Parshat Shoftim: To know God, pursue justice

‘You shall appoint judges... [who] will not pervert justice... Righteousness, righteousness shall you pursue... You shall not plant for yourselves an ‘ashera’ (tree used for purposes of idolatry according to Rashi and Ibn Ezra) near the altar of the Lord your God” (Deuteronomy 16:18-20,21)

Torah 521 (photo credit: Fort Worth Star-Telegram/MCT)
Torah 521
(photo credit: Fort Worth Star-Telegram/MCT)
The juxtaposition of these verses – the demand for honorable and righteous judges, the concern for an impartial legal system which is a “no-bribe zone,” immediately followed by the prohibition of idolatry – seems to mix two completely different areas of religious concern. It combines the moral and ethical laws of interpersonal conduct together with the ritual laws of Divine Service. Each of these two realms holds a respected place in the Bible, but why group them so closely together without any kind of segue between them? Second, which of these two crimes is more grievous? Is it a corrupt judicial system which undermines the very infrastructure of an ethical society or is it a mistaken religious notion which calls for the worship of a tree instead of worship of the Creator of the tree? Certainly the injurious implications emanating from the first seem far more damaging than those emanating from the second.
Indeed, the Bible itself adds a rider to the command to pursue justice: “in order that you may live and inherit the land which the Lord your God gives you.” A just society is a necessary prerequisite for the continued life of historic Israel and for Israel’s ability to retain sovereignty over her homeland.
No such caveats or conditions appear pursuant to the prohibition of the ashera.
Moreover, the Bible has already expressed its displeasure at those who worship trees or stones which can neither see nor hear nor eat nor smell (ibid. 4:28). Why prohibit worshiping the ashera tree specifically if it is planted near the sacrificial altar? Is it not equally forbidden to serve a freestanding ashera tree even it is nowhere near the sanctuary (Mishkan) or Temple?! The Talmud (B.T. Avoda Zara 52a) makes a startling comparison which begins to provide the solution to our questions: “Resh Lakish said, ‘anyone who appoints an unworthy judge is considered like someone who plants an ashera tree in Israel, as it is written, You shall appoint judges and executors in all your gates and it is written right next to it, You shall not plant for yourselves an ashera tree.’ And Rav Ashi added, ‘And if it is in a place where pious scholars are found, it is as if he planted the ashera next to the sacrificial altar.’” What I believe the Sages are deriving from this juxtaposition of the biblical verses is that the real sin of idolatry lies in the perversion of justice perpetuated by the idolaters. This was found in their lack of morality and ethical conscience, in the orgiastic Dionysian rites which included eating the limbs and drinking the blood of living animals and in the drunken trysts with temple prostitutes. Idolaters paid no heed to “thou shalt not murder” when they sacrificed innocent children to Moloch. And worst of all was when the immorality of idolatry invaded the hallowed gates of the Holy Temple. At that point, the entire reason for Israel’s nationhood ceased to exist, so that God was forced to leave His House and see to it that it be destroyed.
The truth is that almost every time the Bible forbids idolatry, it is within the context of the immoral behavior which characterized it: Do not bow down to their gods, do not worship them and do not act according to their practices... (Exodus 23:24); Guard yourself lest you seek out their gods... they burn their sons and daughters in fire to their gods (Deut. 2:30-31); You shall destroy the order that they not teach you to act according to all their abominations (Deut. 20:17, 18).

Remember that God chose Abraham because he was committed to compassionate righteousness and moral justice (Genesis 18:18-19); and on Tisha Be’av, the memorial day of our Temples’ destruction, we read publicly the verse, “Only in this regard shall one be praised: ‘Be wise and know Me, for I am the Lord who does loving-kindness, moral justice and compassionate righteousness in the land, because these are what I desire, says the Lord’” (Jeremiah 9:22, 23).
Although Maimonides consistently defines idolatry in pure and absolute theological and metaphysical terms, Rabbi Menahem ha-Meiri (13th- and 14th-century Provence) defined idolatry in terms of the “disgusting immoral acts of the idolaters,” whose paganism prevented them from accepting the universal moral laws of the Noahide Covenant. For the Meiri, anyone who was moral was ipso facto not to be considered an idolater. In the final analysis, he understood that to know God is to pursue justice and righteousness.

The writer is the founder and chancellor of Ohr Torah Stone Colleges and Graduate Programs, and chief rabbi of Efrat.