When I get to the blessing asking for righteous leadership and judges in my daily prayers, I wish I didn’t have such an easy time having the proper intention. Just judges are not supposed to bend the law, favor one party over another, or accept bribery. Israel’s religious court system regularly provides examples of all of the above.
But lately, there have been some breaking rays of hope, new alternatives developing to a broken system. For kashrut, marriage, divorce, and conversion, individuals and religious courts, both in Israel and the United States, created by leaders of great stature, seek to care for the marginalized and bring relief to the suffering.
Whether or not they will succeed does not depend on the few who hold positions of power. It depends on all of us.
Chapter 16 places the ultimate responsibility for good judges on the “consumer”. The central mandate of “Justice, Justice, shall you pursue!” is directed, according to the Talmud, not at the judges, but at the people.
“Go after a pleasant beit din, to Rabbi Eliezer in Lod, to Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakai in Beror Chayil” (Sanhedrin 32b).
It’s an interesting choice of words- not a ‘wise’ beit din, or a ‘pious’ one, certainly not a ‘stringent’ one. The demand that people seek out a ‘pleasant’ beit din means that the courts are supposed to be made accountable for customer satisfaction. The cause of justice is served when the people are properly served; and, in the inverse, a court which causes people suffering is a corruption of justice.
To continue using such courts is to be an accessory to this corruption. The alternatives exist. The responsibility is our own to speak with our feet, to search out a pleasant beit din, to seek justice.