from the heart of jerusalem

Is it possible for us to be truly impartial?


Is it possible to be truly impartial in life? Consider this story from Rabbi Abraham Twerski, told to him as a boy by his father (published in Rabbi Twerski’s “Generation to Generation”).

The great rebbe of Berditchev, Rav Levi Yitzchak, was once siting in a Din Torah as one of the judges hearing the case. After several days of hearing the litigants, he suddenly stood up and announced he was recusing himself. He gave no reason for his abrupt decision, which obviously meant the litigants would have to find a new rabbinic court.

A few days later, after Shabbat, the Rebbe of Berditchev called the other rabbis who had been hearing the case with him together to explain.

“At a certain point during the proceedings, I found myself inextricably leaning towards one of the litigants and became aware that I was losing my objectivity. I could not understand why this was so, but try as I might I could not overcome the bias and eventually realized I had no option but to recuse myself from the case as I was feeling partial towards one of the sides. Only with the advent of Shabbat did I realize what had transpired. 

“On Friday evening when I put on my special Shabbat kaftan (kappoteh) I found an envelope with money that had been placed there by one of the litigants. He must have slipped in to my home and placed the bribe in the pocket of my coat assuming I would find it during the week, not realizing this was a frock I only wear on Shabbat. 

“When I subsequently found the bribe it became clear to me what had happened: The power of a bribe is so great that it can influence the judge’s reasoning even if he is completely unaware that he has been bribed! From the moment the litigant placed the bribe in my home I could not regain my impartiality.”

Can a person ever truly be impartial? Is it even possible to come to decisions without ulterior motives?

The opening verse of our parsha 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. v. 19).

This week’s parsha speaks of the importance of appointing judges and establishing a system of courts to ensure a society of law and order and moral clarity, as one cannot hope to have a just society without a system of impartial courts and judges. One of the seven Noachide laws requires every person to live within a system of courts and judges.

One of the first perversions to occur under Adolph Hitler’s Nazi rule was the subversion of Germany’s courts and judges. Both the courts and the police operated according to Nazi doctrine and Hitler’s demands as early as 1933.

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

Rav Dessler, in his Michtav Me’Elihau 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 to be. But why is a person looking up the halacha in the first place? 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, it is speaking to all of us as we strive to apply good and healthy judgment in the court of daily human experience. 

Parsha Shoftim is always read as we enter the month of Elul and approach the days of judgment. The first stage of teshuva, or repentance, is hakarat hachet, which means recognizing one’s mistakes. 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. And this is where bribery is so insidious, because most often we do not even recognize we are being bribed. 

This past week has seen America torn apart with recriminations from both left and right as to who is more intolerant and where justice ends and injustice begins, all of which seems (at least from afar) to be compounded by a president who does not seem to have found — or at least communicated — a clear moral compass. Many who see the Alt-right as the sum of all evil and intolerance are seemingly blind to the violence and anti-Semitism emanating from the extreme left, and those who support the right seem to be blind or overly tolerant of the hatred and violence coming from the extreme right.

And this is compounded when there is actually a tangible benefit (a “bribe”) to perpetuating that viewpoint. If, for instance, a nonprofit is receiving most of its budget from a foreign entity with a particular agenda, it will likely be difficult for it to reach conclusions that are in conflict with those of its funding source. Indeed, this is at the heart of one of the current scandals surrounding Prime Minister Netanyahu in which he is suspected of receiving excessive gifts from private citizens. 

Our children understand this all too well when they give us a hug or a smile before asking for the car keys.

On the afore-mentioned verse concerning bribery, Rashi offers a fascinating comment (ibid. 16: 19): A judge is not allowed to receive a bribe or favor even to judge honestly! In other words, even if he plans to rule justly and it is clear which way the judgment should go, a judge is still not allowed to receive anything (even a smile!) from the litigant. Because the instant we receive anything we can no longer be objective.

Which of course means 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 (Laws of character development 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 exists anywhere 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.

And at least if we are aware of our own biases, and the ‘briberies’ in our lives, we can attempt, with the help of others, a somewhat more balanced approach and perspective. Perhaps this is why the portion begins with the exhortation to place judges in all our gates: less partial adjudicators who can help us recognize when we ourselves are too impartial to render anything remotely resembling a healthy balanced opinion or judgment.

As we begin the approach to 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. 

And most certainly, we need to ensure this leads to healthy and inclusive dialogue rather than, heaven forbid, violence that would leave such balance hopelessly beyond reach.

Shabbat shalom from Jerusalem.