Shoftim: Honest Courts

Who is the prime mover of the justice system, the defendant or the judge?

Rabbi Lazer Gurkow,

Rabbi Lazer Gurkow
Rabbi Lazer Gurkow
Rabbi Lazer Gurkow

Define Honesty
A tour group visited the court house and watched a court in session. The guide showed them the judge, jury, prosecutor, defense counsel and witnesses. “You see,” said the guide, “it takes many people to turn the wheels of justice.” At that point the prisoner called out from his box, “Don’t forget me, without me there would be no system.”

This leads us to an interesting question. Who is the prime mover of the justice system, the defendant or the judge? An argument can be made either way. Without the defendant there would be no case, but without the judge there would be no court, who is paramount?

The Torah tells us, “Justice, justice you shall pursue.”[1] The Talmud explains that good justice is worth pursuing. If a local judge is dishonest, it is worthwhile moving the case to find an honest judge.[2] But the question remains, who defines honesty? One man’s honesty is another man’s theft. Rarely do you hear the losing side praise the jury or judge for a good verdict. The winner always believes the system got it right and the loser always claims the system is corrupt. What makes a judge honest?

The answer is internal to the judge. If the judge lives a life of integrity, if the judge is humble, G-d fearing, honest and kind, both defendant and plaintiff will accept his or her judgement. The prisoner might be the reason for the trial, but the judge makes it happen. It matters not as much whether the judge is fair in judgement. It matters much more that the judge is fair in person.

Human and Beast
G-d created the human last because humanity is a composite of all creation. When it was time to make Adam, the creator told each creature to contribute part of themselves. G-d then contributed part of Himself and the composite result was the human. Our body comprises the best of every created thing our soul is comprised of G-d.[3]

Once we were formed, G-d instructed us to rule over all creatures.[4] This is understood as G-d granting us responsibility for the universe. Not only are we stewards of its physical environment, we were entrusted with stewardship of its spiritual environment.

When we behave properly, we lift the entire universe. As the only creatures endowed with free choice, only we can choose right from wrong. Only we can choose a life of integrity, honesty and good faith. Only we can choose a life of spiritual devotion and chastity. Other creatures can only function according to the nature imprinted on them in creation. They cannot break from their mold.

If they were created with kind dispositions they will be kind. If they were created with cruel dispositions, they will be cruel. They can’t change it. The sun can no more choose to be warmer in the winter than the raven can choose to be kind to its young’uns. The dog cannot choose to be disloyal to its master and the cat cannot choose to be immodest. That is their nature.

Only the human can choose, which is why we sit on the pedestal of creation or in its cellar. When we choose correctly, we rise to the highest level. When we choose wrongly, we descend to the lowest pit.

How does the rest of the universe rise? How do they get a chance to do something for the cause of goodness and righteousness? Only through the human. Since G-d made us a composite of every created being, when we choose correctly, every element in us rises. When our beastly element rises so do all of the world’s beasts. When our vegetable element rises, so does the entire realm of vegetation, etc.[5]

Leader and Follower
This very dynamic plays out among us too. Just as the universe rises and falls on our choices, so do we rise and fall on the choices of our compatriots, especially our leaders.

It is human nature to be influenced by the people around us. Our sages taught that if you want to be righteous, it is wise to surround yourself with righteous people. This is especially true of people with leadership qualities. Those with expansive personalities and leadership characteristics tend to bend others to their will. They create an environment in which their choices flourish for others to join.

The leader doesn’t act alone. The leader seeks the support and following of others. It can thus be said that when leaders embark on a course of action, they count on all their followers. Their resolve and energy is comprised equally of themselves and their followers.

Thus when the leader strikes out in a particular direction, the others strike out too. Before they even made the choice, the leader has already moved them. Internally, they are already inspired by the leader’s choice. Now all that is left is for them to do, is make the choice.[6]

Honest Court
It’s time for us return to the judge’s influence upon the court. For better or for worse, the judge is the leader in court. When the judge issues a ruling, the system trusts the judge’s jurisprudence. A judge with a reputation for integrity inspires both parties to conduct themselves with integrity. They know that the judgements are not biased or corrupt. They trust in the judge’s jurisprudence.

This might not stop them from manipulating the judicial system, but they will accept that the verdict was honestly reached. They might appeal, but they won’t run around screaming that the verdict was corrupt. The judge, the leader in the courtroom, will have inspired them to take an honest look at his verdict because they will know that the verdict was arrived at honestly.

Such a judge is worth traveling to. “Justice, justice you shall pursue.” If there is an honest judge down the road, both parties should pursue that court because both are served by its integrity and honesty.

An even deeper translation of the verse thus emerges: “Justice” – if justice, the judge, is honest, “justice you will pursue,” both parties will pursue justice, rather than the game of gotcha.[7]

Sources:

[1] Deuteronomy 16:20

[2] Babylonian Talmud, Sanhedrin 32b.

[3] Zohar III 238b. See also Avos D’Reb Nosson 31c.

[4] Genesis 1:26.

[5] Ohel Yaakov by the Dubner Maggid on Genesis 1:26.

[6] Chovas Halevavos: Shaar Haprishus, ch. 2. Incidentally, this is where the dynamic is different. Between human and the rest of creation, only the human has a choice. Between leaders and followers each follower has a choice. The leader can only inspire. But in the inspiration, the leader has already ignited the process. Even before making the choice, the follower has started the journey.

[7] Maharam Shik on Deuteronomy 16:20.



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