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Pirke Avot chapter four, verses nine and ten

In Judah Goldin’s translation, this time, and we are moving from Rabbi Yosi to the next generation.

Rabbi Ishmael his son says: He who refrains from judgment rids himself of enmity, robbery, and false swearing. But he who is presumptuous in rendering decision is a fool, wicked, and arrogant.

This seems to be addressed to people in a formal judgeship, probably as a member of a bet din. He goes on in the next verse:

He used to say: Do not act the judge’s part by thyself alone, for none may act the judge’s part by himself alone—save One. And say not “Adopt my view”—for they may say it, but not thou.

In the tradition we are talking about here, there is no independent and professional judiciary. There is a roster, more or less, of people held to be competent to give judgment. When there is a case in law to be decided, a bet din of three (or more) judges must be put together (in certain cases involving goods or money, a panel is not required. Rabbi Ishmael appears to be saying that even in those cases, do not accept the task of judging without a panel) in order to hear that case. In practice, as I understand it, in any place where there were many people on that roster, there would in fact be a regular rotation and the bet din would meet on Mondays and Thursdays or whatever, and whoever wanted to bring a case would do it then.

The audience for these verses, then, are people who have enough of a reputation to be considered eligible. Scholars, essentially. And the verses seem to be saying to avoid service in this manner as much as possible: avoid it altogether, or if you must do it, be on a panel, and even then, don’t try to make your judgement the one that is agreed on, but let the other two overrule you, if they do not happen to share your view.

This is, on the face of it, a nice lesson in humility. And I have always liked it on that basis. But this time through, looking for something to say about the verses on this Tohu Bohu, I started to wonder about responsibility. Because, of course, under this system, anyone who needs a judge is going to get someone who has not taken Rabbi Ishmael ben Yosi’s advice to heart. Or, perhaps, will get one of those and two of the other kind. And if you are getting judges who are ignoring Rabbi Ishmael’s sound advice, perhaps they aren’t very good judges…

When I was younger, childless, unmarried, somewhat irresponsible, somewhat of a jerk, I took a kind of pride in the idea that I avoided making the kinds of claims or commitments that would irk me to fulfill. I was not a role model. I was not a club president in high school, and although I was a club co-president in college, I made a point during the farcical election of declaring that I would be irresponsible and mostly absent during my tenure. I temped for quite a long time after college, partly because I was good at it and it suited me, but largely because I didn’t want to commit to working any particular place for any great length of time.

I was never really wildly, grievously irresponsible, I don’t think, but my point is actually that I took care for many years not to take much responsibility to be irresponsible with. I never, you know, babysat for anyone. I played no team sports. I did act in shows in high school and college, and I remember thinking to myself at the time that accepting a part was an unusually large commitment for me, and that I had better follow through on it.

My point is not that I was commitment-phobic; I did, in fact, attempt to turn most of my romantic attachments of those years into permanent commitments. The point is that I took the possibility of letting people down as a reason not to stand up with them, or for them. The number of times I said that I never claimed to be this or that positive thing during those years would be, well, probably a largish number, particularly if you included other ways of phrasing the same idea.

I have a very different take on it now. Yes, I do use that kind of talk, now and then, and I can’t say that I am exactly eager to take on new responsibilities every day of the week. But I no longer take pride in that, nor in the sort of contrarian defiance that never promised to be good. I see it in myself as a weakness, as a kind of arrogance.

See, there’s a kind of arrogance that says that I am damn good at something, and that other people should get the hell out of your way and let you do it. And there’s a kind of arrogance that says that you don’t care if you are good at something or not, that other people should get the hell out of your way and let you avoid it.

So while it is true that ridding yourself of the responsibility to judge (using the instance in question) is avoiding the exposure to enmity, robbery and false swearing that are likely if not inevitable results of that position, it does not follow that ridding yourself of that responsibility is the right thing to do. Or the right thing for you to do. Or the right thing for you to do today.

Perhaps Rabbi Ishmael took that for granted; that he was saying to people who had taken up that mantle that they should keep in mind all that it entailed. That he was not encouraging people to shirk, but that he had nothing to say to the shirkers and was addressing himself to those who were willing to judge. And those, very likely could use the lesson in humility that is the simple and straightforward reading here—not to scare them off, but to teach them caution. Perhaps that is the connotation of the sequence: first the agreement to judge, then the warning against arrogance in decision-making (which surely only applies to those who were not previously scared off), then the warning against solitary judging (again, surely only applicable to those who are still at the judging thing), and finally the lesson in appropriate argumentation and persuasion amongst the sitting judges. That progression maybe has my concern in mind.

And yet, I worry about it. I have seen commentary that uses these verses to admonish the reader into blind acceptance of traditional authority. To giving up your own discretion to always follow Rashi, or follow your tzaddik, or follow your local traditions. And I do see that reliance on your own judgment is terribly dangerous, I see that. But ultimately that judgment is what you’ve got, and it was a Gift of the Divine, and refusing to use it may be as much of an arrogance as the other.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,

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