Is Justice Always Judicious? (1 Kings 3:15- 4:1)

Is justice always judicious? King Solomon is renowned for a famous case which came before him at the beginning of his reign as king. Two prostitutes, who lived together, both had infant sons. One night, one of these children died when his mother rolled over on him. The aggrieved mother switched the children in the middle of the night, taking the living child for her own and placing the dead child in the arms of the other woman. In the morning, the other mother realized that the dead child by her side was not hers. The case was brought before the young king. Each woman pleaded her case, leaving the king to decide who would retain the live child. Since each woman claimed the child, the king devised a clever way to come to the truth of the matter. He told an officer of the court to take the live child and cut it in two. The baby’s real mother willingly gave up the live child in order to save its life while the other woman sided with the king’s decision to divide the child in half. The king deduced from the behavior of the women the identity of the real mother. Everyone was impressed by the king’s “wise” and discerning decision.

Solomon’s decision may have been wise but was it just? This case underwent “judicial review” in the following midrash which “played out the plot of the story this way: “[After hearing the women’s pleas], the king immediately ruled: ‘Divide the living child in two’. At this point, the king became effusive, saying, ‘The Holy One Blessed be He foresaw that this case would come before me, and that is why He created people with two eyes, two nostrils, two hands and two legs…’ (Upon hearing this retelling of the story, Rabbi Yehuda bar Ellai proclaimed: ‘If I had been there, I would have put a rope around Solomon’s neck! Is it not enough that one child is dead, that he should order to cut the second in two?) [Similarly], when the king’s advisors heard this decree, they cried out: ‘Woe to the land, whose king is a slave [a fool]’ (Ecclesiastes 10:16) In the end, nothing came of the decree, since the king went on to say: ‘Give her (the child’s real mother) the living child, surely do not slay it’ (1 Kings 3:27) A heavenly voice confirmed: ‘She is the mother.’ (Ibid.) When the advisors heard this, they, too, acclaimed: ‘Happy is the land whose king is a noble ‘ (Ecclesiastes 10:17)” (adapted from Midrash Tehillim 72:2 Buber ed. pp. 324-5)

What aroused Rabbi Yehuda’s ire? This question is answered elsewhere: “Rabbi Pinhas and Rabbi Yermiah in the name of Rabbi Hiyyah bar Abba and Rabbi Beibai…: Legal cases are carried out thus, the judge sits and the litigants stand and the judge decides between them. The claimant claims and the defendant responds…” (adapted from Kohelet Rabbah 10:16) Justice required process. Wisdom is insufficient, since it can also be capricious. Even the wisest man cannot always determine the outcome of his wisdom. There is a need for checks and balances to insure as much as possible that justice is carried out. This is what worried Rabbi Yehuda and the king’s advisors and this is why the sages had a heavenly voice confirm Solomon’s judgment in their retelling of the story.

This is the order of business in all walks of life. Governance even by the wisest of men is not wise without counsel. How much more so justice. As wise as Solomon may have been, even he ultimately succumbed to this truth.

About the Author
Mordechai Silverstein is a teacher of Torah who has lived in Jerusalem for over 30 years. He specializes in helping people build personalized Torah study programs.
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