Justice At The Gates

Justice At The Gates

Rabbi Lawrence A. Hoffman is a professor of liturgy, worship and ritual at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, and the author of “My People’s Prayer Book: Traditional Prayers, Modern Commentaries,” winner of the National Jewish Book Award.

Candlelighting, Readings:
Candlelighting: 7:16 p.m.
Torah Reading: Deuteronomy
Haftarah: Isaiah 51:12-52:12
Sabbath Ends: 8:15 p.m.

Throughout most of history, human beings have lived in fear of what’s outside their gates. Cities were fortified by defensive stonewalls and entrances sealed with impenetrable iron doors. Only friends got in, and only after demonstrating the right credentials. It was assumed that strangers at the gate meant trouble.

What went for cities went equally for castles, the homes of the wealthy that housed entire populations and kept out strangers just as cities did.

We’ve come a long way from that now; most cities sport “Welcome” signs and friendly web sites to entice new residents. But the record is mixed. At the very same time, more and more people live in “gated communities” where guards are paid to treat strangers as potential threats until proven otherwise.

For good reason, in large part. Some outsiders are quite properly guarded against: terrorists, obviously, but also sociopaths and even petty criminals who have somehow eluded the march of civilization. There are such people.

But the Torah has another view of “gates.” Instead of posting armed guards in guardhouses, our sedra commands us to position “judges and officials at all your gates.” Ibn Ezra refers us to the Judean king Jehoshaphat whom the Bible records as establishing judges throughout his realm [II Chronicles 19] — deliberately following the advice from this week’s reading, according to Rashi. As Metsudat David understands it, the king would customarily stroll among the people; seeing the lack of justice, he appointed judges to stand at the gates.

Arriving strangers would thereby meet judges, not gatekeepers; and justice, not rejection. The very term “gatekeepers” portrays strangers as a problem, and gates as the way to keep them out. “Judges,” by contrast, are neutral about newcomers and rely on legal procedure to decide what to do with them. Some of those who request entrance will indeed be sent away, but only with due cause. On the whole, the strangers at our gates are presumed to be seeking (and will be offered) justice for themselves and the opportunity to flourish — like the people already inside.

The Torah’s model became normative for Jewish thinking. The three tractates of the Talmud dealing with civil and criminal law are called Bava Kamma, Bava Metsia, and Bava Batra (the “First-, Middle-, and Final Gate”) — because “Gates” became associated with the place where justice prevails. An official known to us from medieval Babylonia was the Dayana D’bava, “The Judge at the Gate.” He probably had nothing to do with “judging at the gate,” but he carried a title that implied the high regard for someone who did.

Justice is no zero-sum commodity that cannot be spread around; it need not be reserved for those of us lucky enough to live behind the gates. The Jewish ideal is justice applied universally. Instead of locked bastions that preserve the good life for an elite few, gates become openings where justice pours through and where those intent on keeping it can join the rest of us who are already inside.

Where would Jews be if America’s gates had not been opened from 1881 to 1924? To America’s everlasting shame, those gates slammed shut in Hitler’s time. For good reason, the poem of welcome on the Statue of Liberty was composed by a Jew.

We might also remember another commandment about our gates: to place mezuzot there. Instead of barbed wire fences, our gates should feature the guarantee that the One God of all humanity is present among us.

Gates inevitably bear implicit messages for those who encounter them. Some say, “Keep out. Beware of dogs, police, and officials ready to strike you down.” Others say, “Come in, as long as you respect the rule of justice; watch for judges and officials who will help you contribute what you are to what we have. For what we have — the presence of justice and of God — is eminently shareable.”

Rabbi Lawrence Hoffman, co-founder of Synagogue 3000, and professor of Liturgy, Worship and Ritual at the Hebrew Union College, is the author of “My People’s Prayer Book,” winner of the National Jewish Book Award for Modern Jewish Thought and Experience. 

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