Shabbat Shoftim: Who are You to Judge?

“Who am I to judge?” When did those words last come out of your mouth, or at least formulate in your mind? It’s a common way for us to dodge involvement in the world.

It is, however, a stand which is not very Jewish. One of this week’s messages from our parashat hashavua, the Torah reading of the week, is that one must judge – and judge justly. The opening words of the parasha are: “Appoint judges and magistrates in all your gates, tribe by tribe; they shall judge justly.” (Devarim 16.18)

To judge justly is a mitzvah – a command. It is a necessity for a participatory society if it is to have any chance to function justly. That is why it is a mitzvah to serve on a jury. But Jews are held to a very high standard when it comes to judging, whether in our everyday lives or having been seated on a jury. What is that standard? The Torah itself provides it. As often happens in our Torah, the declarative command “you shall judge justly” is followed by the details of just what that means. The next verses specify:

1. No “coercing judgement”: to judge justly is to refuse to let evidence be manipulated, to insist upon proper process, to work to ensure that no one has been silenced. You are being coerced when you let a sound bite on television, or an videotape, or the lack of a good argument against your supposition, moves you to judgment. You are always to remember that each person is accorded the benefit of the doubt until it is proven otherwise.

2. No “recognition of a face”: you cannot judge someone if you have personal feelings that cause you to be pre-disposed either to trust or distrust that person. If you believe it when you hear that so-and-so did such-and-such, because they’ve done it before, you are “recognizing faces” and your judgment is not trustworthy.

3. No “gifts”: obviously, bribery is wrong. But there are much more subtle “gifts”: the story is told in the Talmud of a Rabbi who was due in court as a judge. A tenant farmer who rented his field brought him the fruit due him as rent a day early that week. When the Rabbi asked why, the farmer mentioned that he had to go to court for a legal matter, so he brought the fruit early on his way to town. The Rabbi realized that he would have to recuse himself. The fruit was his due, the payment of rent that he expected regularly; but in his judgment it fell into the legal category of a gift, and he could not serve as a truly impartial judge as a result.

Judging is a very difficult challenge, even for those whose daily responsibility is to do their best to judge what is truth. One example that will surprise you, I think, is presented here: Ask yourself, when this photo was first published with the incorrect caption, did you accept that incorrect information as truth? after all, it was in the New York Times!

I’m not accusing the Times of deliberate falsehood. This is merely an illustration of the fact that you cannot ever completely accept second-hand information as factual. Just judgment is more difficult than that, and requires a lot more caution and willingness to remember that there is more than one side to EVERY story.

On this Shabbat, as you are presented with opportunities to judge what you see and what you hear, and you consider how to respond justly, may you remember to take a breath before you believe what you see or hear, and run it through your Jewish ethical filter. We are called upon to judge, and to act upon that judgment – and we are called upon to be very careful that our acts are based upon true, and just, judgment.

כתיבה וחתימה טובה – May you be written and sealed for good in the coming year,

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