April 8, 2024
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Can a person ever truly be impartial? Is it even possible to come to decisions without ulterior motives in life?

The opening verse of Shoftim (Devarim 16:18) tells us:

“You shall appoint judges and guards in all your gates that Hashem gives you… who must judge Israel righteously.”

And the Torah continues with an injunction to the appointed judges:

“You shall not pervert judgment, nor be partial to a litigant’s presence and you shall not take a bribe, for bribery will blind the eyes of the wise, and make crooked the words of the righteous.” (ibid. 19)

Shoftim, which literally means judges, speaks of the importance of appointing judges and a system of courts designed to ensure a society of law and order as well as moral clarity.

One of the seven Noachide laws requires every human being to live within a system of courts and judges. And it is notable that one of the first perversions to occur under Adolf Hitler’s Nazi rule after he became chancellor in Germany in 1933, was the subversion of the courts and judges in Germany. Both the courts and the police (Gestapo) operated according to Nazi doctrine and Hitler’s demands as early as 1933.

But why does the Torah take the time to list a series of injunctions addressed to judges and the courts? How many of us will really ever sit on the bench and judge a case?

Rav Dessler, in his Michtav Me’Eliyahu points out that we all sit in judgment, every day.

Imagine that a person wants to see what the halacha has to say about whether one can play Monopoly (a board game involving pretend currency and transactions) on Shabbat. Obviously when exploring what Jewish law has to say on the topic one must remain impartial and abide by what he finds the halacha has to say. But why is a person looking up the halacha in the first place? Obviously because he wants to play Monopoly on Shabbat; so he was never impartial in the first place!

The Torah is not just speaking to court judges; the Torah is speaking to all of us as we strive to apply good and healthy judgment in the court of daily human experience.

The first stage of teshuvah or repentance, is hakarat hachet. Before we can hope to correct the errors of our ways, we first need to recognize what our mistakes are and take ownership of them. Bribery is so insidious, because most often we do not even recognize we are being bribed. We have been so impacted by the way we see the world it becomes almost impossible to see it any other way.

Interestingly, on the aforementioned verse concerning bribery, Rashi offers a fascinating comment (ibid. 19): A judge is not allowed to receive a bribe or favor or even a smile from the litigant in order to rule justly! This is because the instant we receive anything we can no longer be objective. We can never be impartial on anything which impacts us, and as we are usually making decisions and rendering opinions about things that do affect us, how can we ever resolve the conundrum?

Maimonides in his Hilchot Deot (2:1) suggests a simple response: a person has to have chachamim to call upon: balanced individuals who can be more objective about our own realities than we are. It is debatable whether true impartiality even exists in our world, but at least we can gain advice from those who are more likely to be less partial than we are about the things that concern us.

As we begin to approach Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur it behooves us to be more cognizant of the inherent biases through which we see the world and more diligent in finding ways to invite other more objective, and even sometimes diametrically opposed, sources with which to balance those perspectives.


Rabbi Binny Freedman is rosh yeshiva of Yeshivat Orayta. He is a member of the Mizrachi Speakers Bureau ( www.mizrachi.org/speakers ).

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