Ethics – Now & Then 7 – Avot 1:8

Avot 1:8 Yehudah ben Tabbai and Shimon ben Shetach received the tradition from them. Yehudah ben Tabbai says: “When called to judge do not act as a lawyer; when the parties to a law suit are standing before you, regard them both as capable of guilt, in the wrong; but when judgment is passed, consider them both innocent, provided they have accepted the judgment.”

When called to judge do not act as a lawyer;

Yehudah ben Tabbai appears to be addressing those who act in a professional capacity as judges, when it is of great importance to remain impartial in the assessment of a case. Judges must not favor one litigant over another and must not pass judgment until all the evidence is clearly presented. The need to judge will arise in every community of people. To be in the position of judge is difficult and carries great responsibility. In the Western judiciary system the jurists also share this role.

The administration of justice plays a central role throughout the Bible. The book of Exodus narrates how, after God redeems His people from Egypt and forms them as a nation, Moses is faced with the unenviable task of making rulings and judgments on behalf of the individuals. God gave His Word but His people need to interpret it, apply it and live it out. Moses’ wise and righteous father-in-law, Jethro, intervenes and advises him to not carry the demanding and exhausting burden alone. As a result, we see the first formation of shared government in accord with the will of God.

The Scriptures also record that all of history will culminate in a Day of Judgment, when the final accounting will be made in regard to nations and individuals. As those set free from bondage in Yeshua, our Redeemer and Lord, we need not fear this judgment. We do well, however, to remember the exhortation of the prophet Micah: “He has told you, O man, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God” (6:8). As we follow in the footsteps of Yeshua, we can aim to imitate our Father’s mercy and justice and, as we humbly walk with Him, allow His powerful lovingkindness to reach out and touch the lives of others for good.

when the parties to a law suit are standing before you, regard them both as capable of guilt, in the wrong…

To “regard them both as guilty” seems to be the reverse of our Western approach of, “Innocent until proven guilty.” To consider both parties as capable of guilt, at the outset, might seem negative but it is perhaps more realistic. The intention is not to condemn them both but to appreciate that even the most righteous person has weaknesses and is capable of error. Thus, initially, no person can be assumed to be totally innocent and infallible. The truth of a matter can only be revealed through an impartial examination of the evidence presented.

This is good counsel to bear in mind when, in our personal circumstances, we are called upon to judge between opinions, people, ideas or courses of action. It is wise to consider both sides or options impartially; to not immediately or automatically support one above the other like a lawyer defending a client. This objectivity is valuable even when the ‘client’ is oneself! First be open to clearly assess the weaknesses in both cases as well as the strengths – the pros and the cons. One can then make a true judgment with greater clarity and assurance.

The Talmud states beautifully, “Every judge who renders a fair decision is like a partner of the Holy One in the act of Creation” (Shabbat 119b). In every judgment we make, we have the opportunity to purposefully work together with God in bringing justice and healing to our broken and yet holy world. The first tangible symbols of justice, the Holy Law of God, are the two stone tablets that bore the words inscribed by “the finger of God” (Ex. 31:18). We can only imagine the depth of emotion Moses felt when, after experiencing the wonder of the glory of the Presence of God for forty days and returning with the gift of His precious Word, he was confronted with the ‘carnival’ spectacle of the people idolizing the Golden Calf. He smashed the tablets in all-too-human despair. However, the holiness of the fragments did not disappear when the tablets were broken; they still carried the letters written by God. Although not stated in Deuteronomy 10, rabbinic literature supposes that they were gathered and placed in honor in the Ark of the Covenant together with the rewritten tablets.

That compelling supposition is a great encouragement. Sometimes we can despair at the brokenness of the sinful world, often evident in our own lives as in that of others, and yet each broken piece is holy. It was created – written on, as it were – by God and is precious in His sight. Our Father, through the work of His Son and the power of His Spirit of holiness, is actively restoring, regathering and redeeming all the scattered pieces. In all we do, we have the honor and sacred calling to participate with Him in that healing work.

…but when judgment is passed, consider them both innocent, provided they have accepted the judgment.

Once a trial is over and judgment has been passed and accepted, then both parties should be considered righteous. If the trial involves two parties and they both continue to argue once the verdict is given, the verse here intimates that they both should be viewed as guilty. A righteous person would behave kindly, even if it means foregoing some of his own rights and reaching a compromise.

The same rule applies to an individual who, once convicted, accepts judgment and “pays his debt to society.” He should be considered innocent and afforded a new start in life and not retroactively be condemned because he once was found guilty. He may have acted wrongly in honest error rather than through evil intent. Even if the latter is the case, once he shows signs of true repentance and moves forward positively he should be treated as innocent. Within reasonable limits, the better choice always is to give the person the benefit of the doubt.

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