Judges and Justice

שֹׁפְטִ֣ים וְשֹֽׁטְרִ֗ים תִּֽתֶּן־לְךָ֙ בְּכָל־שְׁעָרֶ֔יךָ אֲשֶׁ֨ר יְהוָ֧ה אֱלֹהֶ֛יךָ נֹתֵ֥ן לְךָ֖ לִשְׁבָטֶ֑יךָ וְשָׁפְט֥וּ אֶת־הָעָ֖ם מִשְׁפַּט־צֶֽדֶק׃

“You shall put judges and officers in all your gates that YHWH, your God, is giving you, for your tribes, and they shall judge the people: judgement with justice.
Deuteronomy 16:18
Friedman, Richard Elliott (2012-09-18). Commentary on the Torah

Richard Elliot Friedman’s modern commentary on this Pasuk (verse), the very first of the Parshah known as Shoftim (Judges) read this week, notes that the Torah goes out of its way to mention that it isn’t enough to simply establish the judges and officers – their judgements must be “just” (the Hebrew word used is Tzedek – justice or righteousness).

The wisdom of the Torah regarding human nature is profound, and both intuition and scientific research indicate that indeed human beings are so obsessed with fairness that they will readily deny themselves profit to ensure that cheaters are punished. Our senses of what is fair and just develop very early on – many parents will recognize the conversation with a child about what is or isn’t fair between siblings, for example.

When we perceive someone to acting towards us in a way that is not just or fair, we have strong emotional reactions (just like our children, only moderated by the norms of adult life), and research also indicates that we are highly likely to remember instances in which we feel wronged, and highly unlikely to recall the details of events in which we ourselves wronged another. This proclivity to rush to judgement about others intentions, casting blame in our effort to understand being treated unfairly, is why societies interested in justice have to establish systems of judges and laws.

We vest power in our judges, and elevate them because we trust them to interpret the law fairly and to reward and punish based on a just system. In every case there is a winner and a loser – 50% of those interacting with judges have the opportunity to feel wronged. The verse above goes out of its way to be clear that judgements must be rendered with justice – if they are not, the trust we put in our judges and in our society will be broken, and we move further, not closer, to a just society.

Parents and teachers are often put in the position of judging our children’s cases. Gesher’s recent implementation of two systems of justice is designed to help teachers and children take responsibility for their actions and choices, and to help find solutions for thorny problems that feel fair and just. Rodef Shalom, beginning in the Middle School, offers students a Jewish lens with which to approach constructive conflict. Responsive Classroom, designed to be implemented first throughout the Elementary School, offers developmentally appropriate language and practices that empower children to own their actions and their learning, and to respond constructively when inevitable mistakes occur.

We look forward to sharing more about these powerful new approaches to upholding justice in our school, and wish you a joyful and restorative Shabbat.

Shabbat Shalom,