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 that he renders decisions on his own or urges 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 — a 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 not perfect. I imagine that G-d, in His great wisdom, could have made us “better” — with faultless memories, superior 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, idiosyncrasies, obstinacy, and everything else that makes life so entertaining.
(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 invariably 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 actuality, the rare superior who does own up to and apologize for his 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 better 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) “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 to try to glean some bits of information from folks who just don’t know all that much?
We answered there that what others have to offer is not necessarily book knowledge or factual information. It is their own perspective on life. 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. And 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 — 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 as 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 godly 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.