Working to get religious school open this weekend, along with our congregation's 40th anniversary celebration. So pardon me if I recycle this musing from 1999, with a few added thoughts for this year.
Shnayim o shlosha says our holy Torah in D'varim 17:6. We've developed a tendency in the Jewish world to simplify this concept to be the requiring of two witnesses to a crime for a conviction.
But the actual text is not so simplistic. 17:6 in context immediately follows the commandment in 17:5 to stone to death a man or woman who has transgressed by worshipping other gds. Then the Torah tells us that a person shall be put to death only upon the testimony or TWO or THREE witnesses. The text goes on, in 17:7 to require the witnesses to be the first to begin the process of killing the offender.
So what have we got here? First, an acceptance of the death penalty for a specific crime (and one of several that the Torah specifies the death penalty for.) A provision to insure that adequate witnesses to the crime have testified regarding it. Then a requirement for those testifying against the accused to participate and initiate the penalty. What does this add up to?
First off, I have to ask why Gd would create creatures that could so sin against Gd that the only punishment would be death? And what happens to the souls of these people when they are executed? And why create humankind so imperfectly that one might abuse the ability to testify against another?
Those questions I cannot answer. But at least I know that our Torah recognizes our weaknesses and limitations as a species-and thus provides for safeties and checks and balances to help insure justice.
But what kind of justice is this we pursue? One in which we can kill someone for worshipping other gds? If we pursue this kind of justice, how will we thrive in the land that Gd is giving us (D'varim 16:20, the famous 'tzedek, tzedek tirdof" passage) because we may wind up killing off a good percentage of the populace, based on what the prophets later tells us about the behavior of the children of Israel?
There is a lot to be admired in the system of justice our holy Torah gives us. But there is also a great deal to be questioned. Once, at a CAJE conference, I heard a powerful story about a man searching for justice. He searched the world over looking for justice, getting some spurious examples of it along the way from various perspectives. In the end, he discovers the choice was in his own hands and not something one finds by looking for it in others. While Torah may tell us what justice is, I think if we read deeper, we discover the message is that the pursuit of justice really is in our hands. Torah might only be a guide, and we must be careful to not always assume plain meaning in its words.
[5765 - Right now, our country is conflicted as it struggles to deal with the crisis wrought by hurricane Katrina. Charges are flying fast and furious between some, while others try to refocus the discussion on what we are doing to help the victims. (Sadly, some are perhaps using that as a tatic to draw attention away from the problems they may be responsible for.) If mistakes happened that could have been prevented, justice demands that we investigate, that we "pursue." Yet there is some truth to the concept that now is not the time to divert resources into those investigations. I also think that, as in the story just mentioned, we may discover after much eager pursuit of justice that it was right in our hands the whole time. And we may all be guilty of contributing to the problems.]
Why "two or three" witnesses? Why not say "two" or "three" or some other number? (I think it's fairly clear why it doesn't say "one." The only time one witness will suffice is when that witness is the One, and all of us my ultimately be judged by that witness.) Two or three people could just as easily conspire to convict an innocent person so I'm not sure this particular check is sufficient enough. I even think one might groups of people willing to conspire against an innocent person, even if they were then required to be the firing squad! So that check too may be insufficient. I'm not sure Gd should have given us the power and authority to kill our own kind so easily.
So, this Shabbat, I'm going to think about what the Torah means when it says "two or three witnesses" and when it requires the witnesses to be the first to carry out the death sentence. I don't think the answers are as simple as the literal meanings of the words. Time to turn it and turn it again. And seek to define what the justice I will be pursuing really is.
(c)1999 and 2005 by Adrian A. Durlester
Shabbat Shalom and G'mar Chatima Tovah,
©1998, 2001 and 2005 by Adrian A. Durlester
Some other musings on this parasha:
Shof'tim 5761-Sacrifice: From Defective to Greatest
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