Shoftim – Extremely Moderate
A verse appears in this week’s Torah reading of Shoftim, which aptly describes Jewish tradition and religious authority as it has been transmitted through mainstream Jewish life for millennia. Most Jews who have remained loyal to that tradition will not find it peculiar in the least, but others might struggle with this concept in an age which gives unprecedented choice and independence to the individual.
“According to the instructions that they will teach you and according to the judgment that they will say to you, shall you act; you must not deviate from the matter that they tell you, right or left.” (Deuteronomy 17:11)
The Torah is addressing an instance where one has a doubt regarding the correct course of action, whether it relates to a ritual, a law, or a dispute with another Jew. One then ascends to the “place that the Lord, your God will choose,” and approach the “priests, and the judge who will be in those days” to clarify the matter under question. The following verse relates that one must heed the decision given by that judicial body or the authority and follow everything instructed. The verse then continues with the words cited above, warning that one must not deviate from those instructions, to the right or to the left.
It is not clear from the verses whether the matter dealt with, in which strict adherence to the religious authority is demanded, is confined to matters of halacha and religious import, or if they extend beyond that to any rulings issued by such authorities. In practice there is a spectrum of tradition, with some Jews following halachic guidance on every life matter and some who limit their interactions with religious authorities to matters of halacha.
Whatever the scope may be, the Torah demands no deviation from these instructions “to the right or the left.” Rashi cites the Midrash which interprets these words to mean that adherence is required even if the sages issue instructions that are empirically incorrect, even if they tell you that the right is left or that left is right!
A well known story occurred in Prague, during the time Rabbi Yechezkel Landau served as its rabbi. It was Passover and the rabbi received intelligence that some anti-Semitic bakers had devised a plan to harm the Jewish community. Knowing that immediately after Passover the Jews would flood the market to purchase bread, they planned to mix some poison into the dough to be sold on that day. The rabbi issued an edict that Passover must be observed for an additional day due to an error in the calendar. The entire Jewish community of Prague observed the restrictions of Passover for an additional day, averting the disaster of poisoned bread. Surely many Jews were scholars themselves and could very well have ignored the ruling of Rabbi Landau. Yet no one questioned his authority on this matter, which enabled the Jewish community to avoid the terrible effects of the bakers’ conspiracy.
There is another way to read this verse, to which I was enlightened by a colleague. Maimonides teaches that we must pursue a path of moderation in life, avoiding extremes in any direction. Maimonides calls this the golden path. He teaches that one must be measured in every area. Being extremely tight-fisted is inappropriate, for example, but excessive generosity can be equally harmful. This idea is expressed in our verse, demanding that we not veer to the right or the left. The Torah has no space for radicals on the right or the left. The Torah’s view is holistic, its ways are ways of pleasantness and all its paths are peace. There is always room for the “other” and we can ill afford to be driven by single-minded extremism in any direction.