Judging in a Torah Court

Our parsha begins with the commandment to appoint judges. Of course even without an explicit mitzva the Jewish people would have had to establish some system of justice, just to ensure an orderly society. The fact that this arrangement is a Torah commandment seems to show some kind of religious significance to the area of monetary judgments. The same conclusion follows from the fact that the Torah encompasses not only religious laws but also a vast number of what we would call civil laws, including detailed regulation of commerce and of the judicial system.

Indeed, Torah law is very jealous of its jurisdiction over these seemingly mundane matters.

One reason for this is the desire to rule according to the statutes of Divine law. As legal scholars readily acknowledge, any system of “impartial” laws necessarily embodies a certain system of values; only if we base our judgment on the laws of the Torah can we be certain that the laws we apply are based on the eternal principles of fairness and morality which HaShem commands us.

However, this consideration is only part of the story. The halakha explicitly forbids bringing a case between Jews to a non-Jewish court even if the secular law in their particular dispute is the same as the Jewish one (SA CM 26). Conversely, it is a mitzva to bring a suit to the Jewish Beit Din even though they generally judge according to commercial custom and according to customary secular laws regulating commerce (SA CM 74:7).

One idea behind these laws is that ultimately judgment is a Divine prerogative. Human beings can administer utilitarian regulations, but human judges can administer true justice only as deputies of the Divine Judge Himself. “Don’t show favoritism in judgment, hear the small as the great, and fear no man; for judgment belongs to G-d.” (Devarim 1:17)

Indeed, the Hebrew word “Elohim” is not only one of the appellations of G-d but also a word for human judges. And the verse in the Ten Commandments which warns us against making “gods of silver and gods of gold” (Shemot 20:7) is also interpreted to mean that we shouldn’t appoint judges who receive their position because of their wealth or influence (Sanhedrin 7b).
In our generation we are acutely aware of the danger posed by judges who view themselves as gods. The Torah demands that judgment be carried out in accordance with Divine decree, not human whim; and by individuals who recognize that they are merely the arbiters of justice, and not its authors.