The prophetess Devorah and her generation


The protagonist of the haftorah for this week’s parashat, Beshalach, is the prophetess and judge Devorah: “Now Deborah was a woman prophetess, the wife of Lappidoth; she judged Israel at that time.” (Shoftim 4:4)  Our Sages note in Talmud Bavli, Megillah 14a, that Devorah was one of the seven prophetesses: “Who were the seven prophetesses? Sarah, Miriam, Devorah, Chana, Avigail, Chulda, and Esther.” It appears, as well, that she had the additional distinction of being one of the Judges (shoftim) of the Jewish people — if we take the phrase, “hi shoftah et Yisrael ba’eit hahi” (“she judged Israel at that time” at face value.

And we should interpret it quite literally, as the very next pasuk states: “And she sat under the palm tree of Deborah, between Ramah and Beth-el, in the mountain of Ephraim; and the children of Israel came up to her for judgment.”

There is a fundamental halachic problem with this interpretation, however, since the fourth century Talmud Yerushalmi, Yoma 6:1 (32a) states that “a woman may not judge.” Although the Rambam does not explicitly include this ruling in his Mishneh Torah, it is found nearly verbatim in the Arba’ah Turim of Rabbi Yaakov ben Asher and in Rabbi Yosef Karo’s Shulchan Aruch, Choshen Mishpat, Hilchot Dayanim 7:4: “A woman is disqualified from judging.” Given this clear-cut ruling, we must ask: “Was Devorah really a judge?” The answer is a resounding, “It depends who you ask.”

Tosafot, an illustrious group of Rashi’s students and disciples, discuss Devorah’s status different tractates of Talmud. In Bavli Gittin 88b, Tosafot initially opines that the phrase “she judged Israel at that time” should not be taken literally. According to this view, although Devorah was a legal scholar who discussed cases with members of various Jewish courts, she was not an actual judge. In contrast, Tosafot’s second approach suggests Devorah was a practicing judge and her mandate to judge had come directly from the Almighty.

Devorah as a judge in practice, based upon Divine mandate, finds further support in a previously cited Gemara, Talmud Bavli, Megillah 14a, in one of the explanations of the phrase, “And she sat under the palm tree of Deborah.” Therein our Sages teach us: “Just as this palm tree has but one heart [Rashi: a central growing point], so, too, did the Jewish people of that generation have but one heart directed to their Father in Heaven.” This explanation is fascinating in that Devorah’s universal acceptance as a judge for the Jewish people took place precisely because the heart of the Jewish people was unanimously directed to our Father in Heaven.

Sadly, unlike the spiritually united Jews of Devorah’s generation, we live in an age of profound pirood (separation). Each of us, even if we do not label ourselves, is labeled by others as to what kind of Jew we are and where we stand on the religious, non-religious, not-yet-religious spectrum. The result of this kind of thinking is alienation and disaffection from our fellow Jews.

Instead of banding together in love and tolerance, we are split apart by sinat chinam (groundless hatred) and distrust of one another. In contrast, the Jews of Devorah’s time clearly teach us what ultimately should bind us together, namely, singular dedication to avinu she’b’shamayim. If we can achieve this, we will be well on our way to replacing sinat chinam with ahavat yisrael (unconditional love for the Jewish people). 

Rabbi Yitzhak Avraham Kook, the first Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi of Palestine under the British Mandate, was one of the greatest exponents of ahavat yisrael in the modern age. He conceptualized this idea in the following poetic manner:

Listen to me, my people! I speak to you from my soul, from within my innermost soul. I call out to you from the living connection by which I am bound to all of you, and by which all of you are bound to me. I feel this more deeply than any other feeling: that only you — all of you, all of your souls, throughout all of your generations — you alone are the meaning of my life. In you I live. In the aggregation of all of you, my life has that content that is called “life.” Without you, I have nothing.

All hopes, all aspirations, all purpose in life, all that I find inside myself — these are only when I am with you. I need to connect with all of your souls. I must love you with a boundless love. … Each one of you, each individual soul from the aggregation of all of you, is a great spark, part of the torch of the Light of the universe which enlightens my life. You give meaning to life and work, to Torah and prayer, to song and hope. It is through the conduit of your being that I sense everything and love everything. (Shemonah Kevatzim 1:163) 

May the time come soon and in our days when we, as individuals and as a nation, will realize the truth inherent in Rav Kook’s stirring words and treat every one of our brothers and sisters with the ahavat yisrael they deserve.  V’chane yihi ratzon.