The book of Bemidbar draws to a close with an account of the cities of refuge, the six cities – three on each side of the Jordan – set apart as places to which people found innocent of murder, but guilty of manslaughter, were sent.
In early societies, especially non-urban ones that lacked an extensive police force, there was always a danger that people would take the law into their own hands, in particular when a member of their family or tribe had been killed.
Thus would begin a cycle of vengeance and retaliation that had no natural end, one revenge-killing leading to another and another, until the community had been decimated, a phenomenon familiar to us from literature, from the Montagues and Capulets of Romeo and Juliet, to the Sharks and Jets of West Side Story, to the Corleones and Tattaglias of The Godfather.
The only viable solution is the effective and impartial rule of law. There is, though, one persisting danger. If Reuben killed Shimon and is deemed innocent of murder by the court – it was an accident, there was no malice aforethought, the victim and perpetrator were not enemies – then there is still the danger that the family of the victim may feel that justice has not been done. Their close relative lies dead and no one has been punished.
It was to prevent such situations of “blood vengeance” that the cities of refuge were established. Those who had committed manslaughter were sent there, and so long as they were within the city limits, they were protected by law. There they had to stay until – according to our parsha – “the death of the High Priest” (Num. 35: 25).
The obvious question is, what does the death of the High Priest have to do with it? There seems no connection whatsoever between manslaughter, blood vengeance and the High Priest, let alone his death.
Let us look at two quite different interpretations. They are interesting in their own right, but more generally, they show us the range of thought that exists within Judaism.The first is given by the Babylonian Talmud:
A venerable old scholar said, I heard an explanation at one of the sessional lectures of Rava, that the High Priest should have implored divine grace for the generation, which he failed to do. (Makkot 11a)
According to this the High Priest had a share, however small, in the guilt for the fact that someone died, albeit by accident. Murder is not something that could have been averted by the High Priest’s prayer. The murderer was guilty. He chose to do what he did, and no one else can be blamed. But manslaughter, precisely because it happens without anyone intending that it should, is the kind of event that might have been averted by the prayers of the High Priest. Therefore it is not fully atoned for until the High Priest dies. Only then can the manslaughterer go free.
Maimonides offers a completely different explanation in The Guide for the Perplexed (III: 40):
A person who killed another person unknowingly must go into exile because the anger of “the avenger of the blood” cools down while the cause of the mischief is out of sight. The chance of returning from the exile depends on the death of the High Priest, the most honoured of men, and the friend of all Israel. By his death the relative of the slain person becomes reconciled (ibid. ver. 25); for it is a natural phenomenon that we find consolation in our misfortune when the same misfortune or a greater one has befallen another person. Amongst us no death causes more grief than that of the High Priest.
According to Maimonides, the death of the High Priest has nothing to do with guilt or atonement, but simply with the fact that it causes great collective grief, in which people forget their own misfortunes in the face of larger national loss. That is when people let go of their individual sense of injustice and desire for revenge. It then becomes safe for the person found guilty of manslaughter to return home.
What is at stake between these two profoundly different interpretations of the law? The first has to do with whether exile to a city of refuge is a kind of punishment or not. According to the Babylonian Talmud it seems as if it was. There may have been no intent. No one was legally to blame. But a tragedy has happened at the hands of X, the person guilty of manslaughter, and even the High Priest shared, if only negatively and passively, in the guilt. Only when both have undergone some suffering, one by way of exile, the other by way of (natural, not judicial) death, has the moral balance been restored. The family of the victim feel that some sort of justice has been done.
Maimonides however does not understand the law of the cities of refuge in terms of guilt or punishment whatsoever. The only relevant consideration is safety. The person guilty of manslaughter goes into exile, not because it is a form of expiation, but simply because it is safer for him to be a long way from those who might be seeking vengeance. He stays there until the death of the High Priest because only after national tragedy can you assume that people have given up thoughts of taking revenge for their own dead family member. This is a fundamental difference in the way we conceptualise the cities of refuge.
However, there is a more fundamental difference between them. The Babylonian Talmud assumes a certain level of supernatural reality. It takes it as self-understood that had the High Priest prayed hard and devotedly enough, there would have been no accidental deaths.
Maimonides’ explanation is non-supernatural. It belongs broadly to what we would call social psychology. People are more able to come to terms with the past when they are not reminded daily of it by seeing the person who, perhaps, was driving the car that killed their son as he was crossing the road on a dark night, in heavy rainfall, on a sharp bend in the road.
There are deaths – like those of Princess Diana and of the Queen Mother in Britain – that evoke widespread and deep national grief. There are times – after 9/11, for example, or the Indian Ocean tsunami of 26 December 2004 – when our personal grievances seem simply too small to worry about. This, as Maimonides says, is “a natural phenomenon.”
This fundamental difference, between a natural and supernatural understanding of Judaism, runs through many eras of Jewish history: sages as against priests, philosophers as against mystics, Rabbi Ishmael as against Rabbi Akiva, Maimonides in contradistinction to Judah Halevi, and so on to today.
It is important to realise that not every approach to religious faith in Judaism presupposes supernatural events – events, that is to say, there cannot be explained within the parameters of science, broadly conceived. God is beyond the universe, but his actions within the universe may none the less be in accordance with natural law and causation.
On this view, prayer changes the world because it changes us. Torah has the power to transform society, not by way of miracles, but by effects that are fully explicable in terms of political theory and social science. This is not the only approach to Judaism, but it is Maimonides’, and it remains one of the two great ways of understanding our faith.