Justice as a Characteristic of the Land of Israel
You should appoint judges and officers in all of the gates that Hashem will give to your tribes. And they shall administer an honest judgment for the nation. (Devarim 16:18)
This pasuk introduces the first section of the parasha. This section discusses the appointment of judges and the administration of justice. The courts are a fundamental Torah institution. The Torah includes religious and civil law. It is the role of the courts to decide legal questions and to resolve civil conflicts between litigants.
The above passage instructs us to appoint judges for each “gate”. The term “gate” refers to a city. In other words, the pasuk directs us to place a court in every city. Maimonides discusses this obligation in his Mishne Torah. He explains that we are required to place a court in every city and in every district. However, this requirement only applies in the Land of Israel. This raises an obvious question. Courts are also required when Bnai Yisrael are in exile. In exile, legal questions arise and disputes occur and these issues are to be decided by a Torah court. In the Land of Israel, we are required to establish an extensive court system. How extensive a court system is required in exile? Maimonides does not explicitly address this issue. His silence on this issue implies that the answer should be obvious. What is this obvious answer?
As we have explained, the function of the courts is to resolve legal questions and disputes. Apparently, Maimonides maintains that this function determines the form of the court system in exile. The system must be sufficient to serve this function. In some countries of our exile, Jews have concentrated in a few cities. These cities require courts. Other cities that do not have significant Jewish communities do not require their own courts. In other countries, we have settled across the breadth of the Land. In such countries, a more extensive court system is required. The magnitude of the system is determined by function. The court system must be adequate to serve its function. We can now understand Maimonides’ reason for not discussing the specific perimeters of the court system in exile. There are no specific perimeters. The system must be adequate to function.
This suggests a problem. The system of courts in the Land of Israel is very different from the system in exile. In exile, the number of courts required in any country is determined by practical considerations. Specifically, the number must be adequate to serve the population. This is not the requirement regarding the Land of Israel. The Torah requires that the court system of the Land of Israel extend to every district and city. This implies that the placement of courts in the Land of Israel is not determined solely by function. In other words, even in an instance in which two cities are in close proximity of one another and their combined population could easily be served a single court, each city requires its own court. Maimonides explains that in the Land of Israel, a community with 120 males must have its own court. Clearly, justice would not suffer through consolidating a number of small communities and appointing a single court for this consolidated group! Why is this plethora of courts required in the Land of Israel?
In order to answer this question, it is helpful to consider an interesting passage in our parasha. In the midst of the discussion of the courts, the Torah inserts an important pasuk. The Torah instructs us to pursue justice vigorously. This persistent commitment to justice assures that we will possess the Land that Hashem has given us. This passage makes an unequivocal connection between the operation of the courts and our right to the Land of Israel. Our right to live in the Land is contingent on our pursuit of justice. Failure to institute a system of justice results in a forfeiture of our right to the Land. This relationship can be explained on two levels. On the simple level, the Torah is telling us that we cannot define our service to Hashem through religious devotion alone. A Jew that defines observance exclusively through ritual is not Torah observant. Torah observance requires adherence to the religious and civil law. The Torah is giving us a warning. If we limit our observance to the ritual law, we are not living according to the percepts of the Torah. This disregard of the Torah will be punished by exile.
The pasuk also has a deeper meaning. In order to identify this meaning, we must understand an important concept. The Land of Israel is endowed with sanctity. Other lands do not have sanctity. What is the meaning of sanctity in this context? What makes the Land of Israel sacred? The sanctity is a consequence of the special laws that apply to the Land. There are many mitzvot that apply exclusively to the Land of Israel. We give tithes from the produce of the Land. We observe the Sabbatical and Jubilee years in the Land of Israel. The many mitzvot that apply exclusively to the Land of Israel endow the land with a special sanctity. There are no special laws attached to any other land. Therefore, other lands are not endowed with sanctity.
One of the mitzvot that is unique to the Land of Israel is the court system. In the Land of Israel, the courts are not merely the administrator of justice. The courts create a relationship between justice and the Land; they endow the Land with the characteristic of being a land of justice. Let us contrast the courts of the Land of Israel with the courts in exile. In exile, there is no relationship between the courts and the land. The courts administer justice. The courts are not an aspect or reflection of the unique nature of the country. In contrast, the courts in the Land of Israel are not merely the instrument of justice. The Land of Israel must be associated with justice to the extent that justice is a characteristic of the land. A connection must be made between the land and justice. How is this connection created? It is created through the placement of a court in every city and district.
We can now understand the deeper meaning of the passage. The pasuk informs us that possession of the Land is contingent upon the administration of justice. This is because possession of the Land is dependent upon respecting its sanctity. The court system and justice are an expression of this sanctity. Failure to act with justice demonstrates disregard for the Land’s sanctity. Therefore, it is punished with exile.
The Authority of the Prophet and the Authority of the Scholar
Hashem your G-d will appoint for you a prophet, like me, from among you. You should obey him. (Devarim 18:15)
This pasuk introduces the Torah’s discussion of prophets. The Torah explains that Hashem will appoint prophets after Moshe. These prophets will provide leadership and guidance. We are commanded to obey these prophets.
This passage has a second meaning. This message is explained by Rav Yitzchak Zev Soloveitchik Zt”l. Rav Soloveitchik was brought the manuscript of a sefer – a book – to review. The author sought Rav Soloveitchik’s critique of his work. Rav Soloveitchik reviewed the manuscript and after this review told the author that one specific statement should be removed from the text. The manuscript contained a comment attributed to Rav Soloveitchik’s father – Rav Chaim Zt’l. Rav Chaim was quoted as praising the scholarship of Rav Diskin. Rav Chaim said that Rav Diskin’s scholarship was superlative and that the Torah’s injunction, “You should obey him” could be applied to Rav Diskin. Rav Soloveitchik asserted that this statement simply was not true and should not be attributed to his father. This command cannot be applied to Rav Diskin or any scholar. This injunction is derived from our passage. We are commanded to obey the prophet. Rav Soloveitchik explained that the passage has two meanings. First, we must obey the prophet. Second, this level of obedience is not given to any other person. Only the prophet has the right to demand complete obedience. Therefore, the passage cannot be applied to Rav Diskin. This is not because of any inadequacy in Rav Diskin. This is because the passage stipulates that only a proven prophet can demand this obedience. Rav Diskin was a great scholar. However, we no longer have true prophets.
Rav Soloveitchik’s comments require some interpretation. We are required to be obedient towards Torah scholars. These scholars, through their courts, have the right to interpret the law. Our scholars may institute new laws. We are commanded to obey their decisions. How does this obedience differ from the obedience reserved for the prophet?
Perhaps, Rav Soloveitchik was alluding to a basic difference. The Torah assigns to its scholars the authority to interpret and apply its legal principles. We are required to be obedient to the Torah as it is interpreted by the scholars. Our obedience is not to the individual scholar, but to his office and authority as the legitimate arbitrator of the meaning and intent of the Torah’s laws. In contrast, the prophet’s words are treated as the message of Hashem. This status is reserved exclusively for the prophet. Therefore, our obligation to obey the scholar is limited to his area of authority – the interpretation of the law. The prophet’s authority is not limited. We are required to obey his commands in regards to any and every issue.
We can now more fully understand Rav Soloveitchik’s objection. Rav Diskin was a great scholar. His opinions deserve careful consideration. His outstanding wisdom and knowledge must be respected. In many instances, his legal decision deserves absolute obedience. However, we cannot accord him the obedience and deference reserved for the prophet.