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This week’s Torah portion of Shoftim speaks to the heated debate surrounding judicial reform in Israel. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu recently proposed a plan to apply heavy shifts in favor of the legislature, stripping the Supreme Court of its ability for oversight. This led to protests from those who see it as an attack on democracy, with many pointing to the biblical teachings in Shoftim as a reminder of the importance of checks and balances.
The first words of the portion essentially describe the three pillars of a functioning society: a king, a judiciary, and a proto-legislature. While people may not choose the king, Moses describes a set of criteria for a just king, namely, he must not take too much power for himself, instead placing a strong emphasis on the law as handed down from God.
The judiciary is told to “govern the people with due justice,” and to show “no partiality” nor accept bribes. Meanwhile, the proto-legislature of priests are subject to a sort of consequence for their actions. Their entire tribe is not given territory, further emphasizing the importance of their role.
In Shoftim, we are reminded of the risk of abuse of power, and so the Torah provides strict limitations on the three government entities. These checks and balances are key to upholding justice and ensuring the protection of democracy, a concept which is universal regardless of faith or geographical origin.
It is difficult to rely solely on the bible for understanding modern politics, and it’s true that the battle for judicial reform is partially a fight to keep the state as secular as possible. However, it is remarkable how parashat Shoftim can provide timeless wisdom in regards to accountability and impartiality within the government. It is a reminder to democratically elected officials and rulers to work for the common good and be answerable to a higher authority, whether that is the will of the people or the divine