Creating a Favoritism-Free Zone
Parashat Shoftim, Deuteronomy 16:18–21:9
Rabbi Russ Resnik
I long for the day when “Messianic Jewish” is not a religious brand, but a description of the values of our community, values that reflect the presence of Messiah among us. In the UMJC we seek to embody something like this in the core values articulated by our delegates years ago: “Deference and respect are key elements in our fellowship” (Core Value 1); “We recognize that all people are made in the image of God and therefore will endeavor to treat them with respect” (Core Value 5).
This week’s parasha opens with a foundational text for creating this sort of community:
Judges and officers you shall appoint in all your towns that Hashem your God is giving you, according to your tribes. They shall judge the people with righteous judgment. You shall not distort justice; you must not show favoritism, and you shall not accept a bribe, for a bribe blinds the eyes of the wise and subverts the cause of the righteous. (Deut 16:18–19, author’s translation)
The Torah says that the judges, or Shoftim as in the title of our parasha, shall judge the people with righteous judgment (mishpat tzedek). But isn’t this phrase redundant? Is not judgment (mishpat) righteous (tzedek) by definition?
The classic commentator Sforno interprets this two-part phrase to mean that the judge “must not be lenient with one and harsh toward the other,” reflecting the next verse, “You shall not distort justice; you must not show favoritism.” If we’re honest with ourselves, we’ll recognize that we all tend to favor the attractive, the loveable, and the cooperative among us over the dumpy, grumpy, and difficult. And even if we’re honest enough to recognize this bias in ourselves, we still must work hard to overcome it, because this tendency, however natural and widespread, distorts justice.
Ya’akov applies the issue of favoritism to real life in our congregations.
My brothers and sisters, do you with your acts of favoritism really believe in our glorious Lord Yeshua the Messiah? For if a man wearing a gold watch and an expensive suit comes into your synagogue, and a homeless guy in second-hand clothes comes in right after him, and you show respect to the man in the suit and say, “Please, sir, sit here in a good spot,” and you ignore the poor man or say, “Here’s a nice seat in the back row,” are you not showing favoritism and proving to be judges with bad hearts? (Jas 2:1–4, paraphrased)
Let’s remember that Moses gave this instruction about avoiding favoritism to a totally low-status group, a people recently delivered from the degradations of slavery. Likewise, Ya’akov exhorts a community that is inhabiting the margins for the sake of Messiah Yeshua, oppressed by the powerful. Ironically, such groups are still tempted by outward show and pretense. Apparently, although we should know better, we have a blind spot regarding favoritism. Every group, most emphatically including religious groups, tends to create hierarchies, in-groups and out-groups, and outward emblems of power and acceptability—which is one reason for the negative image of religion in general today.
Social psychologist Jonathan Haidt notes in his landmark 2012 publication, The Righteous Mind, that all human cultures develop—and are developed by—religious practice. And most religions entail what Haidt calls “parochial altruism,” that is, benevolence toward one’s fellow community members, even if it costs. This sort of altruism, even though it remains in-house, doesn’t normally increase animosity toward outsiders. For this reason, Haidt, a secular Jewish scholar, goes against the grain of today’s culture to portray religion as a positive force in the evolution (his term) of the human race. The Torah entails parochial altruism for sure (“love your neighbor as yourself”), but points beyond to a wider altruism (“love the stranger.”) Messiah Yeshua carries this to its logical fulfillment: “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be sons of your Father who is in heaven” (Matt 5:44–45). This is the unique perspective of the religion of Israel and its Messiah.
Favoritism undermines this expansive ideal of altruism, as our Torah portion notes. We become parochial, or even more narrow in focus, when we decide by appearances instead of by mishpat.
Many years ago, a prominent, but shabbily dressed Polish rabbi was taking a train to visit another city. A well-dressed young Jewish man in the same car treated him rather rudely on the journey, and then was mortified when they both got off the train and the unrecognized rabbi was greeted by throngs of his admirers. When the young man saw this, he apologized for his earlier behavior, and the rabbi said: “I wish that I could accept your apology, but I cannot. You are apologizing to me, a respected rabbi, but it was some unknown old Jew that you insulted.” In other words, the chastened young man was still a respecter of persons, still showing favor based on outward appearances. Such favoritism prevails everywhere, but we have the opportunity to create communities where it does not prevail.
The synagogue, according to Yaakov, should be the one place where no one has to compete for attention, status, or affirmation, but where we grant these freely to all. Synagogue is, or should be, the place where the values of appearance and power, so dominant in our culture today, are overturned. Yaakov pictures this outlook as essential to real faith: “My brothers and sisters, do not hold the faith of our glorious Lord Yeshua the Messiah while showing favoritism” (James 2:1 TLV).
Now is a good time, early in the month of Elul, to examine ourselves as we prepare for the High Holy Days ahead:
Am I helping make my local community a favoritism-free zone?
Do I show respect and kindness to those I interact with, regardless of appearances?
Do I go beyond parochial altruism to learn the expansive altruism that reflects the character of Messiah Yeshua?