By: Rabbi Grisha Abramovich, Rabbi of the Union for Progressive Judaism in the Republic of Belarus and the Sandra Breslauer “
” center in Minsk.
Our chapter starts with the commandment “You shall appoint magistrates and officials and they will govern the people with true justice”. We have the list of laws with judicial matters and procedures; conduct of war, pursuit of justice, and by the very end of chapter the instruction in the case of unsolved homicide. The ritual for unsolved homicide seems to have roots in ancient times. The act of killing is thought to soil the land. The Torah teaches us the ritual when the identity of the murderer is not known, which creates a situation that the community/city nearest the place of the murder is considered responsible. This ritual does not actually solve the murder. It’s unlikely that it comforts relatives or helps to find murderer. This raises questions about life and death.
The Medieval Midrash Yalkut (proverb 943) tells us about a very old woman who asked Rabbi Yosi ben Halafta to teach her how to depart the world without violating Torah. In trying to understand the reason for such a peculiar wish he discovered the reason for her long life. “Whenever I have something to do, enjoyable or not, I am in the habit of putting it aside early morning and going to the synagogue” the woman explained.
Rabbi Yosi told her, in order to die, she should stay away from the synagogue for three days. For the next three days the woman followed the advice and did not go to the synagogue. She quickly became ill and died. It is not explained in the Midrash neither what motivated the woman to turn to a rabbi with such a strange question, nor why Rabbi Yosi, one of the foremost scholars of Jewish law in the second century, advised her so.
Besides the story, we also learn from the Talmud (Sotah 46) that a very old citizen of Luz with the same wish could not die inside the city, and had to leave the walls of Luz, as the angel of death did not have power in the city. These strange situations demand attention – we needs answers both in Torah and in our life.
Back to the ritual to purify the community from responsibility of unsolved homicide. The ritual is called the broken-necked heifer or in Hebrew
. According to 15th century statesman, financier and Bible commentator Don Isaak Abarvanel, this ritual is not about the community being responsibility for the murder itself. Rather, it is about the value of life and the importance of continuing to search for the offender.
Some commentators after him, including Hoffman, agree that the level of communal responsibility would be raised as much as punishment of the captured murderer. Nevertheless, based on Mishna (Sota 9), commentator Gunther Plaut explains that the ritual was ceased when this kind of crime multiplied to such a degree that the procedure of “
” was no longer practicable. Moreover, this teaches us that no ritual motivates communal responsibility for human life more than teaching of Torah and consciousness. Nehama Leibowitz comments on the ritual: “Thus responsibility for wrongdoing does not only lie with the perpetrator himself and even with the accessory. Lack of proper care and attention is also criminal”.
Next week reform Jewish leaders from Russia, Ukraine and Belarus together with the chair and the president of the WUPJ will gather for the biennial conference in Minsk. We will discuss a number of unsolved matters and, contrary to the biblical priests, elders and magistrates who through the ritual of broken-necked heifer could “wash their hands in innocence”, we will raise and discuss issues and unsolved matters. Due to Communism, it was not our fault for forgetting Judaism in the 20th century Soviet Union, but it is now the responsibility of the rabbis, directors, educators and youth leaders to develop and strengthen our Jewish communal life and programs. And may the Almighty help us in this all-important task.