A D’var Torah on Israel’s Recent Judicial Overhaul

Rabbi Susan N. Shankman headshot

This week we read parashat Va-Etchanan, in which we find the words of Sh’ma. I’ve been reflecting on the fact that usually when we read those words, they evoke a sense of unity among Jewish people.

Yet today, we have been feeling a rift in that unity, as the Knesset — Israel’s Parliament — voted to abolish the Reasonableness Doctrine.

“This doctrine permits the court to intervene in government or municipal decisions or ministerial appointments and appointments to other public offices on grounds that the government hasn’t weighed all the relevant considerations, or was inappropriately biased. It is a primary instrument to protect citizens from arbitrary decisions that disregard the law and threaten our rights. Its cancellation means there will be no way to challenge decisions in cases such as conflict of interest, corruption, or a flawed process that violate civil and human rights.

This is the first step in the government’s legislative assault on the judiciary that will gravely harm the rights of Liberal Jews, women, LGBTQ+ people, and Israeli Palestinians. The government continues to do so despite fierce opposition and mass demonstrations by Israelis representing every segment of Israeli society.

This opposition includes thousands of people in key units of the IDF reserve corps, including pilots, commandos, and key intelligence officers, who have announced they will no longer volunteer for service. Business and finance leaders have issued severe warnings of the grave consequences that the passing of the legislation will have on Israel’s security and economy.”

— Orly Erez-Likhovski, Director of the Israel Religious Action Center

A thousand years ago, the poet Yehuda HaLevi wrote “My heart is in the East and I am at the edge of the West.” In the days ahead, we will have opportunities to learn and engage in discussions about how to talk about the divisive news coming out of Israel, as well as that which serves to divide us here in the West.

The Sh’ma is an affirmation of our partnership with God. It not only unites us with God, it unites us with other Jews — past, present, and future. Immediately following the words of the Sh’ma, the Israelites who stood at Sinai were instructed to teach this tradition diligently to their children, and to their children’s children.

What does it mean to teach them diligently? One must hear, not merely recite the words. It reflects our commitment, not just as individuals, but as a community to our faith and our heritage. Each of us has an important and vital role within that community. As teachers, as listeners, and as active participants in the Jewish community.

My teacher, Rabbi Arthur Hertzberg z”l, reflected on the first paragraph of the Shema, in Hadassah Magazine:

“Educate, educate, educate. For the last century we have bet our survival on the idea that together we should fight our enemies. This has failed. We can hope to succeed only if we teach the young, and ourselves, the texts and rhetoric of the tradition. The future, if there is to be one, is in learning ‘and thou shalt teach these words diligently unto your children.’ All else is vanity.”

Part of how we can fulfill that mission is through our interactions not only on a universal level, with our fellow human beings, but more specifically with our fellow Jews. We often express this concept through the phrase K’lal Yisrael, which can be understood simply as the unity of the Jewish people.

The Pharisees and Saduccees fought in the last days of the Temple. This Wednesday evening, we will commemorate Tisha B’Av, the ninth of Av, the day on which both the First and the Second Temples in Jerusalem were destroyed. It is taught that the second temple was destroyed because of sinat chinam, a baseless hatred that existed among the Jewish people.

It may seem at times that in today’s society, we don’t need to depend on a united Jewish community for our physical survival. But the experience of centuries tells us vividly that Judaism does.

Midrash Tanhuma (Nitzavim 1) teaches that “If a man takes in his hands a number of reeds bound together, can he break them? Only if they are separated, each from the other, can they be broken.” We are stronger when we stand together, even in our disagreements.

Today we embrace the hope of the future. We stand like our ancestors, prepared to enter the Promised Land — a land flowing with milk and honey — not without its challenges, yet overflowing with promise and potential. Our people have persevered. Through diversity and pluralism, mutual respect and understanding, we have been able to reach new heights in Jewish expression and culture, in understanding and observance.

May the words of Sh’ma give us the strength to unite with our neighbors, our brothers and sisters in Israel, in this land, and throughout the world.