Equal protection, equal justice under the law

Black Couple With Sign
(Photo: Coast-to-Coast/ iStock Editorial / Getty Images Plus)

By Clifford S. Fishman

Special to WJW

This week’s Torah portion is Matot-Massei, Numbers 30:2-36:13.

Chapter 35 in the book of Numbers focuses on one topic: the law of homicide. It divides unlawful killing into two categories: (1) intentional, premeditated, malicious killing, punishable by death; and (2) killing negligently, i.e., by carelessness, punishable by exile to a “city of refuge” set aside for that purpose. Several verses spell out examples of each category. It also sets out specific rules of procedure for trying such cases (Numbers 35:22-30).


Much of contemporary American law is derived from these verses. Of course, there are differences in detail. Our parshah was written for a mostly agrarian society of tribes and clans with no police, no central state and no prison system. Today we have alternatives to the death sentence not available then. But the fundamental principles are the same.
Does it matter, in this body of laws, who the victim is? Does it matter who the
perpetrator is?

As to the first question: The Torah tells us again and again, “You shall love the stranger as yourself” (Leviticus 19:34). “You shall have one law for stranger and citizen alike: for I am the Lord your God” (Leviticus 24:22). The Torah makes no distinctions: Even a stranger’s life is entitled to the same protection as the highest of the high.

As to the second question — does it matter who the perpetrator was — our parshah instructs:

“You may not accept a ransom for the life of a murderer … Nor may you accept
ransom in lieu of [exile to a city of refuge] …” (Numbers 35:31-32).

In other words, the rich and mighty cannot buy or bribe their way out of punishment. And our parashah explains why:

“You shall not pollute the land in which you live; for blood pollutes the land, and the land can have no expiation for blood that is shed on it, except by [appropriate punishment] of him who shed it. You shall not defile the land in which you live … (Numbers 35:33-34).

The Torah thus codifies two fundamental principles: equal protection under the law; equal justice under the law — principles that we as Jews and as Americans profess to believe in and live by.

Which brings us to Black Lives Matter.

I have worked with and made presentations to police officers and agents throughout my 50-plus years as a prosecutor and law professor. I know that most police officers are good, honest people who try their best to do a difficult and dangerous job.

But it is also beyond challenge that police officers all too often kill or seriously injure blacks and other minorities without justification; and often good cops fail to intervene, and the rogue cops often go unpunished. Those damning facts prove that these are not merely cases of a few bad apples; rather, such cases demonstrate a systemic failure and refusal to police the police. They demonstrate our country’s unwillingness to live up to its ideals.

Let’s be clear: We cannot assume that all such homicides are unjustified; often deadly force is justified. And police officers, like everyone else, are entitled to a fair trial if accused. But if the wrongful death of an innocent victim “pollutes the land,” how much more so when the person who sheds innocent blood is someone society has given special powers to protect us all?

Thomas Jefferson, speaking of slavery, said, “I tremble for my country when I reflect that God is just: His justice cannot sleep forever.” One hundred fifty-five years after slavery was abolished, we still have reason to tremble.

We must act. Hillel famously asked: “And if not now,


Clifford S. Fishman, a long-time member of Congregation Tikvat Israel, is a professor
emeritus of law at Catholic University of America.

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