The Torah is full of legal and religious laws and precedents that offer us significant insight into righteous jurisprudence. In this section I will explore concepts of jurisprudence in the Torah in the areas of criminal law, civil law, civil liberties, and religious law.
There are many inaccuracies in modern thought about biblical jurisprudence. Some believe that the Torah would otherwise require people to be executed for the most minor infractions; nothing could be farther from the truth. The Torah as explained through the scriptures of lesser inspiration, the Neviim (Prophets) and the Kethuvim (Writings) that make up the remainder of the Hebrew Bible, leads to the rendering of just and fair decisions.
In this post I will examine certain principals that guide judicial decision making. The Torah contains several major principals that must be applied to each and every judicial decision regardless of the nature of that decision.
Lex Talionis is the latin legal term (meaning law of retribution) for the phrase “an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth, and a life for a life.” This is probably one of the most misunderstood legal principals contained in the Torah. Ganhi’s famous quote concludes that this would lead to a blind toothless world, thus demonstrating his complete ignorance of the meaning of the passage, as with all others to interpret it that way.
Lex Talionis, historically speaking, is found first not in the Torah but in the code of Ur-Nammu, the oldest legal codex that has ever been found in the city of Ur in ancient Sumer. This code was written about 50 years before Avraham was born in Ur, so it is no surprise that it continued to be a part of Hebrew and Israelite judicial practice. Not one but three legal principals are contained within this one phrase, which is probably why it was developed in the first place. Legal principals are often complex and difficult to articulate. The principal of habeas corpus, for example, states that, in the US at least, a person may not be held for a protected period when there is no evidence that they may have committed a crime. The latin literally means produce the body. If one did not know better it is easy to see how they could easily misunderstand this principal.
The first principal contained in Lex Talionis is due process. A judicial figure must weigh out the value of an eye, a tooth, or a life. It cannot be that a person who committed such a crime could be punished by a linch mob. The second principal is that of the equal protection of the law: the rich man’s eye has no more value than the poor man’s. The third principal is that the punishment must fit the crime: a poor man cannot be executed for plucking out a rich man’s eye, neither can a rich man be acquitted for doing the same to a poor man. Each of these principals is explained individually elsewhere in the torah offering the opportunity to confirm them.
Devarim (Deuteronomy) 19:15 states “No man may be convicted upon the testimony of a single witness; upon the testimony of two or three witnesses shall the truth be established.” Here we see one example of due process, that is, that multiple witnesses must be brought before a court in order to convict a person of a crime. The passage goes on to state that false witnesses may be punished with the same punishment that was or would have been given to the person whom they accused.
Vayikra (Leviticus) 19:15 states “You shall not commit injustices in the law; you shall neither favor the poor nor the wealthy; but with righteousness you shall judge your neighbor.” This confirms the principal of equal protection of the laws; That the punishment must fit the crime is demonstrated in the Torah and Neviim in several cases which will be discussed in another post on this subject.
These major principals govern law under the Torah, no decision can be rendered without respect to them.