19.6. Laws Concerning Justice and the Judicial System (23:1-9)
(1) You must not carry false rumors; you shall not join hands with the guilty to act as a malicious witness:
(2) You shall neither side with the mighty to do wrong — you shall not give perverse testimony in a dispute so as to pervert it in favor of the mighty —
(3) nor shall you show deference to a poor man in his dispute.
(4) When you encounter your enemy’s ox or ass wandering, you must take it back to him.
(5) When you see the ass of your enemy lying under its burden and would refrain from raising it, you must nevertheless raise it with him.
(6) You shall not subvert the rights of your needy in their disputes.
(7) Keep far from a false charge; do not bring death on those who are innocent and in the right, for I will not acquit the wrongdoer.
(8) Do not take bribes, for bribes blind the clear-sighted and upset the pleas of those who are in the right.
(9) You shall not oppress a stranger, for you know the feelings of the stranger, having yourselves been strangers in the land of Egypt.
(1) You must not carry false rumors: Strictly speaking, and from the point of view of the halachah, this passage is a warning directed to judges and witnesses in a court of law. But the text of the Torah does not make this explicit, since it is the underlying principles and ideals that are always most important, and those apply not only to actual legal proceedings.
You must not carry: The expression “to carry false rumors” is neutral with respect to whether it refers to the person who disseminates the rumor or to the receiver. Indeed, it is forbidden not only to generate or repeat such rumors, but even passively to listen to them.
You shall not join hands with the guilty to act as a malicious witness: Even if your testimony is not decisive in the case and will not affect the court’s decision, you must nevertheless not testify along with evildoers whose false testimony is in fact malicious in its ability to cause actual harm.
(2) Мighty: The word rabim in this verse has two meanings: as “mighty” or as “majority.” In the first sense, this verse is a couple to the next verse: it is forbidden to please both the mighty and the poor. In the second sense, the question is raised whether the individual should agree or not agree with the majority opinion.
You shall neither side with the majority (mighty) to do wrong: This is a lesson in non-conformism – remaining steadfast in one’s convictions even against the majority. The critical importance of independent thinking pervades all of Jewish culture. To cite just one salient example: During deliberations by the Sanhedrin (the supreme Jewish legal academy and ecclesiastical court), it was standard procedure for the younger, less experienced members to take the floor first. This allowed them to freely express their points of view without feeling pressured by the seniority and authority of the elders.
You shall not give perverse testimony in a dispute so as to pervert it in favor of the mighty: You must testify honestly, thinking only about the testimony itself, and not about how it will be received.
You shall neither side with the majority to do wrong … in favor of the majority: In halachic matters, the Talmud understands this phrase as: “You shall neither side with the majority to do wrong – do in favor of the majority.” On this basis, honorable and worthy issues (court orders, communal resolutions, and the like) are routinely decided by a majority of competent votes or opinions.
(3) Nor shall you show deference to a poor man in his dispute: The Torah prohibits pandering to the wealthy, as often happens in the real world when financial gain is at stake. But the Torah warns equally against indulging the poor – which likewise becomes a problem when we allow ourselves to proceed from “ideological” considerations, and not from our sense of what is absolutely right. Justice must not be allowed to suffer because of our sympathy for the poor. A wealthy man should not be exploited simply because he is wealthy.
(4) When you encounter your enemy’s ox or ass wandering, you must take it back to him: We must deal honorably with the property other persons, even our enemies. This commandment is stated in a somewhat different form in Deuteronomy (22:1 ff.).
(5) When you see the ass of your enemy lying under its burden and would refrain from raising it, you must nevertheless raise it with him: This demand goes even further than the preceding: We must also help an enemy to solve his everyday problems. By rendering such assistance, we improve relations between people, and can even put an end to prevailing hostility.
You must nevertheless raise it with him: Only with him. If he is able to participate, but prefers to stand by and watch while you do all the work, then you have no obligation. Helping means assisting someone who is committed to advancing his own cause. When that condition is lacking, helping a person does not make much sense.
(6) You shall not subvert the rights of your needy in their disputes: After warning us a few verses back against indulging the poor in judgment, the Torah now admonishes us conversely: We must not oppress the poor. Judicial decisions must not be influenced by either litigant’s economic status.
(7) Keep far from a false charge; do not bring death on those who are innocent and in the right, for I will not acquit the wrongdoer: The principle of presumption of innocence is here declared. If there is any doubt whatsoever about the guilt of the accused, no punishment may be exacted. Rather, we must in that case leave the matter to God, Who will not acquit the wrongdoer, and will see to it that the guilty are held to account.
(8) Do not take bribes, for bribes blind the clear-sighted and upset the pleas of those who are in the right: It is a well-known, established “fact” of Middle Eastern law that any “honest” judge will accept gifts only from the party who is in the right, and never from the other side. The Torah forbids such practice.
“Bribes” come in different forms – not only material, but psychological and ideological as well. If a judge is interested in a particular outcome of a case for psychological or ideological reasons, this too will impair his ability to judge objectively.
(9) You shall not oppress a stranger, for you know the feelings of the stranger, having yourselves been strangers in the land of Egypt: The prohibition of oppressing an alien appears more than thirty times in the Torah. We saw a similar mandate just above (22:20) in the context of social welfare given to the poor, and here the prohibition appears in the context of the judicial system.