Vayishlach: Universal Principles of Justice

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Judges Bench
11 Dec 2008

Our parsha is filled with incidents which help instruct us how to relate to our non-Jewish neighbors. One particularly interesting question the Rishonim discussed is the status of non-Jewish courts, which are one of the seven mitzvot of bnei Noach. The subject arises because of the mistreatment of Dina – an obvious breach of civilized norms. The Rambam states that the sons of Yaakov were called upon to punish the individual residents of Shechem for this transgression. The Ramban, however, explains that execution of justice is by nature an obligation of the community as a whole. (Ramban on Bereshit 34:23.)

The Ramban goes on to say that the basic outlines of non-Jewish justice should be parallel to those of Torah law. This suggests that the basic outlines of Torah jurisprudence are meant to reflect universally applicable principles of justice. There are many halakhot which seem to support this view.

For instance, the Shulchan Arukh rules that in the case where a Jew is being sued by a non-Jew in a non-Jewish court, a fellow Jew may testify on behalf of the non-Jew only if the court won’t rely on the Jew’s testimony without corroboration of an additional witness or of an oath requirement. (SA CM 28:3-4.) The Sema explains that the general principle is that anytime the testimony would be more damaging than corresponding testimony in a Beit Din, the testimony is forbidden.

This rule doesn’t seem to reflect any obligatory aspect of Noachide judgment, for non-Jewish courts are authorized to rule on the basis of a single witness. (At least in capital cases – Sanhedrin 57b.) The rule also doesn’t reflect a requirement for testimony which would itself be sufficient in Beit Din, for the additional witness can be a non-Jew, and a non-Jew may not testify in Beit Din. (SA CM 34:19; the Beit Yosef points out that according to almost all Rishonim this is true according to Torah law.)

Rather, the rule suggests that the requirement for two witnesses in a monetary judgment is a basic principle of fairness, which should ideally apply even in a non-Jewish court. (See also Rosh Bava Kama 1:19.)
[There are many exceptions to this rule, including the case of a designated witness who should testify in any case. Nowadays many cases can be considered like a designated witness – see Arukh HaShulchan 28:5. My comments are not meant to provide practical halakhic guidance, but rather to convey some of the deeper messages we find in the halakha.]

Another example is a responsum of Rav Moshe Feinstein, written to a prominent government official who sought the Torah position on capital punishment. The majority of Rav Moshe’s answer is dedicated to the explication of the great severity of the death penalty in halakha, and the many obstacles to imposing it which are a result of the our recognition that each human life is precious. Afterwards, Rav Moshe mentions the special circumstances under which judges may nonetheless impose capital punishment – again, according to Jewish law! (Igrot Moshe Choshen Mishpat II:68.) This despite the fact that according to Noachide law, even a single judge can impose the death penalty according to the testimony of a single witness for a wide variety of transgressions

There are widely varying opinions among halakhic authorities if Noachide justice should be based on Jewish law or on convention. However, there is no question that many requirements of halakha do not apply to non-Jews. Yet despite the fact that we don’t view non-Jews as being obligated to apply all the main principles of Torah judgment, there is much evidence that all mankind should ideally strive to emulate the foundations of justice found in Torah law.

Rabbi Asher Meir is the author of the book Meaning in Mitzvot, distributed by Feldheim. The book provides insights into the inner meaning of our daily practices, following the order of the 221 chapters of the Kitzur Shulchan Aruch.

The words of this author reflect his/her own opinions and do not necessarily represent the official position of the Orthodox Union.