Torah Speaks to the Headlines
Shabbat Shalom from Rabbi Schweber, August 24, 2012 / 6 Elul 5772
Torah Speaks to the Headlines
I never cease to be amazed how the Torah remains relevant to our lives 3000 years later. I really should not be amazed because the Torah is a holy book that speaks to humans. The fundamentals of being human have not really changed that much in 3000 years. It is only our environment and the way we live that has changed. We have the same concerns that the people of the Torah and hence the Torah can still speak to us.
This week’s Parashat Shofetim begins with commandments to set up a judicial system.
You shall appoint magistrates and officials for your tribes, in all the settlements that the LORD your God is giving you, and they shall govern the people with due justice. You shall not judge unfairly: you shall show no partiality; you shall not take bribes, for bribes blind the eyes of the discerning and upset the plea of the just. Justice, justice shall you pursue, that you may thrive and occupy the land that the LORD your God is giving you… (If someone has allegedly committed a transgression) you shall make a thorough inquiry. If it is true, the fact is established, that abhorrent thing was perpetrated in Israel, you shall take the man or the woman who did that wicked thing out to the public place, and you shall stone them, man or woman, to death. A person shall be put to death only on the testimony of two or more witnesses; he must not be put to death on the testimony of a single witness.
The Torah tells us that policing and judging is in our hands. However, it is clear from the beginning that the Torah knows that human justice is fallible. It is our obligation as a society to seek justice and try out best to keep out corruption and mistakes. The Torah’s justice system includes the death penalty but it puts in a hefty check that is made even more powerful by the rabbis. A person cannot be put to death unless there are two or more witnesses. The rabbi’s focused on the previous verse commanding the judges to perform a thorough inquiry and put stringent requirements on what kind of testimony can be accepted. Essentially the witnesses must agree on everything even details not pertinent to the case. For example if two witnesses testify they saw a particular perpetrator commit a crime the witnesses may be asked what the time was. If one said 12:45 and the other 12:46 the case would be thrown out.
The fallibility of eye witness testimony has been in the news recently. Apparently there have been inconsistencies among the four witnesses in case where the neighborhood watchman George Zimmerman is accused of murdering Trayvon Martin in Florida. Scholars agree that there is a lot involved when it comes recalling eye witness accounts and that there is room for differences to be created. There is an interesting article in Scientific American – http://www.scientificamerican.com/article.cfm?id=are-eyewitnesses-in-the-z that discusses this phenomenon.
This week there was also a piece on WNYC radio (http://www.wnyc.org/articles/wnyc-news/2012/aug/21/bronx-da/) pointing out the fact that the Bronx County DA’s office dismisses a far greater number of cases than anywhere else in the city and state. The reason according to WNYC is because of an internal rule that victims must come forward to give their statement within 24 hours of arrest. There is controversy in this rule but I am sure the fact that eye witness testimony becomes less and less reliable the farther an event takes place is behind the rule’s rationale.
There is clearly a lot more to say about the reliability of witness testimony. As the Torah teaches us, this is not a new issue. If we follow the Torah’s double command of tzedek tzedek tirdof, to seek justice as our primary goal then we can and should be confident in our human judicial system.
Rabbi Daniel Schweber