August 7, 2018

What a judge should remember (Shoftim)

One of the most fascinating topics discussed in Parshat Shoftim is the hierarchy of the Jewish legal system. There we read that “if you are unable to reach a decision in cases that demand examination of different types of דם/blood (ie. capital cases), different types of דין/litigation, or different types of נגע/marks (ie. cases involving leprous marks) where there is a dispute in your territorial courts, then you set out and go up to the place that God your Lord shall choose” (Devarim 17:8). This means that if a local court is unable to reach a conclusion on matters of civil or ritual law, they should redirect their question to the Sanhedrin in Jerusalem (ie. the Supreme Court of Jewish Law) who should resolve the question. Sadly, we live at a time when there is considerable dispute between Jewish courts, and given the fact that there is no Sanhedrin, there is no final voice to resolve the many questions we face. However, Torah can be read on multiple levels, and I recently came across a stunning explanation of this verse from Rabbi Yosef Chayim (aka, the Ben Ish Chai) in his work ‘Aderet Eliyahu’ which I believe is particularly relevant to our times.
He explains that the three words used by the Torah (דם, דין, נגע) with reference to cases in dispute, provide us with an insight as to why dispute occurs within Jewish Courts.
Firstly, he notes that word דם, meaning blood, is a shortened version of the hebrew word אדם (humanity), and, through reference to the (original) sin of Adam, he notes that the way that an אדם  is reduced to being called דם is through sinning. Thus, the Ben Ish Chai suggests that the reason why dispute occurs between judges is due to the fact that they lack righteousness.
Then he explains that the word דין (which often refers to a strict approach to judgement) is a shortened version of אדני (ie. the name of God). This suggests that the reason why dispute occurs between judges is because they lose sight of God during the process of deciding halakha and which can also lead judges to adopt unnecessarily strict positions.
Lastly, he explains that the hebrew word נגע refers to bias, ego and Sinat Chinam (which I will explain here as prejudice towards certain types of Jews) which can be found among judges.
The Ben Ish Chai concludes by explaining that the only way for a judge to overcome these challenges is by ‘setting out and going up to the place that God your Lord shall choose’, meaning, by ridding themselves of these negative attitudes and choosing a path of righteousness, integrity and Godliness.

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