Torah has good advice for picking judges

By Rabbi Leonard Rosenthal

Rabbi Leonard Rosenthal

SAN DIEGO — In this week’s parasha, Moses’ father-in-law, Yitro, learns about the miraculous Exodus of the Israelites from Egypt. Moses’ wife and children had been staying with him in Midian and Yitro brings them to reunite with Moses in the wilderness.

While visiting, Yitro notices all of the Israelites coming to Moses to judge their disputes. He tells him that this is not good for him or for the people. Everyone would be much better off if he delegated this responsibility and suggests that he set up a court system.

Moses agreed with Yitro and “chose capable men out of all Israel, and appointed them heads over the people-chiefs of thousands, hundreds, fifties, and tens; and they judged the people at all times: the difficult matters they would bring to Moses, and all the minor matters they would decide themselves.” (Ex. 18:25-26) This was an early form of an appellate court system.

The Torah says that Moses chose “capable men” as judges. In addition to providing the outline for a court system, Yitro gave told Moses the criteria for its judges: “You shall also seek out from among all the people capable men who fear God, trustworthy men who spurn ill-gotten gain.” (Ex. 18:21) It is worth noting that among Yitro’s criteria was not knowledge of the law. Yitro was instead concerned that the judges be honorable, morally upright, and men of integrity.

In our United States, the selection and approval of judges has, for a long time, been highly politicized. It is not sufficient that candidates are learned or have integrity, but rather they are judged by where they seem to appear on the political spectrum. Judges are supposed to be impartial in their judgments, yet the selection process increasingly favors judges who have already prejudged critical issues.

Perhaps the politicization of the appointment of judges is the unfortunate byproduct of an increasingly polarized society. It would behoove those who nominate and confirm judges to adopt less politicized criteria. The Torah suggests a good one: legal experts who are honorable, morally upright, and have enormous integrity.
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Rabbi Rosenthal is spiritual leader of Tifereth Israel Synagogue.  He may be contacted via [email protected]

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