ASK THE RABBI: Does the Torah create ‘sanctuary cities’ for law violators?

It is difficult to see how “sanctuary cities” established to execute justice, prevent blood vengeance and provide rehabilitation should be seen as a model for harboring illegal immigrants.

October 1, 2018 23:34
4 minute read.
KING SOLOMON (pictured in Tiffany studios, Chicago) had the rebel leader Joab

KING SOLOMON (pictured in Tiffany studios, Chicago) had the rebel leader Joab killed even though he was grasping the horns of the altar. (photo credit: JIMMY BAIKOVICIUS/FLICKR)


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In recent months, Europeans and Americans have debated the legitimacy of municipalities declaring themselves as “sanctuary cities” to welcome illegal or undocumented immigrants. While in some cases this means that the city will make an overt attempt to be welcoming, in other places it reflects a significant declaration that local municipal officials will not aid or provide funds to enforce national immigration laws.

Detractors of these policies argue that it is a fundamental violation of the rule of law. Supporters claim that enforcing immigration laws is not the responsibility of local officials and that municipalities have the right to host illegal immigrants. Many have citied biblical concepts or institutions to justify this policy. Without commenting on the broader question of just immigration policies, this column will question whether the Bible supports such notions of skirting the law.

One biblical commandment sometimes cited in support of the “sanctuary policy” relates to granting asylum for escaped slaves. “You shall not turn over to his master a slave who seeks refuge with you from his master. He shall live with you in any place he may choose among the settlements in your midst, wherever he pleases; you must not ill-treat him” (Deuteronomy 23:16-17). The talmudic Sages interpreted this passage to refer to slaves who fled a foreign country. The slave was offered asylum while he was expected to take upon the obligations of a resident alien (ger toshav), including the seven Noahide laws.

While certainly a fascinating concept that may or may not have relevancy for broader questions of accepting refugees, it does not relate per se to providing asylum for those who violate current immigration laws.

A more interesting biblical concept relates to the notion of “altar sanctuary.” While this concept existed in Greco-Roman temples, it is best known from declarations of the Church, with its first official articulation made in 303 CE in Constantine’s Edict of Toleration which provided sanctuary within a holy place for fugitives. While the intended goal was to prevent bloodshed, the notion of altar sanctuary was applied differently in various areas, with exclusions to various classes of people. Jews and heretics were never afforded sanctuary in these areas, and by the sixth century altar sanctuary also excluded adulterers and murderers in some places. The latter, in fact, are explicitly denied such sanctuary in the Torah, as is made clear in the last verse of the following passage.

“He who fatally strikes a man shall be put to death. If he did not do it by design, but it came about by an act of God, I will assign you a place to which he can flee. When a man schemes against another and kills him treacherously, you shall take him from My very altar to be put to death” (Exodus 21:12-14).

Indeed, in accordance with this sentiment, King Solomon had the rebel leader Joab killed even though he was grasping the horns of the altar (I Kings 2:28-34). The Sages further ruled that a priest who murders is removed from the Temple before he can begin his service (Sanhedrin 36b). The Torah, it seems, has no interest in holy places providing sanctuary to fugitive murderers, or in the words of Jeremiah (7:11), turning into a “den of thieves.”

Yet the passage in Exodus does indicate that there will be a “place” for asylum in cases of an unintentional killing. While some traditions asserted that this asylum would be the altar sanctuary, the Sages interpreted this as a reference to the Levite camp and later to the socalled cities of refuge which they would inhabit, as depicted in the Book of Numbers. “You shall provide yourselves with places to serve you as cities of refuge to which a manslayer who has killed a person unintentionally may flee. The cities shall serve you as a refuge from the avenger so that the manslayer may not die, unless he has stood trial before the assembly.... If he struck him with his hand in enmity and death resulted, the assailant shall be put to death – he is a murderer” (Numbers 35:11-28).

As the text makes clear, the “cities of refuge” were created to prevent the phenomenon of family members of the slain victim taking vengeance on the killer. The killer could safely live within the city of refuge until properly tried by the court assembly. If deemed guilty of murder, he was executed. If he was found to have killed unwittingly, then he could safely return to the city of refuge. Such cities were to be strategically placed around the country (Deuteronomy 19) and were initially built during Joshua’s settlement of the land (Joshua 21).

This was a revolutionary innovation meant to prevent vigilantism while bringing justice for victims. Moreover, while it helped killers prove that they were not murderers, it held them accountable for not taking the necessary precautions that led to the spilling of blood. Exile in these cities was seen partially as a form of punishment but also an opportunity for rehabilitation, with the accidental killers now living in a city of spiritual leaders (Levites). In fact, two Jewish legal scholars, Itamar Warhaftig and Shlomo Rabinovitz, have even suggested that these cities should be seen as models for modern penitentiary systems, which seem more focused on reprimand than repentance and reintegration.

In any case, it is difficult to see how “sanctuary cities” established to execute justice, prevent blood vengeance and provide rehabilitation should be seen as a model for harboring illegal immigrants. There may be good reasons to disagree with the immigration policies of various countries, and that’s an important discussion for Western democracies. The Bible, however, does not seem to provide a precedent in this case for dodging the law.

The writer, author of A Guide to the Complex: Contemporary Halakhic Debates, directs the Tikvah Overseas Students Institute and is a presidential scholar at Bar-Ilan University Law School.

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