The leaders who stood up for Israel after the days of Joshua until the establishment of the monarchy were known as Shofeṭim, “judges,” but that title can be quite misleading. For the most part we are not speaking here of individuals who were learned in the law or who adjudicated cases. Several of them were little more than crude ruffians who made their names as warriors rather than as magistrates.
In fact the only figure in that group whom the Bible identifies as an actual judge in the conventional sense is Deborah. Concerning her we are informed that “she dwelt under the palm tree of Deborah between Ramah and Beth-el in mount Ephraim, and the children of Israel came up to her for judgment.”
Yes, she was a practicing judge. But why is it important to inform us about her palm tree? Not surprisingly, the sages of the Talmud and Midrash jumped at the opportunity to ascribe a deeper symbolic meaning or to extract moral lessons from that gratuitous detail.
Not that the rabbis really needed a specific justification to interpret superfluous words in scripture. Nevertheless, as Rabbi Samuel Edels (Maharsha) argued, the detail seems particularly pointless in this passage. If its purpose was merely to help us in locating her geographically, then it is not very helpful, since date-palms grow in abundance throughout the land of Israel! Hence, it stands to reason that its mention here must have some other purpose.
The Talmud proposed a symbolic explanation of why Deborah preferred to convene her court under a date-palm. Unlike most other trees, palms do not have branches, but rather their foliage grows directly out of a single trunk. According to an exposition in the Talmud, this was an appropriate analogy for the rare spiritual attainment of Deborah’s contemporaries: “Just as this date-palm has only a single heart, so did Israel in that generation have but a single heart that was directed towards their father in heaven.” The palm thus stands as an apt symbol for the solidarity and unity of the Israelite community.
Most of the interpreters found more practical implications in the mention of the palm tree. As it happens, few of the ancient rabbis were troubled by the glaring difficulty of having a woman (albeit one who was also a prophet) serving as a judge—a profession from which she would have been disqualified according to their own halakhah. The rabbis were however concerned with a number of subsidiary legal and narrative problems that arose from Deborah’s situation as a female in a court setting; and they made reference to the palm tree in some of their attempts to resolve those problems.
The author of the midrashic treatise “Tanna de-bei Eliyahu” seemed to understand that the main reason people took their cases to the lady judge was because there was a severe shortage of qualified males. It was this predicament that was being subtly underscored by the allusion to the palm tree between Ramah and Beth-El. After all, Ramah was also the base of the prophet Samuel, the distinguished judge and national leader at the close of the era of the Judges. As the Tanna de-bei Eliyahu put it with rhetorical hyperbole, there were so few Torah scholars in those days that the shadow of that single tree (without branches) was sufficient to provide shade that could be shared by the judges and their disciples!
Another problem that had to be dealt with by a female judge was that of traditional modesty. In keeping with traditional standards of propriety, she was not supposed to put herself in situations in which she would be subjected to suspicions by being secluded with men, as would occur if she were to convene her court in a normal indoor setting. Therefore several talmudic and midrashic interpreters suggested that Deborah’s decision to hear cases outdoors, under a tree without any branches that might offer concealment, was a deliberate stratagem that was intended to preclude the possibility of inappropriate contact between the sexes.
This may perhaps be compared to the situation described by the twelfth-century traveler Petahiah of Regensburg who had occasion, during a visit to Baghdad, to witness the erudite daughter of the Ga’on Rabbi Samuel ben ‘Ali delivering classes on Bible while enclosed inside a room with a single window, in such a way that the students outside could hear her words but not see her.
In the eighteenth century, Rabbi Jacob Reischer found a number of problems with the thesis that Deborah had to worry about being secluded with a single man. After all, he observed, a courtroom is quite a public place and at the very least there would always be present a plaintiff and a defendant in addition to the presiding judge. As a possible solution to his objection, he referred to a statement in the Talmud that in order to maintain impartiality a judge is advised to regard all the litigants as wicked. Once they have been so labeled, even a number of such hypothetical scoundrels cannot be trusted in the presence of a lady judge, and therefore it was considered advisable for Deborah to hear her cases outdoors under the palm tree, “between Ramah and Beth-el.”
On the other hand, Rabbi Reischer did make allowances for the opposite premise (proposed by the Tosafot commentary to the Talmud), that Deborah was not really a judge in the literal sense since that vocation was indeed forbidden to women; but rather she served as a kind of law professor who lectured on the subject to students. If that were the case, she had the prerogative of ensuring that she would never offer tutorials to individual men, so there would be no need to meet outdoors beneath the palm tree.
Conversely, she might have been allowed a special dispensation to act as a judge by virtue of her prophetic credentials, in which case the precautions would in fact be necessary to uphold her reputation. All this has implications (confusing as they might strike the non-talmudic mind) on how to interpret the function of the palm tree in the scriptural narrative.
The tendency among Jewish interpreters to derive lessons from Deborah’s palm tree about the moral standards expected from judges is perhaps comparable to an exposition by the Christian reformer Martin Luther, who understood that Debora’s insistence on sitting in a humble cottage beneath a palm tree should serve as a lesson for all subsequent judges to maintain modest lifestyles and eschew greed or flamboyance.
Trees had a special fascination for the adherents of the Jewish esoteric tradition of Kabbalah. The central doctrine of that tradition consisted of a detailed mapping of the ten divine emanations ( sefirot) that bridge the metaphysical space between the sublimely unknowable, infinite God ( Ein-Sof) and our crudely physical world. A favourite image for expressing the hierarchical progression of the sefirot was that of a tree, especially a “tree of life.”
Rabbi Moses Cordovero of Safed bestowed the name “Palm-Tree of Deborah” upon his treatise on kabbalistic ethics. The central premise of that brief work was the old rabbinic idea that a person’s moral behaviour should strive to emulate the ways of God. In the kabbalistic context, however, this means adapting one’s actions to the qualities of the ten sefirot, each of which embodies its own distinctive virtues.
In his chapter about how to emulate the sefirah of Wisdom, Cordovero set forth his vision of the ideal teacher who must be committed wholeheartedly to the goal of elevating the disciples’ spirituality and moral sensitivity. In pursuit of that noble objective, the ideal teacher must relate to each and every student with compassion and respect for their individuality.
Rabbi Cordovero never explained his reasons for his choice of the title of his ethical manual. I wonder if he might have been inspired by his imagining of the ancient judge Deborah as a patient and devoted teacher instructing her students in the open air, in the modest shade of her palm tree in Ramah.