Shoftim – Will The Real Judge Please Stand Up
Parshat Shoftim addresses at length the importance of justice and our duty to see that it is carried out in absolute fairness and honesty. From the beginning of the portion the Torah emphasizes the necessity of complete egalitarianism in the justice system. “You shall not pervert judgment, you shall not respect someone’s presence, and you shall not accept a bribe…” (16:19)
All are equal before the Torah, and when adjudicating a case the judge must be impervious to any factors distinguishing one litigant from another. Status, race, color, even criminal records are not to be taken into account in a judgment and if a judge(s) feels that the record of one litigant may influence his decision he must remove himself from the panel. In tractate Sanhedrin the sages record that in the process of judgment the judge is hooded, not even seeing the litigants This minimizes the chances of the judge being influenced by the expressions on the faces of the litigants. A downcast face might inspire pity, or conversely, disdain or scorn of the judge. A smug look has the capacity of planting a seed in the heart of a judge, either that the smug-faced litigant is guilty and non-remorseful, or the opposite, the smugness indicating that he or she is in the right.
There are numerous stories recorded in the Talmud relating that one sage or another declined to sit as a judge in a particular case because of favors once bestowed by one of the litigants.
Throughout the Parsha it is evident how much integrity the Torah demands from someone who is in the position of deciding the fate of another, even if the consequences are minimal. Just as all people are equal before the law, likewise the scope of the case makes no difference. KaKaton KaGadol Tishma’un – “The small one like the great one you shall hear” (Deuternomy 1:17) teaches us that the judge must listen equally to the claims of a small person like the claims of a wealthy or influential person. But more than that, we can interpret these words as applying to the scope of a case. A consequential case appeals to the interest of judges. They will take the case very seriously and invest the time and energy to study the matter and adjudicate responsibly. But a small case, one of little consequence, doesn’t make as many waves and will not automatically be considered by the judges as important. Looking at justice as a matter of principle, as the Torah does, all cases have equal importance.
Rabbi Wein once was a judge on a Beth Din (halachic court of law) deliberating over a dispute between two Jewish businesses over a matter of $5.5 million. It took them a month to reach a decision. The day after the decision was reached the head of the Beth Din called up his colleagues and informed them that they would reconvene to adjudicate a case concerning a dispute of $140, a membership fee someone withheld from his shul since he was not given the seat he was accustomed to. This is a frivolous case in our eyes, but a judge must see this as a matter of principle and take such a case with the same degree of investment as the matter concerning many thousands of times its consequence.
What defines a judge is the fact that the judge has jurisdiction, power to decide the fate of the person standing in court. By that definition many of us are judges. Multiple times a day we are in a position where our decision has an impact on someone else. This is clearly the case when one ranks higher than another in the workplace and has a say over the job of another, but it is equally true in many other settings. We are constantly making decisions that have an impact not only on ourselves but also on family members, neighbors, customers and colleagues. Even if that impact is minuscule we have to remember that the Torah doesn’t differentiate in scope. We are accountable in all our endeavors to make decisions that are honest and after due research in terms of its affect on others.
בצדק תשפוט עמתיך – With righteousness you shall judge your fellow.