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Torah portion: Law and order Jewish style

by Rabbi Dov Fischer

3 weeks ago

The first sentence of this week’s Torah portion says it all: “Judges and [law-enforcement] officers shall you establish for [yourselves] within all your borders.” Judges to interpret and oversee righteous application of the law. Law-enforcement officers — cops — to keep the peace and enforce the order.

There is so much more to the Torah beyond the important laws regarding birds one is forbidden to eat, acts forbidden on Shabbat and the particular agricultural species that one is bidden to take in hand on Sukkot. Beyond all that, there are laws of ethics and morality, civil reward and civil punishment, and practical laws governing every aspect of real life. 

Anyone with more than network TV probably knows about the ubiquitousness of the program “Law & Order.” One or another iteration of that episodic series always seems to be on, and, reflecting real life, that subject matter is the Torah’s theme this week.

In many ways, the recent tragedy in Ferguson, Mo., brought home what happens when law and order break down. After a Caucasian police officer shot an African-American youth to death under highly controversial circumstances, suggesting to a distrusting local community that the killing was racially motivated, Ferguson suddenly became a place where law enforcement temporarily lost the legitimacy it requires to enforce. Once the police had been neutralized, invalidated by a long-suspicious populace, chaos reigned. There were riots, Molotov cocktails hurled along public city streets, bullets fired indiscriminately. Thugs streamed in from other states to join in and propel the riots. Utter chaos. Next came the Highway Patrol, and, finally, the National Guard.

For many of us in Los Angeles to relate, all we have to do is hearken to the Rodney King riots of 1992. Parts of the city were in virtual insurrection. Infamously, a Caucasian truck driver, Reginald Denny, while mundanely waiting in his vehicle for a red light to turn green at the corner of Florence and Normandie avenues, suddenly was yanked out of his car and was beaten to a pulp by rioters. In short order, the California National Guard was called in to quell the storm, and, ultimately, Marines were called to take back the streets. 

The Torah tells us that laws are purposeless without enforcement. We need cops. Laws and their enforcement are so essential to the Torah sense of civilized society that, of only seven laws for which Torah jurisprudence holds non-Jews accountable, one of them is the obligation to establish courts and law enforcement in their societies, too. So — along with their obligations not to steal and not to kill, for example, non-Jews are held accountable for anarchy resulting from failing to establish and assign enforcement power to courts.

Still, if there are to be judges and officers, then the Torah imposes on them the obligation to act ethically and thereby to maintain their legitimacy. “And they shall judge the people with righteous judgment.” “Do not pervert justice. Do not [show partiality]. Do not accept a bribe because a bribe blinds eyes [even of] wise people and corrupts words of the righteous. Justice, justice shall you pursue, so that you may live and inherit the land that God is giving you” (Deuteronomy 16:18-20).

This week’s Torah portion continues with these themes throughout. In a dispute before the courts, there must be a thorough and complete investigation before punishment may be meted out or someone may be prosecuted. When the judges do hand down a ruling, their holding must be accepted, and law officers must be in the society to enforce the judgments. 

Indeed, we see in the contemporary Mideast how Israel has been affected by living alongside polities that celebrate some who have murdered babies and that name boulevards for others who have bombed non-combatant Jewish men, women and children. Where a society tolerates the utter breakdown of law, the social breakdown never stops with Jewish victims. We Jews ever are the world’s canaries in the coalmine. 

Today it may be three Jewish teens en route home for Shabbat, or two Israeli truck drivers who make a wrong turn and end up slaughtered in Ramallah with thugs and cutthroats boastfully holding their bloodied hands out the window for all to see. However, soon enough churches start burning in Alexandria, Christians face crucifixion in Aleppo, and tens of thousands of Christians flee Mosul fearing beheading. Yazidis are slaughtered, their women raped and enslaved, and an entire region erupts in flames. It all begins with society abetting the breakdown of law and order.

For us, this week’s Torah portion bears a clear message: “dina d’malkhuta dina” (the law of the land is the law). Long before the 17th-century English philosopher Thomas Hobbes wrote about the topic in “Leviathan,” this portion taught that society can devolve into a jungle, and we all therefore must accept the foundation of our society’s laws if they have been legislated with any measure approximating some fairness. Beyond that, we must respect the police, those assigned to uphold the law. And when the law or the officer is patently wrong, we may fight that injustice with all our energy — but within the procedures established by the law. 

Rabbi Dov Fischer, a legal consultant and an adjunct professor of law, is a longtime member of the national executive committee of the Rabbinical Council of America and rav of Young Israel of Orange County. His website is rabbidov.com.

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