Above the Law
Rabbi Reuven Mann
This week’s parsha, Shoftim, deals with creating a judicial system comprised of judges and police whose task is to see that society is governed by mishpat tzedak (righteous justice).
Establishing a community that lives according to just laws that are applied consistently and without exception is a prime objective of Judaism. Yet the Torah is aware of how vulnerable to corruption legal institutions are. The major causes of this defect are money, politics, and ordinary human emotions.
People who occupy positions of power can get things done for you or keep harm away from you. If you are embroiled in a major case involving large sums of money or lengthy prison sentences, you don’t want to be on the losing side. So you may then be tempted to seek shady avenues to obtain favorable treatment including the offer of a bribe to the presiding judge.
The Torah therefore prohibits in no uncertain terms any bribe-taking, as Rashi says, (even) “to judge righteously.” Even if a party offers money to the judge with no conditions as to how he decides the case, he may not take it. Being beholden is part of human nature. A person is naturally inclined to be favorable to anyone who honors him in any way.
Even if the judge scrupulously avoids bribe-taking, he is still vulnerable to corruption, because he is human and therefore an emotional creature. His deep seated feelings are responsible for “systemic” biases, sympathies, and preferences.
Thus, favoritism is prohibited in the conduct of trials, neither to the poor nor the wealthy. If an altruistic judge presides in a monetary case in which a poor person is pitted against a very wealthy one, he may not tweak things to benefit the needy litigant. He might seek to justify this by saying that both he and the wealthy party are obligated to support the poor, so why not allow him to win the case and be sustained with dignity?
This form of behavior is strictly prohibited by the Torah. The judge’s assignment is not to implement social justice, nor to correct all the ills of society. His only task is to apply the judgments of the Torah in the most fair and accurate manner.
The same is true when a distinguished individual appears to be on the verge of losing a very important case. This would constitute a big embarrassment for him and could negatively impact his business and the livelihoods of many people who depend on him. The judge might think that it would be better to let him win and make up the monies paid by the “losing” side from his own pocket. This constitutes the severe sin of compromising the judiciary system established by the Torah.
Politics is another matter that must be kept out of the courts. Too often, activist judges seek to impose their personal philosophies in interpretation of the laws. In fact, very often the decisions of certain justices on the Supreme Court are easily predictable. Nowadays, the Court generally consists of two types of people. There are traditional judges who believe their job is to interpret the constitution as honestly and objectively as possible to establish the “intent of the framers.”
The other type of justice maintains that the objective is to achieve societal goals via the passage of laws. Thus, they will find ways to justify statutes that are clearly unconstitutional because they believe in the objectives that they promote.
The current trend of interpreting judicial matters to align with political goals is very dangerous. Our democracy is protected by the fact that “no one is above the law,” that the rule of law is objective and unbending. When it is chipped away at and distorted to attain the desires of some, the whole system is undermined and corrupted.
The teachings of our Parsha are not only relevant to magistrates but to every one of us. We may not be sitting on the bench but on a functional level we are impelled to be judges. We are obliged to make judgements on the character of others such as spouses, children, friends, Synagogues and other organizations.
Indeed, virtually every aspect of our lives entails the need to make moral evaluations and intelligent choices. We therefore must train ourselves to be loyal seekers of truth and to resist the allure of those, such as politicians seeking our vote, to abandon reason and accept their propaganda.
Like the righteous judge every on of us must strive to recognize truth and to resist the “bribes” and appeals to our emotions of those who have selfish agendas. We must isolate and overcome inner impulses and external inducements that impede clear judgement.
Now more than ever the words of our Parsha are crucially relevant: “Judges and police officers shall you place in all your gates...and they shall judge the people with righteous judgement.” We have reached the point where the continued welfare of our society and all its members depends on this. May we merit to attain it.
In this time of social isolation, we should seek ways to avoid boredom by staying occupied with meaningful activity. The world of virtual reality allows us to stay in touch with friends and attend all kinds of classes available online.
But that can only take you so far. Comes Shabbat and Yom Tov, and you need books, especially on the parsha. I personally recommend Eternally Yours on Genesis http://bit.ly/EY-Genesis and Exodus http://bit.ly/EY-Exodus, and my newest one on Numbers http://bit.ly/EY-Numbers2. They are easy to read, interesting, and thought-provoking conversation starters. I am especially interested in your feedback and hope you can write a brief review and post it on Amazon.