Monday, October 10, 2011

Oh Mercy (Kol Nidre 5772)

Many years ago, my family gave me a memorable Father’s Day gift: a blue sweatshirt bearing the logo of the fictional “Maven University.” Just below the very official looking school seal is Maven U’s motto: “Opinion Over Knowledge!”

This is a classic Jewish gag, for there is something in our boisterous, Talmudic culture that underscores the humor. As the old saying goes, for every two Jews, there are at least three opinions. We are a people of pundits, a community of culture critics, with strong views on virtually everything. If ever you doubt this, just attend a Jewish meeting—any Jewish meeting—from the Israeli Knesset to the CABI board.

The sweatshirt still makes me laugh. It reminds me of the countless times that I have expounded on trivial matters about which I know astonishingly little. But just behind my amused smile lurks the disconcerting knowledge that the joke is really on me. When they chose this gift, my family knew me all too well.

Broaching strong opinions and making quick judgments is not always wrong; in some contexts it is absolutely critical. The ability to evaluate people and situations is one of our greatest, God-given gifts, essential to our wellbeing. We are constantly required to assess our surroundings, and to act on those assessments; our capacity to make such judgments is at the heart of being human. Torah recognizes this from the start, when our mythical forebears Adam and Eve eat from the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil. As I envision the scene, they began forming and expressing opinions the moment they ate from the fruit—“Hmm. . . a little bitter, no?”—and we mavens have not stopped since.

However, on this day of moral and spiritual accounting, I must confess that I have acted far too often on the basis of “opinion over knowledge.” I have come to see my tendency to judge others as a personal failing. While this attitude may have roots in our Jewish culture, it more frequently emerges out of deep-seated fears and insecurities. Rabbi Harold Schulweiss suggests that one of our tradition’s most essential words is efsher meaning “maybe,” because it enables us to state our perspective with humility while recognizing the legitimacy of differing approaches. Efsher—maybe—is all about suspending judgment, suppressing certainties, and mustering the ego strength to open ourselves to views other than our own.

For many of us, that efsher does not come easily. We act as if our opinions represent absolute, unchanging truths when, far more often, they reflect our entirely subjective personal preferences. The fact that others dress or recreate or eat or even vote differently does not entitle us to cast aspersions on them. And yet we do—and yet, I have—all the time, because passing judgment over other people is so much easier than conceding that their perspectives are as legitimate as our own. To genuinely listen to those with whom we disagree is to take a risk, to show our vulnerability—and this requires courage. As Jack Kornfeld and Christine Feldman note in their book, Soul Food:

“Judgment is the refuge and the weapon of self-righteousness and fear. We bolster a sense of superiority by dwelling upon the weaknesses of others. We defend our own sense of right through highlighting the imperfections of others. Our judgments are [frequently] the visible expression of our disconnection and separation from others, from our own hearts. They arise from fear, and are a breeding ground of pain, alienation and division.”

Alas, so often we fall prey to our self-righteousness and fear. We yield to the temptation to judge, too hastily, too harshly, and too often. And every time we do, we become more and more like Lionel Bengelsdorf, the pompous rabbi in Philip Roth’s novel, The Plot Against America. As Roth brilliantly describes him: “He knows everything. Too bad he doesn’t know anything else.”

Rabbi Bengelsdorf would make an excellent dean at Maven University. Thankfully, most of us do not approach his level of arrogance, but we, too, pay a price when we raise opinion over knowledge. We cannot find contentment until we learn to suspend judgment. When our haste to judge deafens us to the diverse views of those around us, we harm our selves and our relationships in at least three important ways.


First, our judgmentalism makes us hypocrites. Perhaps God is virtuous enough to judge others without discrediting Herself, but the rest of us are not. As Rabbi Joseph Telushkin notes, “One reason many of us have a higher regard for our own character than that of others is that we judge ourselves by our intentions and others by their acts, especially those acts we find annoying.” I am certainly guilty of this transgression. To cite just one example: For my entire life, I have preached the importance of wearing bicycle helmets to my children, pointing out and disparaging helmetless riders to them. Imagine, then, how I felt when I found myself sitting on the back of a motorcycle weaving through the frenzied streets of Pokhara, Nepal in monsoon rains—without a helmet! Now, I was the guilty party! I still don’t think riding helmetless is a good idea. But I try to be gentler in my assessment of those who do it, affording them the benefit of the doubt and keeping my opinions to myself. If we wish to avoid the sin of gross hypocrisy, we should take to heart the wise words of Rebbe Wolf of Strikov: “Remember that you are not as good as you think you are, and the world is not as bad as you think it is.”


Judging makes us hypocrites. It also warps our worldview. In our over eagerness to pass judgment, we often isolate ourselves. As the Catholic priest and philosopher Henri Nouwen teaches, “Compassion cannot co-exist with judgment, because judgment creates the distance, the distinction, that prevents us from really being with the other.” Father Nouwen’s premise is so straightforward, though admittedly much harder to practice than to preach: when we judge our fellow men and women, we separate ourselves from them. The very act of evaluating them and their character transforms them from potential peers and partners into objects. To love another human being is to open oneself to him, to embrace her as she is, in all of her imperfect humanity. To judge another is, by contrast, to reduce him to a bundle of disparate parts and qualities, which we appraise to our advantage from a cool and comfortable distance. Judging throws up barriers. Loving tears them down. Judging is, in other words, the opposite of loving. Or, as a local church billboard recently warned: “Husbands, if you’re always right, you’ll soon be left.”

An old Irish folk tale succinctly demonstrates how harsh judgment distorts our vision. It tells of a man who suspected his neighbor’s son of stealing his missing axe. The man seethed every time he saw the boy, who dressed like a thief, walked like a thief, and talked like a thief. Then one day the man found the long-lost axe in the back corner of his tool shed. Of course the next time he ran into the neighbor boy, the man was amazed to see that in fact he dressed, walked, and talked just like any other young person.

How often our judgments pervert our perceptions and wreak havoc on our relationships! Our desire to be right so often comes at the expense of our happiness, for our rightness demands that others—even those we seek to love—be in the wrong. We grow in contentment and mentschlekheit when we learn to value compassion over criticism and humble wisdom over the maven’s arrogant expertise.


Finally, our impulse to judge others can serve as a crutch, a convenient distraction from the hard work of introspection, accounting, and will that we must take on in order to improve ourselves. It is easy to complain about Congress and the president, the Democrats or the Republicans, liberals or conservatives—though sometimes, God knows, they all deserve the criticism. It is harder, and far more praiseworthy, to actually do something about injustice. But even the honorable and essential activism that goes beyond words and challenges oppression can become tainted if it distracts us from addressing our personal failings. This is not to say that we should refrain from the mitzvah of healing our broken world; it is to suggest that we seek a balance in this work, reserving the time and energy required to conduct a thorough moral accounting of our selves. Before we condemn even the very real flaws of others, we should first tackle our own shortcomings.

This is the lesson of the pious Indian woman who came to Mahatma Gandhi and asked if he would speak with her son about eating too much sugar. Gandhi replied, “Wait one week, and then bring the boy to me.” After seven days had passed, she showed up with the child and Gandhi implored him, “My son, you must stop eating sugar.” Awed by the presence of the renowned Hindu holy man, the boy immediately did as he was told. A month later, the woman came back to Gandhi to offer her thanks. After expressing her deep gratitude, she inquired: “Tell me, why did you ask me to wait a week before bringing the boy to you?” To which Gandhi responded: “Because when you first came to see me, I, too, was eating too much sugar. I could not, in good faith, tell him to stop until I had done so myself.” So, too, should our social justice work begin at home. Before we judge others, we should strive for integrity in our own life choices.


The corrosive effects of judging too harshly and hastily are well illustrated in the classic tale of two Buddhists monks walking together on pilgrimage. One day they came upon a beautiful woman, sobbing by the bank of a raging river. She said she was afraid of drowning and asked if they would help her cross to the other side. Without saying a word, the older monk hoisted the woman up on his shoulders, carried her across the stream, then gently set her down. She thanked him and went on her way, and the two monks resumed their journey in silence.

For the next few hours, the older monk walked in perfect equanimity, enjoying the beautiful countryside, while the younger grew bitter and distracted. Finally, he could no longer could keep his silence and burst out, "How could you have done such a thing? We have taken vows of chastity. It is forbidden to even talk to a woman let alone touch one."

The older monk looked at the younger with a sad but loving smile and replied, "Brother, I set her down hours ago. Why are you still carrying her?"

Like the young monk, we frequently set ourselves as the arbiters of good and bad, right and wrong. We bear the weight of our compulsions to judge, and they distort our vision, stunt our relationships, and degrade our capacity for empathy and love—yet, we, too, find it so very hard to set them down. Again and again, we succumb to our desire to be right, to claim the truth as our own and judge others by it. The great Israeli poet Yehudah Amichai illustrates the danger of this very human tendency in his poem, Ha-makom sh’bo anu tzod-kim—In The Place Where We Are Right”. Listen to his words:

From the place where we are right
Flowers will never grow
In the spring.

The place where we are right
Is hard and trampled
Like a yard.

But doubts and loves
Dig up the world
Like a mole, a plow.
And a whisper will be heard in the place
Where the ruined
House once stood.


Our challenge is to leave “the place where we are right” for the world of doubts and loves and sacred whispers. As we prepare for this journey, it is important to note that we will sometimes return to where we began, for judgments and strong opinions have their rightful place. Life would be almost impossible without the ability to assess and evaluate our surroundings and the other people who populate them.

On a societal level, too, judgment is indispensible. Without judging, there is no prophetic voice, no call for social justice, no imperative to repair our broken world. Tikkun Olam begins when we see bigotry and oppression, and proclaim, in both words and deeds, “This is wrong; it must not stand!” From Moses to Martin Luther King to a new generation of activists working for economic and environmental justice even as we speak, people have always turned their judgments and opinions into action—fortified by the belief that they are fighting for what is right.

In other words, both the vicissitudes of every day life and the core principles of Jewish social ethics demand that we sometimes enter that barren land where no flowers grow, that “place where we are right.” And so we may experience a kind of creative tension, tugged between the sometimes-legitimate need to judge and the dangers of doing so. As the writer E.B. White so humorously put it, “I arise in the morning torn between a desire to improve the world and a desire to enjoy the world. This makes it very hard to plan the day.”

So how do we live in this tension? How do we both improve and enjoy this broken and beautiful world that God has given us? Proper balance and perspective helps. While there is a time to judge and a time to refrain from judging, most of us tend to err on the side of judging too much. Our challenge in this new year is to focus our efforts on suspending judgment and being circumspect in expressing our opinions, particularly on matters we know little about. Maimonides offers a helpful analogy here. He notes that in order to straighten a bent reed, it is not enough to set it upright. One must, instead, bend it far to the other side and hold it there awhile, after which it will return to equilibrium. So, too, for us: if we who judge too hastily wish to break ourselves of this habit, we should start by going out of our way to avoid passing judgment whenever we can. And on those relatively infrequent occasions when we must still enter that “place where we are right” we should minimize our sojourn there, then return without further ado to the non-judgmental world of flowers and doubts and whispers.

Above all, when we are compelled to judge, we should do so generously, affording others the same benefit of the doubt that we would ask of them. In the Talmud’s words: “Dan et kol adam b’kaf z’chut—Judge everyone with the presumption of innocence.” When a person or incident can be viewed in multiple ways, we can make a conscientious effort to choose the interpretation that yields the most favorable assessment. Recognizing that this can be very difficult, we might follow the example of the great Hasidic Rebbe Elimelech of Lizhensk who began each day by praying: “May I see the good traits of others and not their defects.”


On this most sacred Yom Kippur day, time and again our liturgy pleads with God to leave the heavenly Seat of Judgment and to occupy, instead, the Throne of Kindness and Compassion. In this traditional imagery, we implore divine mercy because we know that in a world of strict judgment, we would all be found wanting. And so we ask God to be gracious to us, to suspend judgment, to hear us out and love us as we are, with all of our human imperfections.

My friends, tomorrow afternoon we will read in Torah: “K’doshim t’hiyuYou shall be holy, for I, the Eternal, your God, am holy.” This is our sacred calling: to strive for godliness. We should not, therefore, ask of God anything that we do not ourselves aspire towards. We who seek mercy must be merciful. We who plead for compassion must be compassionate. And we who ask that judgment be suspended on our behalf must ourselves suspend judgment on behalf of others.

And then. . .

. . . a whisper will be heard in the place
Where the ruined
House once stood.

Ken y’hi ratzon.

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