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

“Ending the War in Yemen” Would Lead to More Bloodshed and Threaten Global Trade

Dec. 13 2018

A bipartisan movement is afloat in Congress to end American support for the Saudi-led coalition currently fighting the Iran-backed Houthi rebels in Yemen. With frustration at Riyadh over the killing of Jamal Khashoggi, reports of impending famine and a cholera outbreak in Yemen, and mounting casualties, Congress could go so far as to cut all funding for U.S. involvement in the war. But to do so would be a grave mistake, argues Mohammed Khalid Alyahya:

Unfortunately, calls to “stop the Yemen war,” though morally satisfying, are fundamentally misguided. . . . A precipitous disengagement by the Saudi-led coalition . . . would have calamitous consequences for Yemen, the Middle East, and the world at large. The urgency to end the war reduces that conflict, and its drivers, to a morality play, with the coalition of Arab states cast as the bloodthirsty villain killing and starving Yemeni civilians. The assumption seems to be that if the coalition’s military operations are brought to a halt, all will be well in Yemen. . . .

[But] if the Saudi-led coalition were to cease operations, Iran’s long arm, the Houthis, would march on areas [previously controlled by the Yemeni government] and exact a bloody toll on the populations of such cities as Aden and Marib with the same ruthlessness with which they [treated] Sanaa and Taiz during the past three years. The rebels have ruled Sanaa, kidnapping, executing, disappearing, systematically torturing, and assassinating detractors. In Taiz, they fire mortars indiscriminately at the civilian population and snipers shoot at children to force residents into submission.

[Moreover], an abrupt termination of the war would leave Iran in control of Yemen [and] deal a serious blow to the global economy. Iran would have the ability to obstruct trade and oil flows from both the Strait of Hormuz and the Bab el-Mandeb strait. . . . About 24 percent of the world’s petroleum and petroleum products passes through these two waterways, and Iran already has the capability to disrupt oil flows from Hormuz and threatened to do so this year. Should Iran acquire that capability in Bab el-Mandeb by establishing a foothold in the Gulf of Aden, even if it chose not to utilize this capability oil prices and insurance costs would surge.

Allowing Tehran to control two of the most strategic choke points for the global energy market is simply not an option for the international community. There is every reason to believe that Iran would launch attacks on maritime traffic. The Houthis have mounted multiple attacks on commercial and military vessels over the past several years, and Iran has supplied its Yemeni proxy with drone boats, conventional aerial drones, and ballistic missiles.

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More about: Iran, Oil, Politics & Current Affairs, Saudi Arabia, U.S. Foreign policy, Yemen