Thursday, January 31, 2013

Diving into the Yerushalmi and emerging with a valuable lesson

We took a far longer hiatus than we ever intended, and we’re happy to be back. We are studying the Yerushalmi (Jerusalem Talmud), masechet Ta’anit (chapter 4) — wonderful material. I’m delighted to share my musings with you, and look forward to your responses, if you’re inclined to share. I'm posting this piece today, and tomorrow I'll post a second.

Ta’anit 4:5 begins with a mishnah that tells us that five [terrible] events occurred in the lives of our ancestors on each of two inauspicious dates: the 17th of Tammuz and the 9th of Av (Tisha B’Av). The first event associated with the 17th of Tammuz is the shattering of the tablets containing Torah (or the Ten Commandments) that Moses received from God on Mt. Sinai. Two aspects of the Gemara’s discussion intrigue me. The first is how the lesson “Don’t judge on the basis of guesswork” is drawn from the account of the Golden Calf in Exodus chapter 32; that's for today's post. The second aspect of the Gemara I want to share concerns how the tablets came to be shattered in the first place; that's for tomorrow's post.

On what basis do we make judgments of others? The Gemara of the Yerushalmi reconfigures Torah’s account by arranging verses out of the order we find them in in Exodus. The Rabbis of the Yerushalmi tell us that when Moses ascends the mountain, God gives him the commandments on two stone tablets, which he promptly conveys to the people, and only after delivering the tablets, Moses tells them, “I am going to spend forty days on the mountain.” When the fortieth day arrives and Moses does not return promptly, the people confront Aaron and demand that he build them an idol to worship — despite the fact that God has already been revealed to them and the Torah delivered to them. This reconfiguration ramps up the severity of their idolatry because God had already been revealed to them and Torah was already in their hands.

God, who is at the peak of the mountain commanding a primo view of everything below, sees what the Israelites are doing. Torah recounts that God informs Moses and threatens to obliterate the Israelites and begin anew with Moses, but Moses convinces God to abandon that plan and forgive the people instead. Joshua hears the noise the people are generating, but misinterprets it as the rumblings of war. Moses, however, recognizes the sound as singing. Gemara tells us that this inspired Moses to observe:

“Here is a man [Joshua] who is destined to govern 600,000 people, and yet he cannot discern the difference between one sort of noise and another!”

Joshua’s premature and faulty judgment calls his leadership credentials into question. How can someone who is unable to distinguish war from joy govern an unruly nation?

Gemara then quotes Torah:

As soon as [Moses] came near the camp and saw the calf and the dancing [he became enraged; and he hurled the tablets from his hands and shattered them at the foot of the mountain]. (Exodus 32:19)

This occasions R. Chilkiah in the name of R. Acha to teach us that the point of the story is to instruct us: Do not judge on the basis of guesswork. What a marvelous reading of the account of the Golden Calf! Moses is the model and master of this wisdom. God informs Moses:

The Lord spoke to Moses, “Hurry down, for your people, whom you brought out of the land of Egypt, have acted basely. They have been quick to turn aside from the way that I enjoyed upon them. They have made themselves a molton calf and bowed low to it and sacrificed to its, saying, ‘This is your god, O Israel, who brought you out of the land of Egypt.’” (Exodus 32:7-8)

But Moses does not know for himself, and responds to God’s report with compassion for his people, convincing God to forgive, rather than annihilate, the people. Joshua hears the ruckus and makes a judgment, but he misinterprets what he hears. His judgment is based on guesswork. It is Moses who withholds judgment; even though he hears correctly, he does not rely on hearing alone. It is only after Moses sees with his own eyes what the Israelites are engaged in that he becomes enraged and hurls the stone tablets to the ground.

Pirke Avot 1:6 records an important teaching of Yehoshuah b. Perachia: Dan et kol ha-adam l’chaf zechut / Judge everyone favorably. Reserve judgment until all the facts are in, and until then give others the benefit of the doubt. How difficult it is to live by this standard!

Rambam (Moses Maimonides), in his commentary to Pirke Avot 1:6, provides guidance for all cases except where someone is well know to be evil:

If someone is unknown to you and you do not know whether he is a righteous man or an evil one: If he does an act or says something that could be interpreted as either positive or negative, judge him favorably and do not think of him as having done wrong.

If one was well known as a righteous man with good deeds: Even if you see him do an action whose every aspect seems to be bad, and the only way of considering it good is through really stretching things and assuming a very remote possibility, it is still obligatory to interpret it as good based on that possibility.

Malcolm Gladwell’s book Blink!, in which he affirmed the accuracy and value of snap judgments, has spawned a great deal of discussion on this matter. Scientific American, reporting research by professors Amy Cuddy of the Harvard Business School, Susan Fiske of Princeton University, and Peter Glick of Lawrence University, provides a divergent view:

When we meet a person, we immediately and often unconsciously assess him or her for both warmth and competence. Whereas we obviously admire and help people who are both warm and competent and feel and act contemptuously toward the cold and incompetent, we respond ambivalently toward the other blends. People who are judged as competent but cold—including those in stereotyped groups such as Jews, Asians and the wealthy—provoke envy and a desire to harm, as violence against these groups has often shown. And people usually seen as warm but incompetent, such as mothers and the elderly, elicit pity and benign neglect.

New research is revealing that these split-second judgments are often wrong, however, because they rely on crude stereotypes and other mental shortcuts...[1]

It would take little imagination for Moses to envision the Israelites engaged in idolatry — the only type of worship they have seen for 400 years in Egypt. And, indeed, God described their activities to Moses with a fair degree of specificity (Exodus 32:7-8, cited above). Yet Moses exemplifies Yehoshuah b. Perachia’s teaching at this most crucial moment in Israel’s history. Had he adopted God’s view without seeing what was happening with his own eyes, he would not have talked God out of destroying the people. Had Moses accepted Joshua’s judgment concerning the noise generated in the Israelite camp, he would have misjudged what was truly happening.

Judging everyone favorably — until the facts overwhelmingly falsify the validity of a positive judgment — is a difficult standard to live by, but standards of righteousness usually are. What is more, as Mother Teresa said, "If you judge people, you have no time to love them."