You shall set up judges and law enforcement officials for yourself in all your cities that the Lord, your God, is giving you, for your tribes, and they shall judge the people [with] righteous judgment.
In Judaism, there is no room for a police state. In this week’s Torah portion, Moses stresses that the police work for the judges rather than the other way around. The role of the judicial system is to decide cases expertly, impartially and quickly. The police are meant to enforce judgments; they do not operate on their own authority.
Unfortunately, there is plenty of room for a police state in the State of Israel. How ironic that the clearest example of this came on Sept. 1, during this week’s Torah reading “Judges,” in which the Supreme Court ruled that torture of a Jewish youngster by the secret police, called the Shin Bet, was legal. Justices Yosef Elron, Yitzhak Amit and Shaul Shochet did not dispute the defense claim that Amiram Ben Uliel, accused of arson that killed three members of a Palestinian family in 2015, underwent what was termed “special methods” during weeks of interrogation. They said his confession was still valid and marked the basis of his conviction and sentencing to three life terms.
Elron, even as he ruled for the Shin Bet, admitted that he was uncomfortable with his decision. The judge said this could encourage the security services to abuse inmates during interrogation. Defense attorney Avigdor Feldman, who spent his life fighting the abuse of prisoners, said Israel has become perhaps the only country that “openly approves of torture as an accepted investigative tool by the Shin Bet.”
You shall not pervert justice; you shall not show favoritism, and you shall not take a bribe, for bribery blinds the eyes of the wise and perverts just words.
Notice the order. Moses first warned against judges who focus on one part of the law at the expense of the rest. Then, the judges are told that they cannot favor any of the litigants — either soft on the powerful or hard on the poor. Finally, Moses addresses bribery or the ability by outsiders to influence decisions. Cash is the obvious bribe. But more devious is the threat of punishing a judge who will not be intimidated. Such a judge could find his career blocked or face disciplinary hearings.
Binyamin Halevy was the maverick of Israeli judges. A refugee from Germany, Halevy was one of the few Jews appointed to the bench under the British Mandate. In the early years of the State of Israel the decisions of the Jerusalem district judge grated on the establishment and were often overturned by the Supreme Court. They included his 1955 decision that Rudolf Kastner, a rising Mapai apparatchik, was a collaborator of the Germans in their killing of more than 400,000 Jews in Hungary in 1944. Later, Halevy sentenced the border police commanders in the 1956 massacre of nearly 50 Arabs outside Kfar Kassim to long prison terms. Within a year, all of the policemen were pardoned, and one was promoted to a senior security post.
Halevy was the bane of the Mapai regime. Although president of the Jerusalem District Court, he was prevented from presiding over the trial of Adolf Eichmann in 1961. He was repeatedly passed over for promotion to the Supreme Court. In 1963, when Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion finally made good on his decade-old promise to appoint Halevy to the Supreme Court, he found himself ostracized by his new colleagues. Six years later, he became the first judge to resign from the high court to run for Knesset.
Justice, justice shall you pursue, that you may live and possess the land the Lord, your God, is giving you.
How important is justice? The Torah says justice, also translated as truth, is paramount to any society. Moses Ben Nachman, known as Nachmanides, asserts that the appointment of righteous and capable judges marks the key to the survival of Israel. Corrupt judges bring tragedy and expel the Jewish people from their land. This took place during the Second Temple, when judges, who bought their positions, used every opportunity to solicit bribes. This was business.
In his admonition, Moses repeated the word “justice.” The first time was meant for the judges. But the second reference was to the Jews themselves. Nachmanides says Moses’ message was that the people cannot evade responsibility for the judicial system. They must pursue justice as doggedly as the judges and police. If the judges are found to be corrupt, they must be replaced.
If the people are too weak to make a change, they must abandon the evil men in robes and find honest and righteous men to adjudicate. Because today it is Ben Uliel. Tomorrow, it could be our children or even us.
“The judges must judge the people with righteous justice,” Nachmanides says. “So should you always pursue righteousness in that you will go from your place to one in where there are great scholars.