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Shoftim 5780: Justice For All

Shoftim (Deuteronomy 16:18-21:9 )

by Rabbi Yitzchak Zweig

GOOD MORNING! As the nation hurtles toward the final and most intense stage of the 2020 presidential election one fact seems fairly clear; perhaps not since the Civil War has the United States been so politically polarized. This political divide has fractured many communities as well as families.

For people who identify strongly with one side of the political spectrum, it can feel like their opponents are willfully ignoring the facts. But whether you are a Republican or a Democrat, lean to the right or to the left, all sides believe that their positions are grounded in evidence. Of course, the further one moves from the “center,” the more one becomes vehemently intolerant of the “other side.”

According to Dr. Peter Ditto, a clinical psychologist who for the past several decades has studied how motivation and emotion influence judgement, this is the new reality: "We now live in a world where there are red facts and blue facts, and I believe these biased motivated-reasoning processes fuel political conflict. If someone firmly believes some fact to be true that you just as firmly believe to be false, it is hard for either of you not to see that other person as stupid, disingenuous or both."

In other words, we tend to see facts as evidence and proof confirming what we already desire to believe. This also becomes a cyclical process whereby, when forming personal convictions, we often interpret factual evidence through the filter of our values, feelings, tastes, and past experiences. According to psychologists Daniel Kahaneman, Paul Slovic, and Amos Tversky, this is known as “confirmation bias.”

This week several readers sent me the following story from an online news source – so please take it with a large grain of salt. In general, online “news outlets” are obviously not the most credible sources and though I tried, I haven’t been able to independently verify the authenticity of the article. Still, whether or not the story is 100% true it is still instructive (I have also added some translations to the original article for ease of comprehension).

In a small town just outside Tel Aviv someone decided to open up a nightclub right opposite a Chassidic shteibel (in general, a shteibel refers to a small synagogue popular with a variety Jewish Chassidic sects).

You could imagine the uproar and outrage; the riffraff, the atmosphere in the neighborhood etc. The shteibel and its congregation started a campaign to block the club from opening with petitions, government lobbying and even a daily vigil where they gathered for extra prayer, reciting Tehillim (Psalms) etc… All to no avail. Work progressed.

Three days before opening there was a huge storm, lightning struck and the night club burned to the ground. The club owner sued the shteibel and its members on the grounds that the shteibel, through its praying, was ultimately responsible for the ill-fated end of his dream project, “either through direct or indirect actions or means.” In its reply to the court, the shteibel vehemently denied all responsibility or any connection between their prayers and the club’s burning down.

As the case made its way into court, the judge looked over the different motions at the hearing and commented: “I don’t know how I’m going to decide this case, but it appears from the paperwork, we have a nightclub owner who believes in the power of prayer and we have an entire congregation that doesn’t.”

Aside from being a quintessential example of the complicated cognitive dissonance people manifest on a regular basis, it also shows the vulnerability we all have in choosing to interpret facts to fit into the narrative we want to maintain. With this in mind, consider how difficult it must be for judges to properly determine one’s intent when adjudicating cases that come before them. Moreover, judges also have to contend with their own personal beliefs and biases when deciding what is a fact and what it ultimately means.

Of course, the Torah teaches us an important insight on this very topic. This week’s Torah portion is called Shoftim – “Judges.” In this week’s reading we find:

You shall not pervert judgement, you shall not show favoritism, and you shall not take a bribe because bribery blinds the eyes of the wise and makes righteous words crooked (16:19).

This week’s parsha exhorts judges to repudiate bribes. We are forced to ask; for whom exactly was this prohibition written? It would seem kind of pointless to tell a crooked judge, “by the way, you shouldn't take bribes.” A crooked judge has made his choice and has chosen to ignore the moral issues. Conversely, an honest judge innately understands that taking a bribe undermines the whole justice system and would obviously reject any kind of bribery. So to whom is this prohibition directed?

The great medieval commentator known as Rashi is bothered by the same question. Rashi (ad loc) makes a rather curious comment: A judge is forbidden to take a bribe “even to adjudicate the case honestly.”

What exactly is the case Rashi is referring to? If he is judging the case properly, what exactly is the issue? Perhaps even more puzzling: Why would someone even want to pay a judge to rule properly, what would be a compelling reason to offer a judge money in such a situation?

Rashi is actually alluding to a remarkable and fairly tempting situation. Imagine if one of the litigants approached the judge with the following request: “Your honor, I am an honest person and I want you to adjudicate this case properly. Of course, I feel that I am in the right and I am entitled to monies from the other party. But, I fully recognize that I may be biased and that my claim may be wrong. In such a situation I would NEVER want the other party’s money.”

He continues, “I know that you have a lot of stress in your life, and that you need to make more money in order to make ends meet. I know you drive Uber shifts at night to earn extra cash. My concern is that you might be tired from all those extra hours working and it is likely that you may not have the peace of mind to give this case the proper attention it deserves.”

“Under no circumstances would I, heaven forbid, want money that didn't belong to me. So please allow me to give you enough money so that you can solely focus on this case and not have to take on another job. But I am reiterating that I am only doing this so that you can give it the proper attention and adjudicate this properly.”

The reason it’s such a sinister form of bribery is because it is so cleverly subtle and a desperate judge, even an honest one, might actually consider such an offer. It almost seems on the up and up.

As we have seen above, a person tends to see facts based on preconceived notions and biases, and judges are no exception to this rule. The Torah is therefore cautioning even honest judges not to be taken in by someone who is trying to manipulate the reality of how the judge perceives him.

The reason Rashi’s case is so deceptive is that even if the judge turns it down, in reality the litigant has already accomplished proving to the judge what a “good guy” he is and that his heart is in the right place. That alone can affect the outcome of the case because a judge now has a preconceived notion that this litigant is an honest person. Therefore, the Torah instructs judges to repudiate all types of bribery.

We can also learn a valuable life lesson; preconceived perceptions are a dangerous way to judge current realities. As we have seen, treachery sometimes comes in the illusion of an honest person with an outstretched hand offering help. Still, we must keep in mind that we are enjoined to give others the benefit of the doubt until you have independent evidence otherwise.

In general, the most effective way to avoid the pitfalls of “confirmation bias” is to carefully and slowly examine each situation on its merits. Remember – salt and sugar look the same. It is extremely important to understand that the quicker we jump to conclusions the more likely we are to err. Perhaps this is why in Pirkei Avot – “Ethics of our Fathers” – the first lesson in the entire book is; “Be deliberate in judgement.”

Torah Portion of the Week

Shoftim, Deuteronomy 16:18 - 21:9

Topics in this week's portion include: Judges and Justice, "Sacred Trees and Pillars," Blemished Sacrifice, Penalties for Idolatry, The Supreme Court, The King, Levitical Priests, Priestly Portions, Special Service, Divination and Prophecy, Cities of Refuge, Murder, Preserving Boundaries, Conspiring Witnesses, Preparing for War, Taking Captives, Conducting a Siege and the Case of the Unsolved Murder.

This week we have the famous admonition: "Righteousness, Righteousness shall you pursue so that you will live and possess the Land that the Almighty your God, gives you" (Deuteronomy 16:20).

Candle Lighting Times

(or go to

Jerusalem 6:40
Miami 7:32 - Guatemala 6:02 - Hong Kong 6:32
Honolulu 6:38 - Johannesburg 5:32 - Los Angeles 7:14
London 7:54 - Melbourne 5:31 - Mexico City 7:41
New York 7:26 - Singapore 6:54 - Toronto 7:52
Moscow 7:32

Quote of the Week

Thinking is hard, that is why most people judge.
– Carl Jung

In Loving Memory of

my beloved husband Tom

who was a true friend of Rabbi Kalman Packouz,
of blessed memory, and they enjoyed each other’s company immensely. May his memory be a blessing.
— Suzanne Gerard

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