In this week’s Torah reading, Parshas Shoftim in Deuteronomy, Israel is commanded to have judges and officers, those who maintain both justice and order. A judge in particular is required to be entirely unbiased, and not to accept ‘Shochad’, usually translated as bribery.
The Torah warns us that “bribery blinds the eyes of the wise, and perverts the words of the righteous.” [Deut. 16:19] G-d is not talking about a corrupt person here, He is talking about the “wise” and the “righteous”!
The Talmud tells us that the ‘bribery’ discussed also goes well beyond passing money to the judge and back-room deals. In one case discussed in the Talmud, two litigants are sent to a noted sage for arbitration. One of them recognizes the judge and asks, “didn’t you stay in my hotel?”
The Rabbi answered, “yes I did, and now I can’t judge your case!”
Having previously conducted a commercial transaction, with no ulterior motive or quid pro quo, isn’t something we would understand as ‘bribery’ at all. But the scholarly Rabbi correctly understood that even this was enough to create a small connection, and perhaps was enough to intimidate the other party.
Like most other Orthodox Jews, I am troubled by the judge’s actions in the trial of Shalom Rubashkin. There are all sorts of things that can be said to justify her behavior, or chalk it up to a judge with a long history of apparent favoritism towards the prosecution. But having been so intensely involved with the planning of the immigration raid upon the Postville plant — which, in the end, had no direct relationship to the misreporting of which Rubashkin was guilty — certainly gives the appearance of a previous connection to the prosecution and bias against the defendant. The fact that she failed to disclose this, and it only came to light after suing the government to provide information about the raid, is entirely inexcusable and unseemly. Our Sages knew well that no matter what decision might be arrived at in a truly unbiased fashion, justice must not merely be done cleanly — it has to look and smell clean as well.