Oxford student Lavinia Woodward escaped jail last month because she was perceived to be too bright to serve a sentence for stabbing her boyfriend with a bread knife. So, what does the Torah say about this?
Our sages teach that King David was expected to be stillborn and was given 70 years to live off Adam’s life, reducing Adam’s lifespan from 1,000 years to 930.
Therefore, when David sinned with Bathsheba, he was spared death as he was alive only by special decree.
Does this mean that there is one rule for some and another rule for others? In fact, David was punished, and while he did not lose his life for his adulterous act, he was sentenced to a life of penance and physical tribulation.
Furthermore, David’s sentence was passed by a heavenly decree for a case that never made it to a courthouse, and so was judged on a basis not to be found in the Torah.
The Torah states that no-one should be favoured in judgment, and that the poor and the rich receive the same consideration at law.
Therefore, judges should cover their eyes when seated in court, by drawing down a tallit over their faces.
No judge, however disciplined, can hope to resist being swayed by the appearance of a well-turned-out defendant. Crucially, there is no one so gifted or blessed that he or she should warrant escaping corrective punishment.
The danger in that is twofold – socially, as Isaiah the prophet stated in that the widows receive no justice and the orphan’s argument does not even reach the judges’ ears – and for tikkun olam, here public policy, that the entire justice system is compromised.
While mitigating circumstances or repentance should reduce punishment, it should not cancel it altogether, so that, as the Torah states, the people should hear, and see, and desist from crime.
Ariel Abel is rabbi of the Liverpool Princes Road congregation and is Chaplain to HM Cadet Forces on Merseyside