"Rabbi Yishmael his (Rabbi Yossi's) son said: One who withdraws himself from serving as judge spares himself of hatred, robbery and unnecessary oaths. And one who is arrogant in rendering decisions is foolish, evil and conceited."
The message of this mishna in a word is that if possible one should avoid serving as judge on a Jewish court of law. Although ideally a judge is an impartial arbitrator of G-d's justice -- one who neither takes sides, shows favoritism, nor is personally involved in the affairs of others, such a posture is difficult to maintain. Hatred and pettiness are often unavoidable consequences of human conflict, and it will be virtually impossible for the judge to entirely extricate himself from them. The aggrieved party will invariably blame his own failings on the judicial system (and once in a while, in spite of the judges' best efforts, with justification). He will view himself as victim of judicial incompetence or corruption and will impute his own shortcomings on the judges who so disgraced him.
In addition, as our mishna states, there is the very real possibility of errors in judgment. Even the most competent and well-versed judge will unwittingly bring about "robbery" and "unnecessary oaths" from time to time. Judges are only human, as the rest of us. Assuming the greater-than-life role of functioning as G-d's long arm -- as human extensions of a living Torah -- is almost by definition an impossible task.
This does not mean, of course, that Judaism is not in favor of a functioning, active judicial system. The Torah requires that courts -- as well as police forces -- be established in every city and tribe of Israel (Deut. 16:18). Judges are viewed as performing a Divine mission within the Jewish nation. King David wrote, "...in the midst of judges does G-d judge" (Psalms 82:1). The Talmud, based on this verse, states: "Any judge who judges a case to its true conclusion, causes the Divine Presence to dwell in Israel (Sanhedrin 7a). Courts are a crucial part of Jewish society. Not only do they maintain order and ensure that the Torah is properly observed and applied, but they act as representatives -- and role models -- of G-d's justice on earth.
Yet, as our mishna explains, the Torah sage should not vie for the opportunity to hold high position, show off his scholarship, or wield power over others. One who is motivated by such all-too-human instincts does little more than demonstrate his own unworthiness of functioning as G-d's official. Rendering proper decisions is at best time-consuming, unglamorous work -- as well as work which carries the risks of misrepresenting G-d's Torah and of earning the ill-will of the masses. (It's interesting to note that David's rebellious son Absalom gained a following by siding with the losers of his father's court -- see II Samuel 15.) The Talmud writes that a judge must see himself as if a sword is placed between his legs and that the gates of Hell are open beneath him (Sanhedrin 7a). One who recognizes the severity of G-d's justice and the exactness of the Torah's standards -- who would want nothing other than *not* serving as judge -- except that he sees no one worthier -- may be the one actually worthy of bearing such a grand and exalted mantle.
Rashi, in his commentary, sees a more practical message in our mishna's advice. If two people come before a judge for litigation, he must urge them to compromise between themselves before he accepts to preside over their case -- or at least before he is ready to render judgment (based on Sanhedrin 6b). In this way, he will avoid having the ill-will of the litigants play itself out during the court proceedings. He may even replace it with the good will and understanding which stem from the spirit of compromise and mutual consideration.
It is interesting to note that compromise plays an important role in the Jewish judicial process. On the one hand, judges are to represent truth and truth alone. They are human emissaries of G-d and His Torah. When they function in this capacity, they must demand unconditional adherence to exact and unbending Torah principles -- as the Talmud puts it, "Let the law bore through the mountain!" (Sanhedrin 6b).
Yet as we learned, judges must at first urge compromise, almost at the expense of the facts, as if to say, "Why don't we all just be friends and not look too closely at the details?" With their offer they are in effect saying, "Once we assume the role of judges, we will look at the hard, dry facts alone. There will be no room for sympathy or understanding -- and no turning back. But if you choose, you may decide not to push the law to its limits. Just walk away now in friendship and good will, and we will happily never don our austere judge's robes and never become those arbiters of uncompromising justice."
(There is even an opinion in the Talmud (ibid.) that even when a judge is already deliberating, he may suggest that the litigants compromise, but only so long as he does not have a feel for the eventual direction of the case. If he does not *know* it is false, he may call for compromise. But if he has already determined the conclusion he will eventually reach, the "judge" aspect of his persona comes into play -- and he can no longer offer compromise.)
All the above is true because the judge's role is not merely one of arbiter of truth and justice. His task is one much more challenging: to take the lofty ideals of the Torah and forge a functioning human society based upon its dictates. This must be accomplished by two means, both at the same time but never together:
(1) To espouse the unyielding, exacting principles of the Torah. To demonstrate that the Torah represents truth -- G-d's truth -- and as such is eternal and unchanging, irrespective of man's ability to live up to it or of the changing mores of society.
(2) To exhibit the mercy and patience required to allow a healthy society to exist and thrive. This requires a recognition of human weakness -- that man is only human and that the law cannot always be pushed to its limits.
And both aspects of the judge's function are crucial. Never to uphold unbending principles, failing to recognize that there are truths which just cannot be compromised and lines which can never be crossed -- such would never create a society of principles and discipline. Truth becomes relative, and values come and go according to the ever-changing whims of society and personal preference. At the same time, if not for compromise and the acceptance of people for whom they are and with all their faults and imperfections, society too would not be able to last.
The Talmud writes that the concept of repentance was created before the world itself (Pesachim 54a). The message is that G-d realized humans beings were destined to fall from the lofty ideals G-d had set forth for them: "For there is no man wholly righteous on earth who does good and never sins" (Ecclesiastes 7:20). G-d therefore provided us with the means to make amends and correct our past mistakes.
Judges -- and Judaism as a whole -- provide us both with sublime and uncompromising ideals together with the recognition that they must be applied with patience, love and compassion. The Jewish people are not only G-d's servants, measured according to the staff of truth and justice. They are His children as well, deserving the patience and compassion only a loving father can administer. Only through both means can "no man wholly righteous" become "a kingdom of priests and a holy nation unto Me" (Exodus 19:6).