach, he shall teach on matters of what is forbidden and permitted.” It does not say “yetzaveh yetzaveh,” “he shall command, he shall command.”    We are free citizens of a democratic society. We value freedom of thought and freedom of choice. We are also committed Jews, bound by Torah. We are free to think carefully and thoroughly, to ask questions, and to weigh the issues at hand, and to come to an honest understanding of what the Torah demands of us.

Shabbat shalom!

Comments are closed.


Visit the
Shaarey Tphiloh Facebook Page

ST Facebook image link

Upcoming Events