Dinim – Everyone is responsible

In what way must [gentiles] fulfill the commandment to establish courts of justice? They are obligated to set up judges and magistrates in every major city to judge according to the above six laws, to warn the nation [regarding their observance]; A gentile who breaks one of these seven laws – is executed by decapitation. [text from another version: for example: an idolater, or blasphemer, or murderer, or someone who has had one of the six illicit relations according to [Noahide law], or robbed even the worth of a peruta [small coin of little value], or consumed any amount of “torn limb” or “torn meat”, or witnessed someone breaking one of these laws, and did not judge and sentence him – all these people are executed by decapitation.] For this all the inhabitants of Shechem were liable for capital punishment. This was because Shechem kidnapped and they witnessed this and knew, but did not judge him. A Noahide [may be] executed [on the basis of the testimony of] one witness and [the verdict of] a single judge. No prior warning [is required] … (Mishneh Torah, Sefer Shoftim, Laws of Kings and Wars, Chapter 9, Halakhah 14 [or 17-19, according to some versions])

In the study of the seven Noahide commandments, there are a number of things that I’ve found to be … what’s the word? … “morally fortifying”. What do I mean by that? It’s not just that it points out some seemingly obvious acts that we should refrain from. Studying each law teaches you to be aware and responsible for yourself and others. When a person thinks about each command and its possible intent, it is easy to find out that, for a basic, bedrock level of morality, the standard is pretty high. Again, that’s if you actually take the time and think about each law.

This has become more evident to me as I think about the law of Dinim in its various forms. In case you didn’t know, the law of “dinim” refers to civil laws, or justice, or the prohibition against injustice. Its nature is debated to some extent amongst rabbis, but even in that discussion there is much to learn.

Now there are those who say that the law of Dinim only refers to judges and governments and the creation and establishment of a righteous law system. In this understanding, it doesn’t impact the individual much. I would disagree with the word “only”. If you look through each of the other six Torah commandments for gentiles, the prohibitions against blasphemy, idolatry, sex with forbidden partners, murder, theft, and eating the limb of a living animal, each one of these laws impact the individual. I don’t see why the commandment of Dinim is any different and that it is somehow only fit for a certain group within society.

No, it’s not just a personal irk (issue) I have with such an interpretation of the law that limits it to judges. It may be linked with the idea that people think that this law is just a positive command to set up courts of justice and civil laws, things that we see as being done by governments and ruling parties. Unfortunately, on many depictions of this law all over the internet and in books, it is only put forward as if it is a positive command and that’s it. But according to the Talmud, it is not just a positive command, it has an important negative aspect as well (Babylonian Talmud, Tractate Sanhedrin, Folio 58b-59a). In various places, like the commentary of Tractate Sanhedrin 59a from Schottenstein’s translation of the Babylonian Talmud, and the quotation of Rambam above, and maybe even the commentary of Tractate Sanhedrin 59a from the Soncino version of the Babylonian Talmud (at least it may be hinted), it becomes apparent that this is not just a command for judges. It’s a command that has to do with the way everyone upholds the law.

The prohibition against injustice

Schottenstein’s version of the Babylonian Talmud, in Tractate Sanhedrin Folio 59a, in footnote 2, sees a dispute between the views of different rabbis as to whether the Noahide commandment of Dinim regulates judges and authorities, or whether the law regulates the actions of all gentiles. Personally I see no dispute, because essentially there is no contradiction. And even if there was, the dispute is educational for anyone who reads it. No, I’m not one of those small-minded people who believe that if there is a disagreement in Torah sources or rabbinical literature that means that there is a contradiction that shows it to be worthless or not from God in one way or another. In this case of Dinim, especially in light of the fact that it, like all the other commandments of Noah, is a category of laws, not just a simple statement, it can be seen that the scope of the law is wide having an impact on both the individual and the authorities. If even a part of the Dinim law is essentially about rooting out injustice or refraining from it, then it cannot ever be limited to just the authorities. To believe that it is betrays a mindset that wishes to place the important responsibilities on someone else rather than living up to the image of mastery (see the definition of the Hebrew word for “God” as shown by Rabbi Samson Hirsch) that we were all individually created in.

The commentary of Sanhedrin 59a in Schottenstein’s Talmud is revealing.

The Noahide commandment of civil law includes a prohibition against performing any act to pervert justice. Thus, if for some reason a Noahite is not in the process of administering justice but is sitting idle, he is still prohibited to do anything that perverts justice. This negative aspect of the commandment then does not require the Noahite to take any action to administer justice. Rather, it obligates him to refrain from taking any action that perverts justice. [Take “Noahite” to mean “gentile” or “non-Jew”]

This just deals with the negative part of the law. As you can see, the responsibility is put on the individual gentile not to do actions that “pervert justice”. It is not just that each gentile should not worship false gods, or not steal or not murder, whatever the other commandments prohibit. The point is that if such forbidden acts are done, a gentile should do nothing to hinder or prevent or pervert the legal consequences that should come from such an act. And on the other side of the matter, if the courts are trying a case regarding such an infringement (or maybe any other infringement of just laws) then a gentile is not to give false testimony or destroy evidence, even if they think they are helping the process.

That leads to a positive side of this commandment, such as what I quoted above from Rambam. I hope you don’t mind if I quote it again.

In what way must [gentiles] fulfill the commandment to establish courts of justice? They are obligated to set up judges and magistrates in every major city to judge according to the above six laws, to warn the nation [regarding their observance]; A gentile who breaks one of these seven laws – is executed by decapitation. [text from another version: for example: an idolater, or blasphemer, or murderer, or someone who has had one of the six illicit relations according to [Noahide law], or robbed even the worth of a peruta [small coin of little value], or consumed any amount of “torn limb” or “torn meat”, or witnessed someone breaking one of these laws, and did not judge and sentence him – all these people are executed by decapitation.] For this all the inhabitants of Shechem were liable for capital punishment. This was because Shechem kidnapped and they witnessed this and knew, but did not judge him. A Noahide [may be] executed [on the basis of the testimony of] one witness and [the verdict of] a single judge. No prior warning [is required] … (Mishneh Torah, Sefer Shoftim, Laws of Kings and Wars, Chapter 9, Halakhah 14 [or 17-19, according to some versions])

Elisheva Barre, in her book “Torah for Gentiles” adds some insightful thoughts on these words. In the section of her book called “The Obligation to Institute Courts”, on page 177, she states the following:

The obligation to establish Courts in every town is incumbent upon each one of its citizens who has to see to it that justice “according to the six commandments” is done. Since a Ben Noah [a gentile – my addition, David] is put to death by the testimony of one witness and one judge, any one who witnesses a transgression becomes ipso facto the prosecutor who will bring the sinner before the judge to be trialed and if found guilty, executed. This is putting the weight of responsibility for law and order upon every citizen and makes each one of them personally accountable for the conduct of his fellow, which prevents criminals from escaping and creating the corporations that today have become a global – and institutionalized – threat no law impedes. This is everyone’s business, because when people don’t care, the evil ones are empowered.

Look, I know the death penalty may frighten some of you. But right now, since there are no courts that uphold the Noahide laws, you don’t have to be frightened of that. I personally believe that the application of the death penalty as described in the Noahide commandments is for a time when we, as the human race, become more aware, conscious and responsible. We’re not there yet. But the main point of what is being said here is of vital importance. For right now, the obligation, the main point of this all, remains the same. Justice is only properly enforced when the people of the world – and that includes those who take on the profession of judges or get into the legal profession – take responsibility for their own actions and those of the people around them.

With this law, everyone is responsible.

The consequences

We look around and see the state of our world, a world full of tyranny, murder, theft, excess and poverty, licentiousness (according to all of its meanings), greed, individualism, etc. No, I’m not ignoring the good things that there are out there and in my own heart, but this is not about the good. It’s about the fact that there is too much evil out there. You know what is really scary about all this? Do you want to know? I’ll tell you anyway. You’re responsible for it!

Don’t react just yet!

Don’t get ready to send me hate-mail or become dejected and despondent at how big the world is and how small you are or become a caped vigilante who preys upon the criminal underworld to save the innocent. Just hold on there! Just give me a moment of your time. You’ve given me enough just by reading this far into my article, my sharing my point of view. Just give me a little more.

In some important ways, I mean “you” collectively, as in “us”, the people of the world. We are responsible for the way things have gotten. Even the criminal in prison, my words are pointed at them. In a lot of ways, we get what we want. We saturated ourselves with so much greed, the need to have something more, the twisted ideals pushed upon us by the media that we drink in, the rank materialism both in our sciences and our media. In such a culture, it’s inevitable that there are going to be thieves and murderers. And since government enjoys getting more power, which these days it attains by emphasizing what we lack, and being raised in a culture such as ours, it is not surprising that our governments appear to be another source of theft and murder and all the other crimes that it imposes on its people. And yet we vote them into power!

It’s funny! It really is, … in a way! The law of Dinim forbids us against perverting justice. It forbids this act to any gentile. Yet in the face of the history of our governments and the horrors that have come from the political parties, no matter which one we choose to take our responsibility away from us, many still vote them into power. People vote the perverters of justice and those that use their monopoly of power and legislation to impose crimes on the people into power. Is that not a perversion of justice? For gentiles who know about the seven commandments of Noah, isn’t it a perversion of justice according to the six other laws and this seventh one of Dinim to vote people into power that promote acts that contravene those laws?

In what other ways do we pervert justice? Don’t just focus on politics, but just think in terms of general injustice. In what ways do we ensure that our society continues, our societies continue in the same immoral direction it is/they are going in? What have you done, what have I done to keep this law of Dinim and the principles in it? What has any one of us done to be even a small beacon of responsibility and self-control in this world? Can you be sure that you’ve done enough? If someone has committed a crime and been put in prison, even in that place the question must be asked. I’m not necessarily talking about what you have done, but what you will do!

If or when this world comes crashing down, I don’t think it will be much of a defence to say “I voted for this party or that party”. Even if this world continues on its course and things look ok, can you still say that you refrained from preventing or perverting justice in this world? Whatever you can say, however much or little you have done, that’s what you’re responsible for in contributing to the collapsing building called our world. Think again about the initial quote in this article and the interpretation given by the rabbi who wrote it. A whole city was judged because they saw what was going on, they saw the crime committed, and they did nothing about it.

Just as an addition to that last phrase, I admit that I do know of a dispute regarding how this Shechem situation is meant to be interpreted whether it was because the townspeople didn’t bring justice to the situation or for some other reason. These are the interpretations from Rambam (the one who I quote from above) and Ramban, another respected ancient rabbi. But I contend that regardless of what interpretation you accept, both charge the people of Shechem with breaking the Noahide commandments in a collective sense, and thus they were all doing it, which implies that whilst one would do an evil act, that individual would happily watch another doing some other wrong as well. Applying each interpretation to the concept of perverting justice puts the city in the wrong no matter how you spin it.

I mean, just think about it! Speaking from personal experience, once my mind started to try to understand this commandment of Dinim, this commandment of “laws” or “justice”, I realised that there were so many areas that it could touch which emphasized the point that each person, each gentile, is responsible, everyone has a natural duty, whether they are interacting with a court or their own communities or their own family. Was I a good role model or example? Did I teach my child or children to the best of my ability to respect uprightness and integrity? Am I seen by my work colleagues as simply one of the guys, or do they have the sort of respect in me that when there is a chance to do something wrong, they’ll think twice?

Just how many ways are there to prevent injustice? How many ways are there to refrain from perverting justice?

In this day and age where the Noahide laws are not upheld by governments and courts, thoughts like these remain an ideal, a personal ideal, a legal philosophy. But it is still something we can strive to attain. But here and now, I would encourage anyone reading this to become responsible for yourself and your surroundings. Learn what a person should do, the things we should avoid, and stick to those principles. I would love to change the system of the world, but I can’t, not alone. But when individuals start making a positive change, the world can follow them. It’s not easy to do, but it has to be done.

I think I should stop now before I lose my way. I know I may not have hit every point I wanted to with perfect accuracy, but I hope you at least can draw something from my little scrambled attempt at getting the point across that we are all responsible for making sure that one way or another justice is upheld. And God be praised when it is upheld! And in another way, we are all responsible in one way or another when it fails. And God help us when it fails!

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