Torah | Temper judgments with empathy


Deuteronomy 16:18-21:9
Isaiah 51:12-52:12


Earlier this summer, my 3-year-old son zoomed through our home on his scooter. Though he was well aware of our household rule — no scooting in the house — he nonetheless made his way speedily around the kitchen, where I was sitting. As I prepared to set a limit and insist on our family’s rule, I suddenly heard him whimsically sing, as though to himself: “I’m scooting in the house! I’m scooting in the house!”

In that single moment, his sheer joy, his brazen independence and his sense of adventure all caught my attention. After all, wasn’t I just like him as a child (or so I am told)? My initial desire to uphold the rules of our home quickly faded away as love and empathy filled my heart.

The opening of this week’s Torah portion contains the imperative to appoint judges in Israel — upright individuals who would embody God’s law, and who would adjudicate, arbitrate and help deliver a fair verdict through an objective interpretive lens. Though a balance of boundless love and a capacity to set boundaries are certainly required in any healthy relationship, and certainly between parent and child, one might argue that a partial heart should nevertheless refrain from sitting in judgment. In other words, a necessary divide must be established between the empathic parent and the unbiased judge.

A quick review of several biblical verses seems to support this very notion. For example, Exodus 23:3 teaches, “You shall not favor a poor man in his cause.” Similarly, we read in Leviticus 19:15, “You shall do no unrighteousness in judgment; you shall not favor a person of the poor.” The Torah’s insistence in these verses on strict judgment challenges judges to act impartially at all times and to remain blind even to the disadvantaged person standing before them.

Still, many rabbinic commentators seem to tilt the balance from strict justice toward social justice. In Mishnah Avot 2:4, Hillel teaches, “Do not judge your fellow until you have reached his place.” In a sense, Hillel urges us to consider matters from the perspective of the other — to enter their world and not remain confined to the world of law alone. Rabbi Israel Lifschitz (1782–1860), author of “Tiferet Yisrael,” a commentary on the Mishnah, plainly states, “You should judge him with compassion.”

The idea of empathy as an important element in judgment is perhaps most aptly captured in Maimonides’ code of law, the Mishnah Torah. In a section describing the qualities of judges, Maimonides rules that “One may not appoint to the Sanhedrin [the supreme rabbinic court] one who has no children — in order to ensure that he will be compassionate” (Mishnah Torah, Laws of Sanhedrin 2:3). Though the requirement may not seem politically correct today, Maimonides believed a judge must have a parental nature. Indeed, this very empathic parental instinct seems to be critical for the execution of justice itself.

Empathy in judgment is a key feature of the High Holy Days season as well. In a month’s time, we will hear the call of the shofar during the Rosh Hashanah services. In describing the sound of the shofar, our rabbis draw an unexpected comparison, explaining that the shofar’s blast cries out in the same manner that Sisera’s mother did as she awaited her son’s return from battle (Rosh Hashanah, 33b). Sisera, as some may recall, was Israel’s bitter enemy during the time of Deborah the prophetess. By all accounts, he was a cruel and corrupt oppressor. And yet still, his own mother remained blind to his evil ways — her heart cried out to him, longing for his return though he never did return from that fateful battle.

My dear teacher, Rabbi Saul Berman, offers a profound explanation of this teaching. Perhaps the shofar blast serves as a reminder to God, as it were, to view and judge us with the same parental compassion that Sisera’s mother had for her wayward son. In the spirit of Sisera’s mother’s boundless love, we ask God to judge us with empathy and to continue to wait for our return despite any failings.

Our tradition has many voices when it comes to the question of empathic judges. Nevertheless, we can still agree about judgment in the heavenly court. This year, let us pray that the ultimate Judge will deliver the verdict with empathy and parental love.

Rabbi Yonatan Cohen is the spiritual leader of Congregation Beth Israel in Berkeley. He can be reached at [email protected]

Rabbi Yonatan Cohen

Rabbi Yonatan Cohen is the spiritual leader of Congregation Beth Israel in Berkeley. He can be reached at [email protected].