In this week’s Torah reading of Mishpatim, God communicates to Moses a catalogue of civil laws, addressing such issues as torts, property, punishments for theft, and so forth. The German-born Spanish rabbi Jacob ben Asher (ca. 1269-1343), in the introduction to his codification of the corresponding body of talmudic law, attempts to explain the purpose of judges, courts, and the legal system itself, arguing that without such institutions, society would disintegrate into a war of all against all. Contrasting Jacob ben Asher’s approach with that of another Spanish talmudist, Nissim of Gerona (1320-1376), Shlomo Zuckier examines their radically different interpretations of Jewish law:
[Nissim] argues that, in actuality, there exists [in the Torah’s view] a dual rather than a singular system, one based on a rule of the judge and the other based on the law of the king. Judges and courts are enjoined to apply the laws according to their pristine truth, on the basis of the rules stated in the Torah, while the king . . . is charged with ensuring an orderly society.
These two branches of government are supposed to complement one another: the goal of the courts is to live up to the Torah’s theoretical ideals and to bring the divine bounty into the world through their implementation. As the societal effects of this limited application of the law . . . do not necessarily ensure that society is properly organized, the role of the king is to fill the void and take all necessary actions to ensure a safe and healthy society. . . [In fact, Nissim] goes out of his way to note that the judge is considered a partner with God in Creation for bringing God’s justice into the world “whether or not he succeeds in bringing order to society.”
Thus the approaches of the rabbis are directly opposed to one another in their understanding of the purpose of justice. Jacob ben Asher has a very pragmatic view that law creates order, while Nissim has an idealistic or metaphysical view of law as bringing a perfect, theoretical divine vision of justice into the world. In several cases, they treat the same talmudic prooftexts in fascinatingly divergent fashion. . . .