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 U.S. Should Recognize Israeli Sovereignty over the Golan Heights

July 19 2018

Since the 1970s, American governments have sporadically pressured Jerusalem to negotiate the return of the Golan to Syria in exchange for peace. Had Israel given up this territory, Iranian forces would now be preparing to establish themselves on its strategically advantageous high ground. Michael Doran, testifying before the House of Representatives, argues that for this and other reasons, Congress should recognize Israeli sovereignty over the Golan. (Video is available at the link below.)

Between 1949 and 1967, [the period during which Syria held the Golan], thousands of clashes erupted [there]. By contrast, ever since Israel took control of the Golan Heights in June 1967, they have served as a natural buffer between the two belligerents. The last 70 years serve as a laboratory of real life, and the results [of the experiment conducted therein] are incontrovertible: when in the hands of Syria, the Golan Heights promoted conflict. When in the hands of Israel, they have promoted stability. . . .

From the outbreak of the [Syrian] civil war, Iran and Russia have worked aggressively to shape the conflict so as to serve their interests. The influence of Iran is particularly worrisome because, in the division of labor between Moscow and Tehran, Russia provides the air power while Iran provides much of the ground forces. . . . Thanks to Iran’s newfound ground presence [in Syria], it is well on the way to completing a so-called “land bridge” stretching from Tehran to Beirut. There can be no doubt that a major aim of the land bridge is to increase the military pressure on Israel (and Jordan, too). . . .

Would Americans ever consciously choose to place Iranian soldiers on the Golan Heights, so that they could peer down their riflescopes at Jewish civilians below? Is there any American interest that would be served by allowing Iran to have direct access to the Sea of Galilee, Israel’s primary water reservoir? Would it ever be wise to place Iranian troops [where they could] serve as a wedge between Jordan and Israel? The answer to all of these questions, obviously, is no. And the clearest way to send that message to the world is to pass a law recognizing Israeli sovereignty over the Golan Heights.

As for the claim that the Jewish state’s seizure of the Golan in 1967 violates international law, Doran notes that Washington undermined this claim with its attempts in the 1990s to broker a deal between Jerusalem and Damascus:

The ready American (and Israeli) acceptance of the June 4, 1967 cease-fire line [as the basis for such a deal] is nothing short of startling. That line . . . leaves Syria in possession of territory along the shores of the Sea of Galilee and elsewhere that it acquired by force in 1948. In other words, to win over its enemy, [Syria], the Clinton administration dispensed with the principle of the impermissibility of the acquisition of territory by force—the very principle that the United States has remained ever-vigilant in applying to its ally, Israel.

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More about: Congress, Golan Heights, Iran, Israel & Zionism, Syrian civil war, U.S. Foreign policy