Bias, Beware!

Delivered at the OU Israel Center, February 6th, 2018

Adapted by Channie Koplowitz Stein

            Mishpatim are generally considered social laws that help society run more smoothly. As such, we usually consider them logical, that mankind would have arrived at most of these laws on its own as they began structuring society. But the mishpatim in our Torah are different. Certainly they appear logical, but there is also a spiritual element in each of these laws. Let us examine one of these laws and explore how society and religion, logic and passion overlap to create a system for living that will encompass the various aspects of human existence.

            “Do not accept a bribe, for the bribe will blind those who see and corrupt words that are just,” says the Torah. There are similar laws on the statutes of most governments. Yet Torah law has many additional layers of understanding. As Rav Bar Chaim writes in Higayon Leivov, this law applies even when it would not influence a judge in his ruling in this particular case. In the esoteric world, each moment is comprised of many levels. This court with its supplicants and judges may in fact be a reincarnation of a previous court with an opportunity to repair a decision where perhaps a judge was influenced in some way. Or perhaps there will be repercussions of this trial at some future time. Or maybe, as Menachem Zion points out, although the judge’s decision may still be strictly correct, his bias may influence other judges on the panel.

            But what constitutes bribery? Rabbi Igbui in Chochmat Hamatzpun explains that bribery is not material but psychological, and no one is immune to its effects. Both the giver (or doer of a favor) and the receiver become bonded in some way so that the receiver’s judgment becomes less objective. The influence can even work in reverse. Rabbi Igbui cites the halacha that a king cannot be coronated by the Sanhedrin in a leap year, even though all the key people here are righteous and God fearing, and the king is confirmed by God Himself through the prophets. Why? Since the king is responsible for paying the army, and he usually pays them monthly from taxes determined annually, the shortfall remaining from the extra month of service would come from the king’s personal funds. This expense may create an unconscious animus in the king and skew his impartiality. And Rabbi Munk reminds us that even small favors and expressions of gratitude have the effect of bribes.

            Rabbi Druk z”l in Dorash Mordechai offers a completely different perspective on the effects of bribery. Citing the Chazon Ish z”l, Rabbi Druk z”l writes that it is inconceivable that our great rabbinic leaders and Torah judges would be swayed by bribery. However, Hashem wrote these laws as a challenge to the layman to accept the judgment of daas Torah/Torah authority completely and not try to circumvent their decisions by ascribing ulterior motives and benefits to them.

            The concept behind the prohibition against bribery is spiritual, not physical. As such, it is a chok and beyond our understanding, continues Rabbi Druk z”l. After all, the Torah does not require one to recluse himself from judging between a friend and a stranger, or even when he has some personal interest in the result. Even when he may suffer financial loss, regarding chametz, for example, he may himself determine his options. The Torah feels judges are above such pettiness. Had the Torah not commanded against accepting bribery, we would not have instituted it, for it is not a natural law. As Rabbi Yoffe z”l notes, nothing natural would sway a talmid chacham from judging properly. Since these are Hashem’s emissaries, adds the Chazon Ish z”l, there’s always a light of clarity from above when a talmid chacham is rendering a decision. To believe in the Torah is to believe in its scholars.

            If we believe that the wisdom of our Sages comes from Hashem, we should consult them also about handling challenges in our daily lives. Their wisdom extends beyond questions of kashrut and ritual, and extends to all areas of our lives. Just as we consult experts in finance, medicine, or family challenges, we should consider our rabbis as additional valuable resources to help point us in the proper direction in these and other challenges of daily living. They have a unique perspective that comes directly from the Source of wisdom, writes the Chazon Ish z”l

            A Torah scholar represents a direct link from the revelation at Sinai to the present. They are the living emissaries of the will of God. As such, writes Rabbi Gifter z”l, they must be accorded the same respect you would give to the Torah. Each generation has the judges with the appropriate clarity from Hakodosh Boruch Hu to lead that generation.

            It is not only those who bear the titles of judge, leader, rabbi or teacher who must be careful of bribery. Each of us is a judge and makes decisions constantly in our own lives. We must be careful what we let influence each of our daily decisions, what shochad/bribery we accept, cautions Rabbi Schienerman in Ohel Moshe.  We often make our decisions based on lies and then build a framework to support our decision. Our minds may be so corrupted, we may not even realize we’ve sinned. Therefore. One must be afraid not only of sin and punishment, cautions Rabbi Zaichick z”l, but also of the corruption of one’s mind which is capable of inventing many rationalizations for one’s improper actions.

            We have a natural bias to see ourselves in a positive light. Rabbi Pliskin suggests that we step out of ourselves when examining our actions, and judge ourselves as we would judge someone else acting this way. Our personal bias blinds us to to our faults.

            A person is a judge in all areas of his life at every moment, writes Rabbi Ochyan, the Ohr Doniel. Can he truly remove his own bias and desire from his choice of action, or will he find ways to rationalize the correctness of his choice, even as he knows he is not acting in accordance with Hashem’s will? Is he bending the rules of kashrut or propriety, unaware that his own bias and desire are influencing his decision? Our biases are perhaps the most pernicious form of shochad, for we are often unaware of them. How many smokers know the harmful effects of their habit, yet continue to smoke? How many obese people rationalize away that extra dessert because it’s a simcha?

            Our world is full of a culture that creates unreasonable and materialistic desires that do not make us better or really enhance our lives. We are influenced so fully by the glitz of advertising and publicity, that men envision themselves as macho Marlboro men. The advertising industry uses psychology to convince us that what we want is really best for us, writes Rabbi Friefeld z”l. The desires of this world become so strong that we forget that there will be a final accounting of our lives and we believe we have done nothing wrong, cautions Rabbi Druck z”l in Siach Mordechai.

            Given my desires and biases, how will I know whether my decision is a correct one? There is a constant battle between the physical self of desire and the intellectual, spiritual self. Only by constantly working on our emunah/God consciousness can we hope to succeed. The more we solidify the truth that Hashem as the sole reality and presence in our lives, the more likely we are to make the right decisions.

            Even in matters of faith, however, it is our desires that create the heretics. Children are born with the belief in a Creator, a belief that hopefully is nurtured during their childhood. How does that belief leave? When one wants to live his life in complete freedom to do whatever he desires, he begins to create arguments to prove that there is no God, writes Rabbi Mattisyahu Salomon. It is the heart that leads the mind astray. Emunah must be internalized and strengthened if it is to counter the heavily materialistic culture of society.

            The intellect acts as the conscience of the world. It knows right from wrong, truth from falsehood. But it can be corrupted by the heart, by desire, a corruption that was brought into the world through Adam’s sin and caused the blurring of the line between good and evil, writes Rabbi Wolbe z”l. Shochad will blind the intellect, for it erases the knowledge shehu chad/that he is one. The judge identifies with and becomes one with the person who offered the bribe, and he loses the ability to judge objectively.

            Here, Rabbi Wolbe z”l offers an excellent analogy. He compares the intellect to a compass which always points true north. However, if one puts a small magnet next to the compass, the readings will always be off and the traveler will flounder. A small desire that enters our minds works the same way, throwing our intellect off kilter and leading us astray. But Hashem gave us the ultimate compass, the Torah, continues Rabbi Wolbe z”l citing Chovos Halevavos. Torah will always point us in the right direction. And if we ourselves are not experts in reading the compass, our rabbis and Torah leaders will show us the way.