Parashat Shoftim: Disappearing role models

To prevent a collapse into lawlessness and mayhem, God vested human beings with an innate political instinct. Crafting a moral society governed by the rule of law is the will of God. 

 RELIGIOUS EXCELLENCE depends upon real-life examples of people who, by their own behavior, call us to higher ground. (photo credit: Robert Ruggiero/Unsplash)
RELIGIOUS EXCELLENCE depends upon real-life examples of people who, by their own behavior, call us to higher ground.
(photo credit: Robert Ruggiero/Unsplash)

Man was created free, but freedom can be brutally stifled or violently taken from him. Without stable government, society quickly disintegrates into chaos and anarchy.

To prevent a collapse into lawlessness and mayhem, God vested human beings with an innate political instinct and empowered them to construct governments capable of administrating law, protecting human dignity and advancing general welfare. Crafting a moral society governed by the rule of law is the will of God. 

Thousands of years ago, our ancestors discovered a “one God” but were trapped in a tumultuous world of cruelty and barbarism. At best, societies were managed by strong-fisted tyrants who offered security and stability at the bitter cost of individual liberty. In most instances, though, society degenerated into unruly ruckuses of cutthroat competition and vicious barbarism. Humanity was not yet prepared for organized systems of government, founded upon the rule of law, which protect human liberty. 

Societies of Sinai

Several centuries after the first discovery of God, we stood beneath the mountain of God and received His directly revealed will, including a blueprint for a society of law and order.

Even in our temporary desert camps, we fashioned a rudimentary network of courts braced by agencies of law enforcement.

Mount Sinai 370 (credit: Wikimedia Commons)Mount Sinai 370 (credit: Wikimedia Commons)

The Torah documents several instances of criminals who were prosecuted and sentenced in the desert. In the second year after the Exodus, both a Shabbat violator and a blasphemer were sentenced to death. They weren’t guillotined by a rabid mob but were afforded due process and an orderly trial for their crimes.

Thirty-eight years later, land was expressly allocated for five women whose father had deceased. Additionally, several tribes were awarded “extramural” land in the fertile pasturelands of the east bank of the Jordan.

In the aftermath of Sinai, a society driven by the rule of law was gradually coalescing. Lawlessness was slowly being replaced by civility; violence and aggression were ceding to common codes of right and wrong. The will of God was becoming manifest in the human sociopolitical sphere

Finally, it was time to enter the land of Israel, and it was obvious that a civil society governed by rule of law was a precondition to settling the land and to constructing a city of God. In this light, the mitzvah to appoint judges, delineated in parashat Shoftim, comes as no surprise. 

Regional courts 

What is surprising is the geographical sweep of these appointments. The very first verse of Shoftim instructs the appointment of judges in every “gate” – b’chol she’arecha. At least in Israel, panels of magistrates were established in every region and in every city. From a logistical standpoint, it is odd that every village and every city contains a tribunal of qualified judges. Wouldn’t it be more economical and more efficient to station courts in major population areas and require litigants to travel to these regional courts? Why must judges be positioned in every single region? 

Apparently, the position of a judge involves more than just judiciary or legal duties. Evidently, judges provide a broader benefit to society. Maimonides describes the “expanded” function of judges: to encourage religious observance, correct religious malfunction, inspire religious consciousness and uphold decrees and injunctions. In short, a judge boosts religious behavior, both through direct enforcement and, additionally, by setting an example of religious excellence. Situating judges in every city assures a national network of local and accessible religious role models.

Value of role models

Religious growth, and moral challenges in particular, can be very confusing. In the heat of a moral or religious crisis, theoretical notions of right and wrong are often ineffective. Our religious conviction and moral clarity often melt in the heat of the moment when we face a confusing or overpowering religious predicament.

My Rebbe and mentor, Rav Aharon Lichtenstein, encouraged us to navigate religious challenges by imagining how our role models would respond to the same situation. Imagining the response of a role model is far more compelling than abstract calculations of right and wrong. Religious excellence depends upon real-life examples of people who, by their outstanding behavior, call us to higher ground. Their influence inspires us to lead driven lives and prevents self-complacency and excessive self-satisfaction from settling in

Role models vs democracy 

Where have our role models gone? In part, the culture of democracy has devalued the image of a role model. Democracy assumes political and economic equality. In the voting booth and the free marketplace, every man stands equal. Political egalitarianism sometimes incorrectly implies that every value and every moral position is also created equal. 

The pre-democratic world was forged upon rigid political and social hierarchies which repressed human freedom and were often governed by immoral or abusive leaders. However, a world built upon hierarchy suggests a hierarchy or pyramid of values, in which certain values are ranked higher than others.

By contrast, egalitarian democracies imply the absence of any absolute or superior moral value, thereby reducing the impact of role models. Why should we be inspired by another person if, fundamentally, everyone is equal? We have fallen into a sad state of self-arbitration in which every citizen appoints himself as sole morally authority. Moral relativism and moral self-arbitration are the bastard children of democracy.

The fear of trust

Additionally, our culture has become jaded by the very concept of a role model. We have been exposed to too much hypocrisy from public figures, and repeatedly victimized by corrupt and dishonest leadership. Inspiration from role models feels dangerously close to personality cults, and we all know the damage inflicted by excess veneration of charisma. We have learned to distrust because, all too often, our trust in others has been betrayed. Our public trust has been burned too often, and we have taken refuge in the relative safety of distrust and suspicion. 

Closer to home, in the Jewish world, we have suffered through numerous scandals in which religious personalities have committed horrible crimes. In response, we have legislated strict guidelines to protect against possible abuse and to make our leadership and communal management more transparent. 

What have we lost?

All these steps are absolutely vital to curb the terrible abuse we have encountered, but just the same, it is fair to consider what we have lost in the process. For the sake of transparency, have we rendered our leadership “invisible”? Are we so suspicious and jaded that we have lost inspiration? Regrettably, for many, the very phrase “role model” is abrasive or even odious. 

Perhaps human beings in search of meaningful lives are in greater need of actual role models than we assumed. Perhaps religious excellence is so arduous that it is best achieved by simulating the conduct of others rather than solely through personal development. Role models take vague notions of religion and morality and present them in more vivid form, in ways that are more concrete and compelling. Have we forfeited our ability to be inspired by the lives of others? Have we swung too far?

A patchwork

In an ideal world, we are exposed to surpassing people whose lives display a sweeping range of virtues and values. Rav Lichtenstein modeled the entirety of religious and moral experience, providing a gold standard in almost every imaginable area of religious endeavor. Sadly, those types of role models are becoming few and far between. 

Perhaps one solution to our current dilemma is to decentralize role modeling. In lieu of great and sweeping personalities who showcase the entire range of values, we must be more appreciative of people who model specific values. We may not benefit from all-encompassing personalities, but we can be inspired by people who model select values or particular traits.

We must be more receptive to being inspirable and more conscious of the people in our lives who model desirable traits. We must also better balance our distaste for, and fear of, personality cults with our need to be inspired by the lives of others. 

The writer is a rabbi at Yeshivat Har Etzion/Gush, a hesder yeshiva. He has smicha and a BA in computer science from Yeshiva University, as well as a master’s in English literature from the City University of New York.