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    Forgetting a face – D’varim

    judgeLegal systems need good judges. As far as Judaism is concerned, the definition of a good judge is as given in this week’s Torah portion (Deut. 1:16-18).

    The judge had to hear out what the litigants had to say and not jump in impatiently before they had finished explaining their case. He had to determine a dispute justly and fairly. He had to treat both sides equally, whether they were rich or poor, great or small, powerful or weak.

    His impartiality was to be axiomatic, shown by the fact that he did not “recognise a face in judgment”.

    We know that there are people who have photographic memories and can boast, “I never forget a face”. That’s fine, but not if you are a judge. The judge has to regard both sides as equally unknown to him.

    Rashi, however, understands the verse about not recognising a face in a quite different manner. He says that the “you” is the authority that appoints the judges. An appointee must be chosen solely on the basis of his ability to judge, not on the basis of prior acquaintance or public record.

    Rabbi Yochanan says in the Talmud, “The only people appointed to the Sanhedrin must be those who have stature, wisdom, good appearance, maturity, a knowledge of (the tricks of) sorcery (and the ability to withstand them), and familiarity with all the seventy languages (and cultural characteristics) of mankind” (Sanh. 17a).

    Judicial office is such a demanding responsibility that another rabbinic saying is, “He who renders true justice is a co-worker with God” (Mechilta to Ex. 18:13).

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