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In this week’s Torah portion, the Torah mentions Cities of Refuge: three cities on either side of the Jordan River to which a manslayer can flee without repercussions. (The Torah describes an unintentional killing. The New Jersey Penal Code defines manslaughter as the reckless killing of another person. An example of a reckless killing is pushing a person down the steps and the person dies, but the pusher does not mean to kill him. The Torah uses the word בשגגה [bishgagah], which means “in error,” or “by mistake,” or “unintentionally.” You know that word from the Kol Nidrei service, but I think that the Torah means, unlike the New Jersey Penal Code, “accidentally.”)
In many ancient cultures, probably the ancient Israelite culture among them, religious sanctuaries were considered inviolate. So the Torah established Cities of Refuge to where an unintentional killer would go and be free of an honor killing by a member of the deceased’s family as long the killer lived in the city. In the Book of Joshua, God clarified the condition under refugees live: on the death of the current high priest, the refugee could leave the City of Refuge and return home free from attack.
Over time, the Temple was destroyed and Jews did not have control over the Cities of Refuge. The honor killings went out of fashion, and the synagogues were not places of sanctuary. But I believe the criminal-justice system is more sophisticated than the ancient Israelite’s legal system (witness the Sotah trial by ordeal), and I believe that most criminal matters nowadays are resolved fairly, for the most part.
In the former administration, there was a movement to restore sanctuary and Cities of Refuge to shelter people whom the Custom and Immigration Enforcement agency sought. B’nei Keshet, in Montclair, joined the sanctuary movement, although I don’t know whether they sheltered any person. But whenever leaders abuse the criminal-justice system, we should provide sanctuary for the victims.