Matot-Masei: City of Refuge By the Bay

How do Torah’s “Cities of Refuge” provisions compare with San Francisco’s “Sanctuary City” law?

In this week’s Torah portion, Matot-Massei, the Israelites are commanded to designate six cities of refuge to which unintentional manslayers may flee from pursuers pending trial.  The pursuers, (literally, “redeemers”) were kinsman obligated to avenge (redeem) the lost blood of their slain family member with the blood of the murderer. 

One who killed with an iron object, or stone or wooden tool; pushed another in hate; hurled something at him on purpose; or struck him with his hand in enmity, was a murderer.  Murderers had no defense; their evil had to be purged, even if they sought refuge at an altar. “If a man come presumptuously upon his neighbor, to slay him with guile; thou shalt take him from My altar, that he may die.” (Exodus 21:14). 

But if the killer claimed to have pushed the victim without malice aforethought, thrown an object unintentionally (as, for example, the head of an axe flew off the handle), or inadvertently dropped a stone object, the court had to decide between the slayer and the blood-avenger. Allowing the victim’s avenger to kill the inadvertent killer would itself be a sin and further defile the land with blood, so this had to be avoided. 

Even if found, after trial, not to have murdered, the killer had still sinned against the sanctity of human life, and that sin had to be contained within a city of refuge to limit its contaminating effect upon the community. Therefore, if the killer’s action was found to be without malice, he was allowed to live, but had to remain within the city of refuge until the death of the High Priest, whose role was to atone for the sins and impurities of the people during his lifetime. (Levitucus 16:16-22).

How does San Francisco’s “Sanctuary City” law compare?

In 1989, the City and County of San Francisco passed an Ordinance prohibiting their employees from helping Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) with immigration investigations or arrests unless such help was required by federal or state law or a warrant.

According to the City and County of San Francisco’s website:

The Ordinance is rooted in the Sanctuary Movement of the 1980's, when churches across the country provided refuge to Central Americans fleeing civil wars in their countries. In providing such assistance, faith communities were responding to the difficulties immigrants faced in obtaining refugee status from the U.S. government. Municipalities across the country followed suit by adopting sanctuary ordinances.  In recent years, the Sanctuary Movement has experienced a rebirth, as grassroots organizations, faith communities, and local government have stood firmly against repressive immigration proposals in Congress and immigration raids that separate families. 

Hence, the contexts of the two “City of Refuge” laws are quite different. The Torah law is intended to prevent unwarranted bloodshed, which would occur if the victim’s family killed the unintentional killer.  It applied to any person – resident or “stranger.”

By contrast, San Francisco’s law is overtly political, being aimed at “repressive immigration proposals in Congress” and “immigration raids that separate families.”  It is one government (local)'s policymakers opposing those, albeit not actual laws, of another (federal). It is intended to protect a class of persons whose only “crime,” or at least, legal violation, is their suspected unlawful presence in the country. 

Does this mean that San Francisco’s law, and others like it, have no grounding in the Torah?  Certainly not.  Treating strangers fairly and protecting wrongdoers from excessive punishment (as via the “eye for an eye” law, that limited punishment) are both core Torah values.  They coincide when the objective is to protect a stranger (i.e. illegal immigrant) from being treated unfairly, which is the implicit goal of the San Francisco law.

Ironically, in the case that created the recent notoriety, the laws actually partially converge because the “stranger” committed a killing.  Whether he committed murder or an involuntary killing (by reason of mental defect) remains to be determined.  

Since in all but a few instances, the Torah (as interpreted by our sages) provides that “the law of the land is the law,” SF’s ordinance would not pass Torah (nor Constitutional) scrutiny if it forbid City/County employees from actually refusing to obey a warrant or federal law.  But it stops short of this, and only reflects a policy decision.  

My purpose is neither to defend nor to criticize San Francisco’s Sanctuary Ordinance – nor Torah’s Cities of Refuge laws, for that matter.  Rather, I wish to note yet another fascinating example that Torah’s laws, and the values that underlie them, continue to be highly relevant and worthy of careful reflection in our time.  

Shabbat shalom! 

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A bird that you set free may be caught again, but a word that escapes your lips will not return.
Jewish Proverb