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What does the Torah have to say about the Alec Baldwin case?

The actor didn’t mean to kill his cinematographer. Rabbinic sages have weighed in on similar cases.

Alec Baldwin was formally charged with involuntary manslaughter Tuesday in the 2021 death of Halyna Hutchins, a cinematographer on the set of a movie he acted in and produced. Does Jewish law have anything to say about cases like his?

The Torah does include laws for manslaughter. But what may surprise you is that while the Talmud, which interprets the Torah, has hundreds of pages about financial compensation for injury, it seems to say reinforce that in cases of unintentional death, revenge against the killer is justifiable. Instead of banning retribution, the Torah provides an escape valve for those who would face it.

In Exodus and again in Numbers, God commands Israel to set up arei miklat, commonly translated as cities of refuge, where someone who commits manslaughter can flee. To ensure their safety, that person must stay in that city until the death of the nation’s kohen gadol, or high priest, when the statute of limitations expires and revenge is no longer permitted. God instructs the Israelites to build six arei miklat, and appoints the Levites to administer them.

This obviously can’t apply to Alec Baldwin. Israel hasn’t had a kohen gadol since the Second Temple was destroyed circa 70 C.E., and we don’t know where those ancient cities were. But the Talmud does address the accidental killer who doesn’t go to a sanctuary city, and raises questions of revenge. Who may or must avenge the crime? 

The Sages are split on this. Discussing the cities of refuge in the tractate of Makkot, Rabbi Yosei HaGelili says that it is a mitzvah to avenge one’s relative, and that even non-relatives are allowed (but not commanded) to take revenge on the fleeing perpetrator outside of the arei miklat. Rabbi Akiva says the relative may take revenge, but it is not a mitzvah — and no one else can do it for them.

And, leading us back to where we started, Rabbi Eliezer says even the relative must settle the matter in court. Which is where the Baldwin case is now heading.

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