Chapter 4, Mishna 10
By Rabbi Dovid Rosenfeld
"He (Rabbi Yishmael) used to say: Do not judge alone because there is no
solitary judge except One. Do not say, 'Accept my view,' for they are
permitted and not you."
This mishna continues the theme of the previous. Its message is that a judge
should not be so sure of his abilities as to render decisions on his own or
urge other judges to accept his position. A Jewish court ordinarily consists
of a minimum of three judges (Mishna Sanhedrin 1:1). The Talmud writes,
however, that judgments relating to monetary disputes may be decided by a
single judge if he is an "expert to the many" (i.e., generally known to be
proficient) (Sanhedrin 5a). Maimonides and others understand our mishna to
mean that even though technically this is so, ethically speaking a judge
should not take it upon himself to judge solitarily. Interpreting and
applying G-d's law is a serious endeavor, one which must be approached with
awe and trepidation. There is only one true Judge, of slow and patient
justice -- which is never fully concluded in the world we know. Any mortal
effort to assume such a role -- to play G-d -- is at best a faint
approximation of the real thing.
The simplest reason for our mishna's advice is for fear of human error. No
one should be so certain of himself and his abilities as to consider himself
above error. It is a plain and simple fact of our humanity that we are just
not perfect. I imagine that G-d, in His great wisdom, *could* have made us
"better" -- with faultless memories, perfect IQ's, and unerringly rational
minds. But G-d -- in an even greater act of wisdom -- had no such intention.
He made us all too "human" -- with our clouded and often biased reasoning,
memory lapses, mood swings, obstinacy, and everything else that makes life
(It's actually a much more difficult engineering task to create beings which
are randomly forgetful and inconsistent in their behavior rather than ones
which act the same way every time. It's not for nothing that the Talmud
calls G-d a Master Craftsman (Brachos 10a).)
It seems that G-d intended to create man in such a way. Had He created us
perfect there would be little left for us to do -- and little to humble us
before G-d. Instead, G-d created us quite human. We have failings, we make
mistakes, and we need one another. We have much work before us.
This being so, any person -- judge or otherwise -- who considers himself
above fault and reproach will inevitably fall and be forced to face his very
human shortcomings. We've all seen parents, teachers and others in positions
of authority refuse to back down and admit their mistakes -- sometimes under
the flimsy pretext that it would somehow compromise their authority or the
dignity of their position. And the result -- as we also know all too well --
is a blind and pig-headed superior and emotionally-bruised children,
students or employees.
In truth, the rare superior who owns up to and apologizes for his or her
mistakes gains much more respect than the one who attempts against all
rationality to cling to an absurd image of infallibility. G-d created us as
human beings for very good reason -- and for reason we must recognize and
live with. Acting like one is not a failing but an acceptance of the reality
of our purpose in this world.
There is a deeper reason why one should not judge alone. Let's say scholar
#1 is in fact the most learned judge. He is sharper, more experienced and
more well-versed than his colleagues. Does that automatically make him the
best-qualified judge? Does knowledge alone make one worthy of rendering
decisions in Jewish law?
The answer provides us yet another insight into the difficulty of the role
judges fulfill. We learned earlier (4:1
(www.torah.org/learning/pirkei-avos/chapter4-1a.html)) "Who is wise? He who
learns from all people." We asked there what is the importance of learning
from everyone? It's true that someone who truly seeks wisdom will inquire it
of every person and from every place it may be found. But why from
*everyone*? Don't some people just not have very much to offer? Wouldn't it
be far more productive to spend time studying ourselves and from our
teachers than trying to glean some bits of information from people who just
don't know all that much?
We answered there that what others have to offer is their own unique
perspective. The Torah is not a dry collection of facts which the scholar
must memorize. It is the application of knowledge -- of G-d's truths -- to
an infinite number of people and situations. The Torah -- in spite of
literally libraries of information -- applies differently to each one of us.
As much as one individual has studied, he can never fully understand what
the Torah means to a different person, be it a woman, foreigner, teenager,
or person of different background or temperament. The Torah may begin with
objective facts and information, but it ends -- it culminates -- with the
subjective understanding of the world and of humankind. The ultimate goal of
the scholar is to see beyond his own way of viewing the world and to
understand the Torah in the bigger and grander picture -- from the
perspective of others, and ultimately, from the perspective of G-d.
This is in essence the role of the judge. He must take the L-rd's Torah and
instruct others in its ways -- telling them how they must apply it to their
lives. When two litigants appear before the court (if they were good enough
to come of their own accord in the first place), the judge is presented with
human interaction at its worst -- fights, dishonesty, breaches of contract,
misunderstandings, unfulfilled obligations. How does a judge take rigid
Torah law and apply it, bringing harmony where there was strife and
understanding where there was mistrust? The answer is that he must possess
something far more than simple book knowledge. He must know when to press
the law to the limits, when to show patience and sympathy, and when to look
the other way. (See our discussion about the role of compromise in last
week's shiur.) And this does not only require scholarship. It requires a
keen instinct for how to relate to others and how to apply the eternal
truths of the Torah to the vicissitudes of human behavior.
This is perhaps the meaning of the passage we quoted above from the Talmud
that a judge who is "an expert *to the many*" may judge on his own. Why the
strange wording? What is an expert "to the many" that an ordinary expert is
not? The intent is that the scholar must understand not only what the Torah
means to himself, but what it means and how it applies to others -- to the
"many". And it is a rare judge whose perception is so penetrating. Justice
is much better served by a quorum of judges, whose combined wisdom might
just fulfill the impossible.
As black and white Jewish Law appears to be, it cannot be viewed as canon or
gospel. It takes an enormous amount of talent, intuition, creativity, and
understanding to recognize how it must be applied to real life people and
situations. As King Solomon wrote, there are times to speak out and times to
remain silent (Ecclesiastes 3:7). Any person entrusted by G-d to oversee and
foster the growth of others -- be it a judge, a teacher or a plain old
parent -- is performing a G-dly task, one truly the domain of the One Judge.
It is a role which the wisest and noblest of us must sometimes assume, but
it is not inherently a human task. We do so as emissaries of the infinite
G-d of justice. There is no single set of instructions which can guide us
nor precedents which can be universally applied. Only with such an awareness
can we begin to approach the lofty mission of being leaders and role models
to those who follow us, and can the blessing of Jethro to Moses, when
suggesting the appointment of judges, be fulfilled: "And this entire nation
shall come to its place in peace" (Exodus 18:23).
Text Copyright © 2009 by Rabbi Dovid Rosenfeld and Torah.org.