The Bible Says What? ‘Establish cities for those who’ve killed’

The Bible Says What? ‘Establish cities for those who’ve killed’

Rabbi Laura Janner-Klausner looks at a controversial topic in the Torah and looks for a Reform Jewish response

Rabbi Laura Janner-Klausner
Rabbi Laura Janner-Klausner

To take a life is the ultimate wrongdoing, for which Judaism prescribes its harshest punishments. However, what if someone is killed accidentally?

The Torah says revenge could be taken against such a person by killing them, but the children of Israel are also commanded that they must set up cities of refuge where someone who has committed manslaughter could flee.

Inside such a city, they would be safe from retribution, from “honour killings”. What can we learn from this unusual system of justice?

The urge to seek revenge may be an understandable natural human trait – but not a positive one. Although our tradition may have a grudging acceptance that people may attempt to seek revenge against someone who has caused them to suffer, it is clear the Torah condemns revenge.

We are commanded to put in place measures that will try to prevent revenge, knowing that while we may want to get our own back, this kind of retribution solves nothing.

These cities were not for those who acted with malice, but for those who made a mistake. They were to be given a safe space, away from revenge, to try to rebuild.

Why? Because when a person makes a terrible mistake there is always the possibility of learning, renewal and improvement, so long as they can escape the mob mentality that seeks to destroy them.

Today, there are Twitter armies ready to tear down a person at the slightest hint of a mistake.

For those who make honest mistakes without malice, perhaps we need to continue building cities of refuge today where they cannot be left in ruins, but where they can reflect and grow to become better people.

  •  Laura Janner-Klausner is the Senior Rabbi of Reform Judaism


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