How the Talmud Deals with Cases Where Evidentiary Standards Interfere with Justice

March 22 2018

In the talmudic system of criminal justice—which had ceased to be operative by the time the Talmud was redacted—the standards of evidence for a capital conviction are extremely high. Thus, in one case, a rabbi reports having seen one man chase another into a building while waving a sword; when the rabbi entered, he found the first holding a bloody sword, standing over the other’s corpse. The rabbi lamented that there were no grounds for convicting the murderer. Sarah Zager comments on how the talmudic sages addressed what they saw as a flaw in their own system:

Though many contemporary readers of the rabbinic tradition champion the rabbis’ strict legal procedures, the rabbis themselves also criticize it harshly. . . . The rabbis explicitly describe what is supposed to happen when it is clear that a murder has been committed, but the legal requirements for conviction cannot be met. “Someone who murders a person without witnesses is taken into the domed chamber and is fed meager bread and scant water.” [Then], the criminal should be . . . “fed barley until his intestines explode.” . . .

This is a strange . . . kind of judicial self-restraint indeed. But that doesn’t mean that it is devoid of all ethical insight; nor does it undermine the conventional reading of rabbinic legal procedure. Instead, the text gives voice to a powerful moral impulse. . . . The rabbis have seen someone shed blood, and, with their hands tied, they imagine (it’s unclear that they ever actually carried out this procedure) what they would want to happen to the person who so brazenly transgressed a deeply held moral norm. . . .

Just as we can learn from the Talmud’s demand for moral outrage, we can also learn something from the form that it takes. The possibilities that the Talmud explores for extrajudicial punishment are extraordinarily violent, perhaps even more violent than the ones that rabbinic law sanctions explicitly. . . .

The rabbis’ response to [their sense of outrage at the thought that the guilty would go unpunished] was to use their rich imaginations to devise a form of revenge that would settle the moral accounts and to include those narratives alongside their legal discussions. We can follow their example by making space for moral disgust in our public discourse, even if that disgust is [part of] a shared public discourse that occurs outside the courtroom.

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More about: Halakhah, Judaism, Morality, Religion & Holidays, Talmud

The Syrian Civil War May Be Coming to an End, but Three New Wars Are Rising There

March 26 2019

With both Islamic State and the major insurgent forces largely defeated, Syria now stands divided into three parts. Some 60 percent of the country, in the west and south, is in the hands of Bashar al-Assad and his allies. Another 30 percent, in the northeast, is in the hands of the mostly Kurdish, and American-backed, Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF). The final 10 percent, in the northwest, is held by Sunni jihadists, some affiliated with al-Qaeda, under Turkish protection. But, writes Jonathan Spyer, the situation is far from stable. Kurds, likely linked to the SDF, have been waging an insurgency in the Turkish areas, and that’s only one of the problems:

The U.S.- and SDF-controlled area east of the Euphrates is also witnessing the stirrings of internal insurgency directed from outside. According to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, “236 [SDF] fighters, civilians, oil workers, and officials” have been killed since August 2018 in incidents unrelated to the frontline conflict against Islamic State. . . . The SDF blames Turkey for these actions, and for earlier killings such as that of a prominent local Kurdish official. . . . There are other plausible suspects within Syria, however, including the Assad regime (or its Iranian allies) or Islamic State, all of which are enemies of the U.S.-supported Kurds.

The area controlled by the regime is by far the most secure of Syria’s three separate regions. [But, for instance, in] the restive Daraa province in the southwest, [there has been] a renewed small-scale insurgency against the Assad regime. . . .

As Islamic State’s caliphate disappears from Syria’s map, the country is settling into a twilight reality of de-facto division, in which a variety of low-burning insurgencies continue to claim lives. Open warfare in Syria is largely over. Peace, however, will remain a distant hope.

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More about: ISIS, Kurds, Politics & Current Affairs, Syrian civil war, Turkey