In parsha Shofetim, Moshe continues his lengthy oration to the Israelites. He talks about government, specifically about setting up courts and “setting a king over” themselves. He says that the king should be a Jew, not a foreigner, and that he should not have many wives, nor should he have many horses, nor should he amass great wealth [17:14-17]. In other words, a king should be a humble, ordinary man. Further, the king should have a Torah scroll made for him and “read in it all his life…thus he will not act haughtily toward his fellows or deviate from the Instruction to the right or to the left” [17:20]. And so now I’ll ask you…does this mean that we are supposed to have a pope? Here’s what I mean: Judaism, if we are to take Mordechai Kaplan’s view, is a civilization. Civilizations have kings, presidents, prime ministers, and so on, to have an axis for their governments to revolve around; to have someone large-and-in-charge to run things, or at least to be a figurehead and sort of keep an eye on things. The Pope is kind of like that. His primary function, other than being a figurehead, is to dictate what is officially Catholic and what isn’t in terms of policy. Because Catholicism has a central hub, it remains both unified and uniform. So, should we have a pope of our own?
I would say no. Here’s why: Judaism encompasses a vast range of beliefs and ideas. We have a very spacious tent, and people with a lot of different views about God, the Torah, life, etc. take shelter under it. If we had a pope, or a theocratic king of some sort as is described in Shofetim, who decided what was officially Jewish and what wasn’t, a lot of people would leave our tent, break off, and start their own groups, just as happened with Catholicism, and those of us left in the tent would be alienated from who left and vice versa. We’re a small enough tribe without pushing people away by creating official doctrines and dogmas! What comes of not having a pope is that we are not a religion of beliefs, but of actions (mitzvot) and of a common past (Torah). Parsha Shofetim was written in a time long before we had such wide variations in belief and practice as we do now, a time when having a theocracy was possible and perhaps even desirable. But that time is past, and the most important thing now is to maintain our unity as a people. I think Judaism’s strength and vitality lies in its variety. I love that we have so many flavors: Orthodox Ripple, Conservative Chip, Reform Swirl, Reconstructionist Crunch, and so on. Each one of us may have a favorite flavor, but in the end, it’s all ice cream and it’s all delicious!
Another thing that strikes me about this Torah portion is the injunction against destroying the fruit trees of a besieged city [20:19-20]. I could talk, as many Jewish environmentalists before me have done, about how this represents a positive command against wanton destruction, an injunction against thoughtless waste and greed (ba’al taschit). What I’d rather do, though, is focus on the verse that says “Are trees of the field human to withdraw before you into the besieged city?” [20:19]. The Torah is telling us to listen to those who don’t have voices, and to protect those who can’t protect themselves. I consider this verse merely an extension to the Torah’s constant refrain of telling us to be kind to the stranger, the widow, the orphan, etc. This is the Torah’s shorthand for telling us to defend the defenseless, to help the helpless, and in general to support those in our community who need it. Trees are just another group in our community who need our help and can’t defend themselves.
Furthermore, trees figure very prominently in our tradition. The Torah itself is called a Tree of Life. It is said of the Baal Shem Tov that he was able to hear the voices of trees, and of King Solomon that he could understand the speech of the birds. Our tradition teaches us that listening to nature and immersing ourselves in the natural world can be a window to spirituality, a gate to wisdom. As summer draws to a close, don’t forget to take a little walk this shabbat and listen to the trees and the birds. You might find that they have much to teach you.
This week’s dvar written by Miriam Bak.