The commentariat is in a collective uproar over the blistering attack on a federal judge, Gonzalo Curiel, that was unleashed over the weekend by the presumptive Republican presidential nominee, Donald Trump.
"If he is willing now to bully a judge overseeing a case involving his business, what respect for the separation of powers can we expect if he is president?" the Washington Post asked in an editorial, accusing Mr. Trump of displaying "disrespect for constitutional norms." A columnist at the paper, David Post, described the comments as "terrifying... a not-too-thinly-veiled attack on the notion of judicial independence and the rule of law."
A Wall Street Journal editorial said Mr. Trump had "managed to combine an ethnic slight with an un-presidential attack on an independent judiciary." The Journal's Best of the Web columnist, the inimitable James Taranto, declared Mr. Trump's comments "deplorable," as well as "appalling and wrong," and "genuinely outrageous," not to mention "a foolish litigation strategy."
A New York Times editorial called the comments "unacceptable" and said they "represent a threat to America's carefully balanced political system."
What I haven't yet seen any commentator point out — certainly not in the major newspapers — is the origin of this taboo against personally attacking a judge. The editorial writers, even the best of them, seem, alas, oblivious to the point, or if they are indeed aware of it, reluctant to share the news with readers. But here it is, right there in the Bible, in the same chapter of Exodus that forbids bestiality and that contains the morally exquisite injunctions not to mistreat widows or orphans, and not to wrong or oppress strangers, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.
Exodus Chapter 22, Verse 27: "You shall not revile judges."
The fact that the verse didn't leap to everyone's mind may be attributable as much to poor translation as to biblical ignorance. Many English translations, both Jewish and Christian ones, render the verse something like "You shall not revile God" (as both the Jewish Publication Society and the Protestant New Revised Standard Version puts it) or "Thou shalt not revile the gods," as the King James version has it.
But traditional Jewish texts, and some of the more careful translations by both Jewish and Christian scholars, understand the Hebrew word "Elohim" in the context of this particular verse to mean judges.
As Rabbi Ethan Linden pointed out in a 2011 article (long before Mr. Trump's comments), Jewish translators and commentators including Onkolos (ca. 110 CE), Rashi (1040-1105), Ibn Ezra (1089-1167), Sforno (1470-1550), and the Saadia Gaon (882-942) have understood this verse to be a warning against cursing judges. The influential 19th century German rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch translated the verse, "Thou shalt not curse a judge." This reading or understanding is also supported by the Babylonian Talmud, Sanhedrin 66a.
I first really noticed the verse in a prayer book published by the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism, which includes the passage early in the morning prayers. The prayerbook quotes from a book of biblical commentary, II Exodus Rabbbah 31, which says:
Our Sages taught: Once a man had a case and came before a judge, who ruled in his favor. Upon leaving the court, he said: "There is no judge in the world like this one!" After some time, that man had another case come before the same judge, who now ruled against him. Upon leaving, the man cried: "There is no judge more foolish than he!" People chided him: "Yesterday praiseworthy, and today a fool?" Hence Scripture admonishes: "You shall not revile a judge" (Exodus 22:27).
Nor is this understanding confined to Jewish sources. "Heap no abuse upon judges," is the way the New Berkeley Version, a Christian Bible, renders the verse (it numbers it slightly differently, as Exodus 22:28).
The fact that the Bible needed to tell people not to insult, denounce, hate, or defame judges suggests that the temptation was there long before the days of Donald Trump. Indeed, derision of judges is unfortunately common across the American political spectrum, from the fury on the right at Chief Justice Roberts for his decision to uphold much of ObamaCare to the New Yorker's memorably mean-spirited obituary of Justice Scalia. There's nothing wrong with publicly disagreeing with a judge's decision or reasoning; they are certainly fallible. But cross the line over into an attack on the judge himself or herself, and one risks disobeying the biblical injunction.
This biblical law, like so many others, seems designed to bolster humility and self-examination. As Rabbi Linden paraphrases Sforno, "Even if you think that your judge erred in the case, do not curse him, for a man cannot see the guilt in himself."
It's that biblically grounded moral caution about humility and the risk of hubris — more so than any constitutional concerns about judicial independence, checks and balances, or the rule of law — that for me, at least, gets to the core of why Trump's attack on Judge Curiel was troubling. As so often, the Bible turns out to be at the bottom of the story, even if contemporary commentators are so distant from the text that they aren't able to discern its influence.