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10/19/2021 05:19:08 PM

Oct19

Occasionally this column will offer reflections on the ways that ancient biblical insights offer perspective on current events. In the news these days is the attempt of three Supreme Court justices to argue that, irrespective of opinion polls, they are not making decisions based on political opinions.

Justices Clarence Thomas, Stephen Breyer and Amy Coney Barrett recently argued – in separate venues – that although the court will be called on to decide matters relating to gun control, religion and additional cases about abortion, the rulings will not be political in nature.

While not specifically addressing the "politics" label, other members of the high court have also defended their work. On September 30, Justice Samuel Alito, in a speech also at Notre Dame, said the justices are not a "dangerous cabal."

The point of this column is not to take any political sides but rather to ponder the question of can anyone be fair minded when it comes to important decisions. Even media sources that strive to present “pure news” do not pass the neutrality test. It need not be on purpose. People who study human motivation say that our capacity for self-deception is strong, making it easy to convince ourselves we're being impartial when we are not. 

The Bible knows of this phenomenon, as we read in Deuteronomy 1:17:

You must not be partial in judging: hear out the small and the great alike; you shall not be intimidated by anyone, for the judgment is God's. Any case that is too hard for you, bring to me, and I will hear it. 

Moses here narrates for the present generation of Israelites how God had previously instructed him to appoint judges throughout the tribes of Israel to judge disputes among the people. In the second part of the verse above, Moses tells the judges that he would hear any cases that they found too hard to handle, thus making Moses a kind of "supreme court."

But his key instruction to the judges is stated in the first part of the verse: "You must not be partial in judging: hear out the small and the great alike; you shall not be intimidated by anyone, for the judgment is God's."

Can this plea of Moses realistically be followed by flesh and blood human beings? Or is the practice of human justice, ultimately a practice more than a perfection?

Another classical biblical text on the subject comes from Leviticus 19:15:

You shall not render an unjust judgment; you shall not be partial to the poor or defer to the great: with justice you shall judge your neighbor. 

Unlike the instruction above in the Deuteronomy passage, which was intended specifically for Israel's designated judges, this instruction appears to be directed at the Israelites in general. This verse is from Leviticus 19, which as a whole is about how to live a holy life. It includes ordinances on several areas of behavior and importantly, it contains the Bible's first statement of "you shall love your neighbor as yourself" (v. 18). 

What's more, Leviticus 19 begins by telling the Israelites why they should follow the ordinances: "You shall be holy, for I the LORD your God am holy" (v. 2b).  Thus, behaving impartially is a part of moral holiness and a way of being godly.

Questions to consider: Is a determination to act impartially a good bias? Is it a moral value in today's world? Both? Neither? How about loving one's neighbor as oneself? Is that a good bias or something more than that, and if so, what?

True to good Jewish rabbinic form, I offer more questions than answers!

Sat, September 24 2022 28 Elul 5782