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Parshas Shoftim

Justice And Human Error

Law and order are the basic ingredients of a civilized society. Judaism abhors anarchy and disorder. The Torah therefore orders Jewish society to create a system of justice - of judges and police and the rule of law. The Torah demands that we pursue justice. But not simply justice but rather righteousness, fairness and a sense of the rule of law and of an equitable judicial system. It is only a society that feels that it can rely on an equitable and reliable system of justice that can achieve community harmony, serenity and unity of purpose. The Torah, ever realistic and never naively optimistic about the true nature of human beings and their society, ordains that a system of justices and police be instituted throughout the Land of Israel in order to assure the basic requirement for a just, peaceful and unified society.

The Torah also warns us against the corruption of the governmental and judicial system. It teaches us that corruption destroys the vision of even the most righteous and pious of individuals. Corruption comes in many forms. It need not take the gross form of actual monetary bribery. Corruption, in the Jewish sense, includes prejudices, bigotry, insensitivity to others and pre-formed opinions about matters. People with strong personal agendas rarely if ever make for fair and unbiased judges. I think that perhaps one of the reasons that Judaism prefers courts composed of at least three judges is the realization that almost all humans possess such personal agendas and with a number of judges, their conflicting personal agendas cancel each other out and allow for a more unbiased hearing of the issues of the case under consideration. The recognition that humans by nature are subject to corruption, if not the venal kind at least the more subtle but equally dangerous personal prejudicial kind, allows for countermeasures to be taken to obtain fairness and equity in judicial matters.

The Torah also allows for the possibility of error in rendering judicial decisions. Because of this recognition of human fallibility, the death penalty as a practical matter was never really part of the Jewish judicial system. Nevertheless, a single erroneous decision by a court does not in itself undermine the confidence of the public in the judicial system per se. The Talmud stated that the rule of law - of the courts of each and every generation - should be respected even if eventually proven to be factually erroneous. Any system of human justice is by definition error- prone. It is the corruption of the judicial system rather than its possible mistakes that threatens its viability and public standing. And it is upon the prevention of this corruption of the judicial system that the Torah places emphasis. These are lessons that are as relevant to our society as they were in the days of Moshe. For we too are still commanded to pursue righteousness by righteous means with judges and courts of quality and fairness.

Shabat Shalom. Rabbi Berel Wein

Text Copyright 2004 by Rabbi Berel Wein and



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