In Parasha Shoftim, the Torah provides for the judicial development of its own laws, including the statement that: “you must not deviate from the verdict that they announce to you either to the right or to the left.” (Dt. 17: 11). This passage has served for the authority not just for the courts of the Sanhedrin during the Second Temple period, but also every Beit Din, or rabbinical court, that has been formed over the ages and places where Jews have lived. Without judicial interpretation of the law, there would be no possibility for Judaism to develop or Jews to adapt within their unfolding contemporary contexts.
When we say the Torah is immutable, we mean that the scroll we open in any synagogue around the world has exactly the same words; the written words of the Torah will never change. However, for thousands of years, the concept “Torah”, which means teaching, has come to include all the wisdom and teaching that comes from the five books of Moses and our ability to interpret them. As in any legal tradition, sometimes we “expand” the message of Torah and sometimes we “contract” it. This week’s parasha presents a perfect example of the principle, why and how we do it.
On one hand, we hear one of the essential teachings of Torah. “Tzedek, tzedek tirdof” – justice with righteousness you shall pursue. This one verse has been expanded, in conjunction with many other teachings of Torah, to establish the pursuit of justice as one of the core principles of Judaism. Having been strangers in Egypt, we are called upon to have one standard of justice for stranger and citizen alike. Justice requires a standard of equity for individuals no matter what their age or background; it calls upon us to have concern in particular for the underprivileged and oppressed, righting the wrongs manifested in human relationships and society.
On the other hand, we have one of the harshest teachings of the Torah put forward this week: the genocide of the inhabitants of the land of which we are to take possession. Tradition has contracted this passage by saying that the commandment was never fulfilled – but in our days we must constrict it even further. More than any other passage, this one calls upon us (especially in a world where too many justify their killings in the name and word of God) to contract it so it can never be applied.
The ancient sages began this work of evolving Torah’s teachings through expansion and contraction thousands of years ago and we must continue that process of interpretation. As God’s creatures we must be discerning. The Torah opens up with the first human eating the fruit of the tree of knowledge – the implication being that we are responsible for our choices of good and bad, including when it comes to expanding and contracting the respective teachings of Torah. As it says of Torah in Proverbs 3:17: “Her ways are ways of pleasantness and all its paths are peace.” It is incumbent upon us to fulfill that proverb in our interpretation and living of Torah.