The Truth but not the Whole Truth
Chapter 4, Mishna 9
By Rabbi Dovid Rosenfeld
"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
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. 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, just 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. As we read this past Sabbath, 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 to function as G-d's
emissary to mankind. Rendering proper decisions is at best time-consuming,
unglamorous work -- and one which carries both the risk of misrepresenting
G-d's Torah and of earning the ill-will of the masses. 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 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
(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 basically determined the conclusion he will eventually reach, the
"judge" aspect of his persona comes into play -- and he can no longer offer
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 inability 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 will
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 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 also His children, 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)
Text Copyright © 2009 by Rabbi Dovid Rosenfeld and Torah.org.