Inadmissible Character Witness (Shoftim)
We falsely attribute to men a determined character — putting together all their yesterdays — and averaging them — we presume we know them. -Henry David Thoreau
There is a concept in law (in American law at least) that a person’s character counts. Character witnesses will be brought in for a criminal trial to attest as to the good or bad character of a person, for the jury to take under consideration when determining the guilt or innocence of the accused.
In the Torah reading of Shoftim (Judges), Moses outlines a number of the traits and behaviors that a judge must have when conducting a trial. He states among other themes:
“You shall not judge unfairly: you shall show no partiality; you shall not take bribes.”
The Bechor Shor on Deuteronomy 16:19 digs deeper into what the verse is trying to say. He analyzes what we’ve translated above as “you shall show no partiality.” A more accurate translation would be “you shall not recognize faces.”
The Bechor Shor explains that judges need to take such directives literally. When a defendant is in front of you, you need to erase what you know about them from your memory or consideration. If you knew him as a righteous person, you can’t think to yourself that he’s probably innocent. Likewise, if you know the defendant has a criminal past, you can’t assume he’s guilty. A judge needs to weigh the case exclusively on the evidence and testimony in front of him.
The Torah considers character witness testimony inadmissible and irrelevant to whatever case is being judged. A person’s historical actions are not a legal indication of what they will do or how they should be judged (in a Jewish court). Furthermore, if a judge knows that a person was guilty of a different crime and never successfully prosecuted, he can’t use the current trial to mete out justice if there is insufficient evidence in this case as well.
Ultimately, true justice is in God’s hands. We should never worry that someone will “escape” justice. God’s reach is infinite. We humans are very limited in our ability to perceive who is guilty or who is innocent, and we are even more limited in our ability to see justice done. It doesn’t absolve us from trying our best with our limited perspective and tools. We are indeed commanded adamantly in the very next verse to seek justice: “Justice, justice shall you pursue.” But within very specific limits. God will handle the rest.
May we merit to see justice done, whether through human or divine agencies.
To Sapir & Shaltiel Shmidman on their marriage. Mazal Tov!