The Numbers:13 Project
These are the commandments and regulations that the LORD enjoined upon the Israelites, through Moses, on the steppes of Moab, at the Jordan near Jericho. Numbers 36:13
The other evening, as I relaxed after a long day, I half-listened to one of those breathless network “true-crime” programs. It reported on the tragic saga of a young man who committed suicide after being encouraged by his girlfriend. The correspondent went to great lengths to make both sides of the story sound equally compelling and succeeded at convincing me that two young lives had been wasted.
Saddened though I was by this story, my attention was snagged by the defense attorney’s legal gambit. He was quite insistent that independent of the girl’s intentions and regardless of the contents of the electronic messages she sent to her boyfriend, the charges against her (involuntary manslaughter) were not legitimate because the law did not define encouragement to suicide as a crime. What he did not say, though he didn’t-say it very clearly, was that even if she were guilty of persuading this young man to end his life, her words were not a violation of any applicable law.
I am not a lawyer, and any expertise I have in the law is from studying Talmud, but these fifteen seconds of legal justification struck me as infuriatingly wise. We sometimes decry the minutiae of the law and the way some people manipulate it to their personal gain, but in the end, it is the law which compels us to first act justly. I am all in favor of the discretion of judges to impose an overlay of compassion or outrage when there are extenuating circumstances. (For compassion, see Judge Frank Caprio. For outrage, nobody beats Judge Judith Sheindlin – don’t let the smile fool you.) But the more specific the statute is, the less opportunity there is for abuse.
It can take awhile for the law to catch up with society, and this sorry case is a good example. Most of the exchange between the boy and the girl took place by text. In fact, they were in different cities during the last months of the boy’s decline into fatal depression. Anyone who has jumped to an emotional conclusion after receiving an email that cannot convey a disarming smile, a sarcastic intonation or a stricken look understands that what the reader imposes is rarely what the writer intended. Difficult debates are necessary, not just about public social media, but private electronic communications as well if we are to prevent uncertain circumstances like this from becoming more common.
Jewish law is often denigrated, even by Jews, with the adjective “legalistic,” suggesting that what is served by debate over a point of law is the legal system itself, not the people who must abide by that system. Certainly, there are plenty of examples that look to validate that criticism. I love to study the section of the Mishnah (the compendium of case law based on the application of the Torah) at the very beginning of the section about Shabbat. It discusses carrying between a private and a public domain (think house and street), which is prohibited. But in this detailed articulation, further expanded in Talmudic discussion and commentary, is instruction about how a compassionate householder can feed an itinerant homeless person without either of them running afoul of the restrictions on portage and commerce. One can strictly observe the law – that is, serve the system – and at the same time show compassion to someone in need – that is, serve the person.
Some scholars believe that the original Torah was just four books long. The fifth Book of Moses, Deuteronomy, is a rich source of legal and moral guidance, all placed in the mouth of Moses as his valedictory. But the action ends with the verse above. Maybe the original anthology was meant to convey the very specific limitations of “revealed knowledge” by concluding with verse that heads this column with who, what, when and where (and “why” presumed). But almost immediately, it was pretty clear that there was no such thing as comprehensive law that cannot be challenged by unanticipated circumstances. So – the Fifth Book. And the Talmud. And the codes of Jewish law. And modern and contemporary study and application.
In my professional life, I live with my frustration with those who manipulate the good intentions of laws designed to protect religious minorities from discrimination by dominant religious practice. The crass reinterpretation of statutes designed to protect head coverings and daily prayer breaks has led to the awful consequences that afflict certain people seeking marriage licenses or indicated health care from people with “religious objections.” As an advocate, I am exasperated. As a private Jew, I am intrigued by the debates ahead in the halls of Congress, in state capitals and in every court in the land. We aren’t yet near Deuteronomy on this one!
This is the last column in the Numbers:13 Project, being inspired by the last verse of the last chapter of the book. After a hiatus of some weeks, the final series in this years-long project will commence. Watch for The Last of Deuteronomy, beginning sometime after the secular new year and concluding with fall Jewish holidays.