Delaying Justice Is an Ethical Crime - in Jewish Law and Modern Conscience

If Avigdor Lieberman is innocent, why was he relentlessly pursued for so long?

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Avigdor Lieberman is innocent in the eyes of the law. This was the unanimous decision presented Wednesday by the justices of the Jerusalem Magistrate’s Court, and it stands in stark contrast to the assumptions of guilt promoted for years by the media and accepted by much of the public. Of course exoneration in court does not mean one is completely innocent, but it does indicate that certain accusations of criminal conduct have no basis in legal standards.

Our hastiness to jump to conclusions in the absence of proof is a serious matter of ethical concern. The need to suspend judgment in the absence of proof is an ethical premise well founded in Jewish law, and is one that modern society should assume.

Of course suspending judgment does not require one to suspend suspicion. That the man was not proven guilty does not mean that he was proven innocent – this is not where the burden of proof lies. Many of us may harbor a sense of suspicion regarding Lieberman's overall moral conduct - and there is nothing unethical about such a suspicion - but we must accept that his actions were legal beyond reasonable doubt, as the verdict indicated.

Thus, there is one judgment left to be made: Something is terribly broken in the public prosecutor’s office. How could an investigation and trial resulting in a unanimous verdict of not guilty by all three judges drag on for over a decade?

The right to a speedy trial is recognized in much of the world, it is part of the sixth amendment in the United States Constitution, and is a core value in Jewish law. A Halakhik (Jewish law) court is expected to limit its deliberations to less than three days before issuing a verdict. Delaying justice is called “inui din,” “Affliction in Justice,” which acknowledges the effect a hanging cloud of doubt has on a suspect. There is a state of limbo that goes into effect during an investigation and trial, during which not only the future of the suspect is in question, but his very being awaits definition: is he a bad guy or a good guy? This is why the Mishna in Ethics of the Fathers, a tractate that contains much advice for dayanim, rabbinic judges, speaks to the travesty of delayed justice, saying that it brings the “sword upon the world.” What is this “sword” that the Mishna speaks of?

Perhaps we can understand by examining the extra importance of a speedy trial when dealing with the powerful and wealthy. The personal interests, the significant stakes, the deep pockets and the intent interest of the public are clearly liable to affect the judicial process. The ethical imperative incumbent upon the judicial system grows accordingly, like a looming “sword.” Delayed justice thus has the potential to become unethical conduct in and of itself, wreaking havoc on the very lawfulness it is meant to uphold.

While our court systems are charged with holding each and every one of us accountable for our conduct, it is crucial that the system itself also be held accountable. Our judicial system must aspire to the highest moral and ethical standards, and for those standards to be disregarded is the ultimate corruption, undermining the very values the courts are meant to defend. While the prosecution has announced that they will be studying the verdict and considering appeal, I suggest that this is not the only thing they should be examining. It is high time they also examined themselves.

Rabbi Aaron Leibowitz is Dean of Sulam Yaakov, a Beit Midrash for Community Leadership Development in the Nachlaot neighborhood of Jerusalem.

Former Israeli Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman arrives in the courtroom before hearing the verdict in his trial on Wednesday, Nov. 6, 2013, at the Magistrates Court in Jerusalem.Credit: AP

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