Chief Justice Roy Moore of the Alabama Supreme Court stated this week that his state does not need to follow a ruling by a federal court that throws out Alabama's prohibition on same-sex marriage. Chief Justice Moore's decree seemed to fly in the face of an American judicial system that has clear rules about which courts have superior authority over others. His statement may even be seen as a threat to the integrity of the American judicial system.
Calling on people to ignore a court ruling is dangerous business. Courts are one of the institutions that keep our society functioning. Jewish tradition gives courts in a very honored status for just that reason.
Surely, you have noticed the high regard that laws and legality have in Jewish tradition. Our central sacred book, the Torah, is often called the "Written Law" in Jewish tradition (as opposed to the "Oral Law" of the Talmud and rabbinic teachings). Discussing and arguing about law is one of the central ways that Jews and Jewish tradition explore our relationship to God, our obligations to other people, and the meaning of our lives.
No wonder there are so many Jewish lawyers.
This week's Torah portion, Mishpatim, includes several laws regarding the conduct of judges and the legal system. The Torah teaches:
You shall not curse (God / a judge) and you shall not speak an imprecation against a leader of your people… You shall not give false reports, and do not conspire with the wicked to be a malicious witness. Do not chase after the majority to do wrong, and do not give misleading evidence in a dispute to support the strong. Nor should you surgar-coat the position of the weak and poor in his dispute.
– Exodus 22:27, 23:1-3
This section of the Torah portion is clearly talking about courts, judges and legal systems. The law, says the Torah, must be respected, it must be fair, it must be treated with sanctity, and it must be just to all. That seeming clarity is what makes the ambiguity ("God / a judge") in the first verse so interesting.
The Hebrew word for the entity that must not be cursed is familiar and common in the Bible. The word, Elohim, is usually taken to mean "God." However, the great Torah commentator Rashi makes it clear that the word often has another meaning.
For example, earlier in this week's Torah portion, there is a law that says that if a slave wishes to stay with his master after his term of servitude has ended, "His master must take him to the Elohim." It could be that the slave is taken before God, but that doesn't really make sense in the context. What seems more likely is that that slave is brought before a panel of judges who must decide if the master has pressured the slave into remaining in servitude, or if he actually wants to stay a slave. The word "Elohim" as Rashi explains, sometimes means "judges."
If we return to the passage about not cursing Elohim, we see a delicious double meaning to the verse that Rashi noticed in the eleventh century. According to Rashi, the phrase, "You shall not curse Elohim," means two things simultaneously. Rashi says, "Behold, this is a prohibition regarding cursing God and a prohibition against cursing a judge." It works both ways. Why?
Rashi could have said that, in this context, the word Elohim should only be read to mean "judge" since the passage is all about judges and courts. But Rashi felt that both readings make sense because, in a way, treating God with respect is the same as treating a judge with respect.
In the Jewish legal system, laws come from God and they are interpreted and administered by human beings. The legal system depends upon the respect that human beings have for God's law, but it also depends upon respect for those people who have been charged with applying the laws to actual cases and disputes. Curse a judge, and you are cursing God. Curse God, and you are cursing those who serve as judges.
This is why the Talmud teaches, "Any judge who gives true judgement truthfully – even if it is for just a single hour – is regarded by Scripture as if he were a partner with the Holy Blessed One in the act of creating the world" (B. Shabbat 10a). Judges who do their job with integrity are God's partners, necessary for God's laws to enter the world and for God's plans for the world to work as they are intended.
Today it seems that the question of same-sex marriage in Alabama has been settled. Few courts and magistrates are heeding Chief Justice Moore's call to ignore the ruling of the federal court, and that is probably a good thing. When courts are cursed, God is cursed, and, perhaps, our entire society is cursed. When the rule of law is obeyed, when courts are respected and honored, we are all blessed. And God is blessed.