Politics & Parsha: Emor 5771

Posted on May 6, 2011 In Archives

Politics & Parsha: “Shul Politics Like Never Before”

Each week IPA Deputy Director of Public Policy Howie Beigelman takes a look at the weekly parsha and discusses it in a way you may never have seen. Any hashkafic, halachic or political opinions are personal and do not reflect the official psak or policy of the OU.

Emor 5771: Justice

Injustice is relatively easy to bear; it is justice that hurts. – H.L. Mencken

Unless you spent the week in that cave in Tora Bora everyone thought Osama Bin Laden was hiding (except for Seth Meyers, who put him on C-SPAN) instead of his palatial mansion where he actually hid out in plain sight of Pakistani intelligence, you’ve also spent much of the week hearing a lot about justice. Justice was served. Justice was done (no, not like this, but close). While the Bible this week also speaks of justice, careful students of the Bible might find it strange. The legal system plunges into disarray when someone curses the Almighty but no one is sure of the appropriate punishment. So the accused (or more accurately, the guilty) is placed in prison.

But his time in solitary (Rashi takes pains to note he was kept separate from the only other prisoner, the mekosheish eitzim – the Sabbath violating gatherer of sticks) was only until his punishment was ascertained. While Kings of Israel created separate law enforcement and court systems to keep the peace that may have included prisons, imprisonment is an anomaly in Torah jurisprudence. Guilty parties are expected to pay for their crime in a way that offers practical – or at least comparable – recompense. In a Torah system, thieves, burglars and muggers don’t spend even one day in prison. Rather, they return the property/pay back what they have taken and sometimes repay double, quadruple or even quintuple (in a legal system that elsewhere outlaws interest). Those unable to pay back what they owe are sold into slavery. Not chattel slavery, but sold only for an appropriate period of time to work off their debt. Assault & battery similarly require either monetary damages; sometimes for as many as five separately accounted categories: pain, shame/suffering, medical, lost wages etc.

Taking this system into the modern day, the victims of Bernie Madoff’s schemes would be infinitely better off if instead of sitting in jail at taxpayer expense he worked to pay them back. While we were never math mavens, we are quite sure he’ll never work hard enough or long enough to repay all he stole – let alone double – but anything is a start. Society is long past chain gangs and license plates, but the CorCraft model – is one that provides training to prisoners and some compensation to society – or the taxpayer at least.

Why does prison exist nowhere in Jewish law?

Because the Bible wanted to teach each of us we are ultimately responsible for our actions. As psychotherapist and Holocaust survivor Viktor Frankl put it, “I recommend that the Statue of Liberty be supplemented by a Statue of Responsibility on the west coast.” Saying we are sorry, without taking action to show we are sorry doesn’t work in the child’s sandbox, a teen’s playground or an adult’s boardroom.

There are times – as there were this week – that a death sentence is the appropriate & proper consequence to crimes committed – whether such sentence is delivered by a judge and jury after due process or done after a kill order from the Director of Central Intelligence.

Events of this week remind us we all eventually pay for our deeds. And the Bible this week teaches us that it’s far better to own up early on. It’s right – and it’s just(ice).

Words to consider, ideas to ponder — politics & the parsha.