parasha

Balak 5778

The Role of a Jewish Judge – Matot Masei
Rabbi Shmuel Rabinowitz, Rabbi of the Western Wall and Holy Sites

In the Torah portion of Masei which concludes the book of Numbers, we continue reading about certain halachot (Jewish laws) given as preparation for the entrance into the Land of Israel. The nation was camping in Arvot Moav on the eastern side of the Jordan river, awaiting the imminent entrance to the land. Meanwhile, they were given commandments whose purpose was to organize public life in the land where they were slated to establish a Jewish state.

 

One of the commandments written in this portion is about the city of refuge. A person who intentionally murders someone is punished by death, according to the Torah. But if someone kills someone else unintentionally, he is sentenced to exile – a sort of “house arrest” in a specific city. This city is called a city of refuge since it also protects its inhabitants. In a tribal society, a relative of the deceased might try to take revenge upon the killer and kill him. Sadly, even today, this is customary in some societies. The city of refuge protects the killer and prevents the relative from avenging the murder.

In some cases, it is not clear if the murder was intentional or not and this must be clarified in court:

Then the congregation [the judges] shall judge between the assailant and the blood avenger, on the basis of these judgments. The congregation shall protect the murderer from the hand of the blood avenger…
(Numbers 35, 24-25)

So, the job of the judges was to clarify the details of the event, and in case it was deemed an unintentional murder, the court would protect the killer from the avenger and place him in a nearby city of refuge and he would be safe from revenge.
The concurrence of the phrases “shall judge” and “shall protect” sheds light for our sages on the role of law in Judaism:

If the Sanhedrin saw someone kill another person…Rabbi Akiva says they are all rendered witnesses and a witness cannot become a judge… for the Merciful One says, “and the congregation shall judge… and the congregation shall save”.
(Babylonian Talmud, Tractate Rosh Hashana, page 25 and 26)

Here is a halacha (Jewish law) that appears to be absurd. The judges themselves saw a man killing someone else. Seemingly, there is nothing left to doubt. There is no need for investigation. The judges themselves know the facts. But our sages disqualify these judges since a fair trial requires both sides to be heard, both prosecution and defense. When the judges themselves witnessed the murder, they cannot be objective about the defense. You cannot have a fair trial if the judge approaches the case with a pre-determined conclusion.

On a deeper level, the Jewish court is defined here as something that “saves.” That doesn’t mean that every person who faces the court is found innocent. Guilty people have to pay the price for their actions. But the judge should strive to acquit the defendant. If the judge himself was a witness to the case, he cannot possibly “save” the defendant and therefore must be disqualified.

When Rabbi Chaim Soloveitchik, one of the greatest rabbis in Russia in the 19th century, was asked what community rabbi’s main role is, he answered with the words of Isaiah: “to revive the spirit of the humble and to revive the heart of the crushed.” That is the job of a Jewish rabbi and judge – to strive for acquittal, to save anyone he can, and to revive the spirit of the humble or crushed.

 

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