Volume 3, Number 174
'There's a Jewish story everywhere'

Sunday-Monday, August 23-24, 2009

The knapsack on the wall of the Nickelsburg beth din

By Rabbi Leonard Rosenthal

SAN DIEGO--One of the tensions in a democracy is elected officials feeling torn between doing what they think is right as opposed to obeying the will of their constituents. This tension is even more egregious when it comes to elected judges. We expect judges to be impartial, yet in a system in which judges run for office, it is difficult for judges to prevent themselves from being swayed by public opinion

The Torah is very strict when it comes to demanding impartiality of judges: "...they shall govern the people with due justice. You shall not judge unfairly; you shall show no partiality; you shall not take bribes, for bribes blind the eyes of the discerning and upset the plea of the just. Justice, justice shall you pursue, that you may thrive and occupy the land that the Lord your God is giving you." (Deut. 16:18-20)

Since following the will of the people, as opposed to following the restrictions of the law, is a temptation for elected judges, perhaps they should follow the lead of the Rabbi of Nickelsburg and mount a knapsack on their walls.

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The Rabbi of Nickelsburg always had a knapsack placed on the wall of the room in which he and other rabbis held court. Before hearing any cases he announced: "I want all petitioners to know that I will not pervert justice or favor one party over the other, no matter who they are, whether they are rich or poor, or powerful or weak. Whatever verdict I decree must stand and you must follow it and not try to pressure me to change my mind because of who you are.

"Nothing is more sacred to me than a just and impartial verdict, and I will not compromise my principles. Do you see that knapsack hanging on the wall? That is to remind you that if you try to force me to show deference to one party over another, I will resign my rabbinate and leave Nickelsburg, even if it means spending the rest of my life as a beggar!" (Shivim Panim l'Torah, Devarim, p. 130)

Perhaps one day we will reconsider our system of electing judges, but until that day, those we elect must do their utmost to follow the law as they see it rather than public sentiment.

Rabbi Rosenthal is spiritual leader of Tifereth Israel Synagogue (Conservative) in San Diego. His email:

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