Tag Archives: Shofetim

The Legacy of Justice Louis D. Brandeis

9 Sep
Justice Louis D. Brandeis

Justice Louis D. Brandeis

“Other people’s money.” Think about that phrase for a moment and what it triggers in your mind. For me, the phrase conjures the notion that when one is entrusted with the care of someone else’s money or property, you have to take special care of it, even more so than if it were your own. Do you know who coined that phrase? Louis Brandeis, the first Jewish Justice on the United States Supreme Court. This year marks the 100th anniversary since his nomination by President Woodrow Wilson and the start of his distinguished 23-year term as the first Jewish Justice on our nation’s highest court.


Jeffrey Rosen, a leading Constitutional scholar and author of  the recent book Louis D. Brandeis: American Prophet, describes Brandeis as “the most farseeing, progressive justice of the 20th century, the one whose judicial philosophy is most relevant for the court today as it confronts questions involving regulation in a time of economic crisis and the preservation of constitutional liberty in a time of technological change.


On this Shabbat of Parashat Shofetim, it’s natural for us to recall a towering presence in American jurisprudence and one of the most prominent Jewish Americans in the history of this country. However, there are three specific matters in Parashat Shofetim that invite an appreciation of the Brandeis legacy.


  1. Other people’s money: The Torah discusses the appointment of a king. Public leadership is necessary for the security and overall welfare of the community. However, unlike other nations of the time, the king is not divine. The king is a human being subject to the Torah’s laws like everyone else. In this context, the Torah emphasizes the importance of integrity of the office. רַק֮ לֹא־יַרְבֶּה־לּ֣וֹ סוּסִים֒ וְלֹֽא־יָשִׁ֤יב אֶת־הָעָם֙ מִצְרַ֔יְמָה לְמַ֖עַן הַרְבּ֣וֹת ס֑וּס וַֽיהוָה֙ אָמַ֣ר לָכֶ֔ם לֹ֣א תֹסִפ֗וּן לָשׁ֛וּב בַּדֶּ֥רֶךְ הַזֶּ֖ה עֽוֹד׃     Moreover, he shall not keep many horses or send people back to Egypt to add to his horses. Integrity of the office mandates not using public funds for personal enrichment. Louis D. Brandeis was passionate about this issue and wrote a book titled “Other People’s Money.” Brandeis was the most important critic of bigness in business and government since Thomas Jefferson. He was a fierce opponent of oligarchs like J.P. Morgan, who took reckless risks with other people’s money by investing in complicated financial instruments whose value they couldn’t possibly understand. Brandeis forecast the crash of 1929 that launched the Great Depression, and his wisdom anticipates the financial crisis of 2008.
  2. As a Justice, one of his great legacies is defining the right to privacy within the Constitution. Here too, there are roots to be found in Parashat Shofetim (19:14). We learn:

לֹ֤א תַסִּיג֙ גְּב֣וּל רֵֽעֲךָ֔ אֲשֶׁ֥ר גָּבְל֖וּ רִאשֹׁנִ֑ים בְּנַחֲלָֽתְךָ֙ אֲשֶׁ֣ר תִּנְחַ֔ל בָּאָ֕רֶץ אֲשֶׁר֙ יְהוָ֣ה אֱלֹהֶ֔יךָ נֹתֵ֥ן לְךָ֖ לְרִשְׁתָּֽהּ׃


You shall not move your countryman’s landmarks, set up by previous generations, in the property that will be allotted to you in the land that the LORD your God is giving you to possess.



In other words, don’t move the fence between your property and your neighbor’s to add to your field. Why does the Torah have to mention such a specific type of theft? The Torah already stated numerous times that it is forbidden to steal!

It is suggested that the Torah is teaching the value of privacy. A fence serves two purposes. It marks the property line between neighbors. It also protects each neighbor from peering into what the other party is doing. Each homeowner can do what he pleases in his yard without feeling that someone is looking over his shoulder. When one moves the fence over and intrudes on his neighbors property he’s not only stealing his physical space, he is also taking away his emotional security. He’s stealing his right to peace of mind. The Torah is more than just a handbook of laws and commandments. It teaches us how to live respectfully with others by ensuring everyone the necessary privacy to pursue his or her individual interests.


Brandeis was a champion of the modern right to privacy. He was a visionary in anticipating challenges created through the development of technology and potential encroachment on individual liberty. He writes in one case: “  The progress of science in furnishing the government with means of espionage is not likely to stop with wiretapping. Ways may someday be developed by which the government, without removing papers from secret drawers, can reproduce them in court, and by which it will be enabled to expose to a jury the most intimate occurrences of the home. Advances in the psychic and related sciences may bring means of exploring unexpressed beliefs, thoughts and emotions.”


Rosen notes that Brandeis anticipates FMRI technology, brain scans, things that can reveal our unexpressed emotions. And he’s insisting you can’t just focus on the legal principle the framers were embracing – that you had to break into someone’s house and trespass on their lands – you have to focus on the value they were trying to protect, which is intellectual privacy. So Brandeis is challenging us – take the framers values, translate them in light of these new technologies and make them our own.



  1. Finally, Brandeis was a Zionist who rallied the American Jewish community to support a Jewish state in our national homeland. Parashat Shofetim opens: Judges and officials you shall appoint בְּכָל־שְׁעָרֶ֔יךָ within all your gates, in the dwelling places which Adonai you God is giving you (16:18). Two verses later is the clarion call צֶ֥דֶק צֶ֖דֶק תִּרְדֹּ֑ף לְמַ֤עַן תִּֽחְיֶה֙ וְיָֽרַשְׁתָּ֣ אֶת־הָאָ֔רֶץ אֲשֶׁר־יְהוָֹ֥ה אֱלֹהֶ֖יךָ נֹתֵ֥ן לָֽךְ Justice justice shall you pursue, that you may thrive and occupy the land that Adonai your God is giving you. God promises our ancestors the Land, but it must be a place of justice. In the early twentieth century Jews fleeing persecution began rebuilding a Jewish national home. They sought justice and launched the Zionist project to realize the ideals of the Jewish people in control of their own destiny.  It’s hard to believe today, but American Jews at the time were not sold on Zionism. Many American Jews  a century ago from all points on the religious spectrum were wary of Zionism and concerned about the perception of dual loyalties. Brandeis, on the other hand, championed Zionism and made it an American value. “The highest Jewish ideals are essentially American in a very important particular,” he proclaimed. “It is Democracy that Zionism represents. It is Social Justice which Zionism represents, and every bit of that is the American ideal of the twentieth century.” Brandeis often said: “To be good Americans, we must be better Jews, and to be better Jews, we must become Zionists.” His influence on President Wilson and the British government helped pave the way to the Balfour Declaration in 1917 that was an important milestone in the path to Jewish statehood.


On this Shabbat, Jews around the world are reminded of the necessity to pursue justice and build societal institutions rooted in justice. Louis Brandeis was an outstanding Jewish American whose vision for justice reaches into our own generation. We remember him for his personal integrity, his commitment to liberty and his dedication to Zionism, which transformed the Jewish people. He embodied the Torah’s call צֶ֥דֶק צֶ֖דֶק תִּרְדֹּ֑ף. May his memory be for a blessing.

21 Aug
Slips of paper with reminders for a healthier mindset

Slips of paper with reminders for a healthier mindset

The month of Elul has arrived. Since last Sunday in daily minyan we have heard the sound of the shofar. The shofar blowing this month is our wake up call. Another apt metaphor relates to spending time on the beach (something many of us did yesterday to bring in Shabbat). Sometimes the water gets choppy and there is an undertoe. The lifeguards tell the swimmers to come back in. During Elul, when we hear the sound of the shofar, it’s like a lifeguard calling to us that it’s time to come back in. It is time to begin the process of taking stock of ourselves and preparing for the New Year.

In this light, our Torah portion this week, Shofetim, contains a simple statement that speaks directly to this theme:

“You shall be whole-hearted with the Lord your God” (Deuteronomy 18:13).

The context of this verse is a description not of things that create whole-heartedness with God, but things that detract from it. The text specifies use of divination, soothsaying, sorcery, consulting ghosts, necromancy or other attempts to use magic as a means either to determine God’s will or usurp it. According to the text, these actions are abominations that are done by the other nations and should not be imitated by Israel.

The text says to avoid all of these things in order to be whole-hearted with God. However, it does not give us any positive instructions here on what that entails. Therefore, I would like to examine some Hasidic statements that do explore what it means to be whole-hearted with God.

Pinhas of Koretz, an 18th century student of the Baal Shem Tov, founder of Hasidism, notes:

There are only two commandments in the Torah that must be performed “with the Lord your God.” One is “You shall be perfect with the Lord your God, while the other is “Walk humbly with your God.” The reason why the Torah stresses this in these two commandments is because in both it is very easy to fool others. A person can act as purely innocent, and yet be involved in all types of devilish schemes, or he or she can pose as the most humble of all people, while pride rages within. The Torah stresses that in both the cases God Himself, as it were, tests you, and while you may be able to fool others, you cannot fool Him.

Pinhas’s teaching closely parallels another famous Hasidic teaching by R. Simcha Bunim, an early 19th-century Chasidic master. He suggests that every person carry in his or her pockets two pieces of paper. On one should be written, “For my sake was the world created,” while the other should contain the words Abraham recited when calling upon God to spare the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah: “I am but dust and ashes” (Gen. 18:27).

Just as R. Pinhas teaches we can’t fool God, R. Simcha Bunim teaches we can’t fool ourselves, or at least we shouldn’t try. When we are honest with ourselves, we have a sense of wholeness that brings us closer to God.

Each paper should enter our minds at the appropriate time. When we are feeling arrogant, we grab hold of the paper bearing the words, “I am but dust and ashes.” Remember, it was none other than Abraham who said that, and we are certainly no greater than he.

On the other hand, during moments of despair, it is helpful to meditate on the words, “For my sake was the world created.” There is always some special mission in the world that any one of us has the ability to accomplish.

I would like to suggest a simple exercise. Print out the attached photo and separate take two discs.  Place “I am but dust and ashes in your right hand. Place the other disc, “The world was created for me,” in your left hand. The left hand is regarded as the hand of receptivity and passivity. So, we put in each hand the message that may be opposite that hand’s natural inclination. Hold them in front of you and meditate for just a few moments on which message you need most in your life as you prepare to enter the new year. For some of us, we may strive for more assertiveness and others for more humility. The statement that you need more now, clutch it a little tighter and raise that hand a little higher.  Close  your eyes and reflect silently for a few moments on which of these values will help you in achieving wholeness with yourself and with God.

May the new month of Elul inspire us to examine our hearts so that we begin the new year Tamim im Adonai, whole-hearted with God.

#TieBlog #Shofetim

28 Aug
The scales of justice

The scales of justice


“Justice, justice you shall pursue.” This is the clarion call of Parashat Shofetim (Deuteronomy 16: 20). It is in the context of Moses instructing the Israelites to create the institutional infrastructure for a just society. The scales of justice on my tie evoke this central and eternal Jewish quest for justice.

#TieBlog #Shofetim

7 Aug
The scales of justice

The scales of justice

“Justice, justice you shall pursue.” This is the clarion call of Parashat Shofetim (Deuteronomy 16: 20). It is in the context of Moses instructing the Israelites to create the institutional infrastructure for a just society. The scales of justice on my tie evoke this central and eternal Jewish quest for justice.