Aspire to Move Beyond Judgment
A High Holy Days Essay by Guest Columnist Alan Morinis
Two Judgment Days are coming. The first is Rosh Hashana. The second is the American presidential election. The two are linked, particularly for those who (unlike me) get to vote in the election, or even those who might talk or write about the candidates.
The connection is clear because our words and deeds are among the principal things for which we are judged on Rosh Hashana. But not just our words and deeds. Rambam (Maimonides) addresses this point directly in his discussion of teshuva, the process of repentance and return to righteous ways that is the fundamental practice of the coming religious season.
You ought not say that teshuva applies only to sins that entail action, such as fornication, robbery, and theft. Rather, just as a person needs to repent from these, so too one needs to probe whichever bad
character traits one may have, and to repent from them: anger, enmity, envy, frivolity, the pursuit of wealth and honor, the pursuit of foods, and the like. From all of this, a person needs to repent. And these sins are more difficult than those that entail an action, for when a person becomes immersed in these, it is very difficult to part from them (Hilkhot Teshuva 7:3).
Negative character traits are rampant in political discourse these days, in ways and to an extent never before seen. We are hearing a great deal of harsh judgments from our leaders, and people are just as harsh in judging those leaders. And as the leaders indulge in judging others, so do ordinary people take license to speak in just as judgmental terms. Everyone is shouting insults.
It seems that everyone has set themselves up to be judge, jury and executioner over other people, not just in their minds but also too often in reality. We need to acknowledge that there is a positive side to judging other people, which can help keep us far from people whose influences can be negative, or perhaps even harmful to us. But that positive side of judgment is often outweighed by the kind of hyper-critical judgment of other people that we hear so much of every day.
Muslims are judged. Women are judged. Black people are judged. Hispanics are judged. The police are judged. Republicans are judged. Liberals are judged. Jews are judged, and the Jews judge each other.
Few are making an effort to understand, or appreciate, or respect others. Everyone is judged.
This behavior is damaging. The damage encompasses both the one who is judged and the one who judges. We can expect to be judged on Rosh Hashana in direct relation to how we judge others. As the Talmud (Shabbat 127b) says so clearly: “Anyone who judges others favorably will be judged favorably in Heaven.” The promise is that God takes a cue from our behavior and judges us in the same manner as we judge others.
It is fundamental spiritual practice to become aware of the danger of being judgmental and to counter that tendency and thereby put ourselves in better stead come Rosh Hashana. Our work in this area is guided by two core Jewish notions.
There is a traditional Jewish value of kavod ha’briyot—respecting other people. Many teachings tell us that we should aspire to honoring others, starting with the fourth of the Ten Commandments, “Honor your father and your mother,” but not stopping there. In the Torah (Leviticus/Vayikra 19:32) we find the injunction to honor an elderly person. The rabbis in the Talmud (Kiddushin 32b) debate at length whether an elderly person should show honor to a Torah scholar who happens to be younger, and the conclusion is that yes, one should. Indeed, all human beings deserve honor, and the principle of kavod ha’briyot is so strong that it “pushes off” certain types of the Torah’s negative precepts (Megilla 3b and Berachot 19b).
Honoring other people is incompatible with being judgmental. We still need to have our faculty of wise discernment in gear, but honoring others helps get us away from the hateful judgment of others that has no basis in fact or reality. It is a great gift to individuals, communities and the world as a whole to be people who put into practice v’ahavta l’reicha kamocha—you shall love the other as yourself—not as a superficial injunction to be nice but as a profound recognition of the holy soul within the other.
The second idea is illustrated beautifully in two Jewish sources, one from Rabbi Shimon Shkop and the other from Rav Kook.
Rav Kook (1865–1935) was the first Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi of Israel; Rabbi Shkop was born in 1860 in Lithuania, where he died in 1939. He was the Rosh Yeshiva in the Telz and Grodno yeshivas.
Rabbi Shkop wrote a book called Sha’arei Yosher, in which he draws our attention to an apparent conflict between the mitzvah to love oneself and the obligation to love others. He resolves the issue by pointing out that it all depends on how one defines the borders of one’s self. To Rabbi Shkop, it is not so evident that each of us is entirely a discrete and separate entity.
He writes in the Introduction:
The entire “I” of a coarse and lowly person is restricted only to his substance and body. Above that one is someone who feels that his “I” is a synthesis of body and soul. And above that one is someone who can include in his “ani” all of his household and family. Someone who walks according to the way of the Torah, that one’s “I” includes the whole Jewish people, since in truth every Jewish person is only like a limb of the body of the nation of Israel.
And there are more levels in this of a person who is whole, who can connect his soul to feel that all of the world and worlds are his “ani,” and he himself is only one small limb in all of creation. Then, his self-love helps him love all of the Jewish people and [even] all of creation.
This is a radical and, to me, moving articulation of the truth that we are not so autonomous from each other as our physical separateness would lead us to believe. Personal concept and attitude determine whether we see the world through the lens of self vs. others, or in a more inclusive way.
Rav Kook delivers the same message in his poetic vision of the levels of consciousness of self in relation to the other:
Some people sing the Song of the Soul. Within their own soul, they discover everything, their complete spiritual fulfillment.
Others sing the Song of the Nation. They leave the restricted circle of the individual soul … with sublime love, they cleave to Knesset Yisrael. They sing her songs, feel her pains, delight in her hopes, and contemplate her past and her future.
Others allow their souls to expand beyond the people of Israel. They sing the Song of Humanity, reveling in the grandeur of the humankind, the illustriousness of His divine image. They aspire towards humanity’s ultimate goal, and yearn for its sublime fulfillment. From this source of life they draw inspiration for their universal thoughts and analyses, aspirations and visions.
And some reach even higher in the expanse, until they unite with all of existence, with all creatures and all worlds. With all of them, they sing the Song of the Universe. (Orot HaKodesh II: 444)
Skin may mark the outer boundary of the solitary individual, but that separateness is true only at the physical level. “Self” is not itself a physical reality but an awareness, and so what one includes and excludes from the definition of “I” can be variable.
The “other” can be no more other than the right hand is alien to the left. To those who have eyes to see, all are part of the same body. Or in the words of Rabbi Moshe Cordovero, in his 16th century kabbalistic Mussar text Tomer Devorah: yesh b’zeh cheleq zeh—“there is in this one a portion of that one.”
It is up to you which song your soul will sing. Are you content to identify as does a coarse and lowly person, restricted only to your own substance and body, or even the next higher level, at which you feel that your “I” is a synthesis of body and soul?
Or do you choose to sing the song of all of humanity, whom you include in your “I”?
Or would you aspire to “reach even higher in the expanse, until [you] unite with all of existence, with all creatures and all worlds. With all of them, [you] sing the Song of the Universe”?
That’s a very lofty vision, and at this moment—both historically and on the calendar—we need to strive to bring the lofty into our hearts and minds. Since we cannot create a world in our own image, there is value to learning how to be a mensch in the world we do have.