Shabbat Mishpatim 5776
A few years ago, in our Law, Order, and Torah class, we addressed the issue of self-defense in Jewish law. Our core text appears in this week’s Torah reading, Parshat Mishpatim. Its rabbinic code name is haba bamahteret: “If [a] thief is seized while tunneling (bamahteret), and he is beaten to death, there is no bloodguilt in his case. If the sun has risen on him, there is bloodguilt in that case…” (Exodus 22:1-2a)
The gemara explains the Torah’s rationale is as follows: When a thief breaks into your house in the middle of the night, he knows that the homeowner is willing to protect his property even to the point of death, especially in the dark, when one cannot ascertain the intruder’s intent. Since the thief’s mental calculus is readiness to kill in order to make the break-in successful, the homeowner need not warn the intruder about the consequences of his murderous actions. In killing the intruder, the homeowner is acting in lieu of the court–executing a would-be murderer as a form of capital punishment. As long as there’s no daylight, which would change the expectations of the intruder, the homeowner would not be guilty of murder.
Maybe the issue is less about self-defense, though, and more about vigilantism. In the second Law and Order episode ever screened, Subterranean Homeboy Blues, Cynthia Nixon plays a passenger who shoots two African-American men who were harassing her on the subway (that was certainly current events in 1990!). We addressed vigilante behavior as the most extreme example of what the rabbis called avad inish dina lenafshei–taking the law into one’s own hands. On Shabbat morning, we’ll look at a remarkable story from the Talmud about this theme, and use it to explore when one should go through legal channels as opposed to preempting the system, and why one would make the decision to circumvent the courts.
Wishing you a Shabbat Shalom,
Rabbi David Wise