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Mishpatim: Do Not Curse a Judge

02/16/2023 05:07:39 PM


Many of us have been watching the news from Israel, as the new government has proposed laws and policy changes which have prompted weekly protests of over 100,000 Israelis, but few here in the US have a clear understanding what is really at stake.  As always, our Torah tradition offers insights.  It starts, but does not end, with judges.

This week the portion we read is called Mishpatim.  It includes many of the non-ritual aspects of Jewish law, including torts, damages,  criminal law, and legal procedure.  In several places, it demands integrity for leaders and judges.  They must not accept  bribes, or show favoritism.  Even if the majority calls for something wrong, the judges must not bow to peer pressure.  These commandments should be self-evident, but, human nature being what it is, the Torah feels the need to reinforce them.

The Torah also demands respect for judges.  Exodus 22:27 says “Elohim lo tikalel, v’nasi be’amcha lo taor,” which can be translated literally to mean “do not curse God, and do not curse a leader among your people.”  However, the Hebrew word Elohim can mean God, or can refer to human judges, and many commentators, including Rashi, interpret this to mean that there is an obligation to respect human judges, even though their integrity may lead them to take unpopular views.

Tension around those verses is what is playing out in Israel right now.  Israel’s president, Isaac Herzog, has warned that the country is “on the brink of constitutional and social collapse.” Israel does not have a constitution as the US does. It has “basic law” that is interpreted to ensure that its government remains democratic, but these laws are relatively easy to amend,  so it is more dependent on the good faith of its leaders. This conflict revolves judges, bribery and favoritism, and what a majority (or a loud minority) can impose on others.

One of the most incendiary issues is that the new Israeli government is seeking to sharply limit the power and independence of Israel’s justice system.  For the past 70 years, Israel's judges have been nominated by a committee that includes representatives of the Knesset ruling party and the opposition party, but is balanced by current members of the Supreme Court, legal scholars, and representatives of Israel's Bar Association.  This ensures that judges are appointed based on qualifications rather than solely their allegiance to a particular political patron.  However a new rule would change that by realigning the committee so that the ruling party in the Knesset would have much more control over who could be a judge. 

Another proposed law would reduce the power and autonomy of legal advisers within various government ministries.  These advisors ensure that these agencies follow the law, and call out conflicts of interest, nepotism and corruption.  These advisors would now serve at the will of the political appointees. A minister who was considering an illegal move could simply fire the watchdog. In general,  judges and legal advisers would have much stronger incentives and pressure to interpret the law in ways that favored the people who appointed them. 

A law that is of particular concern would allow the Knesset to override any decision of the Supreme Court by a simple majority. This policy has appeal for some of Bibi’s coalition partners, who are seeking to impose more extreme ultra-Orthodox religious practices on the larger country, or allow for  discrimination against minorities.  In the past, these types of efforts have often been thwarted by Israel’s Supreme Court because they are not in line with Israel’s basic law.  Now the Knesset could simply overrule any objections.

Avichai Mandelblit, who was previously Attorney General of Israel under Netanyahu, has suggested that Bibi himself has a conflict of interest.   His own trial for bribery charges is coming up, and these changes would make it easier for him to close and block any investigations. 

Another player who might benefit is Aryeh Deri, a leader of the ultra-orthodox Shas party which is key to the new government.  Twenty years ago, he was jailed for receiving bribes while serving as interior minister.  He returned to government and soon became embroiled in yet another, similar scandal.  Last year, he took a plea deal in which he agreed to admit to tax fraud, and pay a fine. Most significantly he agreed to resign from the government, in recognition of a law that bans  someone from serving in Knesset for 7 years if they are  guilty of certain types of offenses.   With the new election, Bibi made him a minister again. The court would not let him take office, citing the plea deal and the ban.  The Knesset would now be able to make an exception for Bibi's ally.

These laws, taken together, have the potential to cause changes in Israeli society, and undermine the confidence in Israel’s stability as a democracy.  Many are concerned that these changes will clear the way for policies that legalize discrimination against non-orthodox Jews, Israeli Arabs, and LGBTQ people.  For example, last week, a law was proposed imposing fines and prison terms for those engaging in non-Orthodox prayer anywhere near the Kotel, even in the "Robinson's Arch" area currently reserved for it. That version was shelved after widespread protest, but may yet return.

The issues go beyond how segments of society are treated.   Business leaders are concerned that the new rules will make it much easier for government officials to get away with corruption and bribery, knowing that they can fire anyone who reports it, and reduce the stability of Israeli society.  Even though Israel is currently one of the strongest economies in the world, many Israel-based startups and multinational companies that have, until now, stood by Israel out of principle, are now reducing their investments in Israel, out of business sense. One Palestinian activist said “The BDS movement should send Bibi flowers and a cake.  These moves have done more to discourage investment in Israel than anything we have tried.”  I am also concerned that Israel’s leaders are being shortsighted in not realizing that this course could damage relationships with even some of its strongest allies in the US government and Jewish community.

Parashat Mishpatim declares that judges and leaders may not show favor to one group over another, must be concerned for the well-being of those in the minority, and must be beyond reproach in their dealings, without even the appearance of bribery or self-dealing. Those who follow this path are worthy of respect.  As Rashi interprets the portion, there is a special deference required for judges, equivalent to the respect demanded of God.  I am therefore particularly troubled that some of those looking to denigrate judges and grease the wheels of corruption are those who claim to act with God’s approval. 

My support and love for Israel as a nation is not affected by my feelings about any one leader, or my disagreement with a particular policy.  I continue to say the prayer for God to protect Israel and guide its leaders, all the more necessary at this moment.   As Israelis gather in the tens of thousands every week to express their shock and dismay, I see the continued presence of social protest as a sign of Israel's strength,  and even cause for hope.  Those of us who do not live in Israel do not have a vote, but we are not voiceless. I encourage our continued support for those within Israel who seek to keep it on the path of justice.

Sun, April 21 2024 13 Nisan 5784