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Etz Chayim – the ‘Tree of Life’ – is the Hebrew name of Northwood & Pinner Liberal Synagogue.
The fifth book of the Torah, in Hebrew D’varim (or "words") or Deuteronomy, Greek for "repetition of the Law", presents a series of speeches by Moses to the Israelites as they prepare to enter the Land of Israel, and he traces the Israelites' forty-year trek through the desert. Some scholars claim that D’varim was written by an unknown prophet during King Josiah's reign (715-640 BCE) and served as the basis of his consolidation and reformation of the ancient Jewish state. Others dispute this theory, arguing that the text is the work of Moses, that it mirrors the language and laws found within the books of Exodus, Leviticus and Numbers, and that it presents his last teachings to the people just before his death on Mt. Nebo.
Torah students are, however, united in acknowledging the artistry of D’varim. It contains not only reports about the early history and traditions of the Israelites but also a valuable record of the ethical values and laws that guided their society.
Near the beginning of the portion, Moses recalls a moment of crisis when he realised that he could not lead the Israelites by himself, so he appoints wise and experienced tribal leaders and judges. The early rabbis, many of whom were presiding court judges, compare this responsibility to dealing with fire. "If you come too close, you will be burnt; if you stray too far, you will be cold. The art of making judgements," they conclude, "is finding the right distance."
Perspective is critical in rendering fair decisions. Independence of outlook and a delicate balance of viewpoint and attitude are essential for arriving at good judgements. Yet how does one achieve this?
In his presentation to the Israelites, Moses suggests three significant rules for making judgements: "hear out" those with conflicting views; do not show partiality to low or high, Israelites or "strangers"; and "fear" no one when you are ready to render your decision.
Hearing extends to seeing too. Judges should not look only at one of the disputants, otherwise they may give the impression that one is more important than the other, or that one's argument, clothing, gestures or physical appearance is more pleasing than that of the other, and that therefore they are showing favouritism.
Regarding dress, one rabbi warns "A person should not go away from a hearing saying, 'Had I worn better clothing, the judge would have heard my case with greater respect and sympathy.'" The same rabbi also points out that judges should not fear that their reputations will be weakened if, after hearing all the arguments, they decide to refer the dispute to others or to a higher authority.
Judges must also speak without partiality to either disputant. "Pressuring or signalling displeasure with disputants may influence the way in which they present facts ... [It may] cause them to become so confused that they neglect important elements of the case. Judges, therefore, must do nothing to indicate their preference between contestants."
A Talmudic story emphasises the care judges must take to demonstrate impartiality. Samuel, a revered scholar and judge, was crossing a stream on a narrow plank. A stranger, seeing that the rabbi could use some help, reached out, took his hand, and brought him safely to the other side of the stream. Upon learning the man's name, Samuel realised that the man was scheduled to appear before him for judgement in a few days.
"Friend," Samuel told him, "by your kind favour you have disqualified me as the judge in your dispute."
Impartiality, should it need to be said, should extend to strangers and non-citizens. With regard to possible intimidation, judges should "fear no person" when it comes to rendering a decision, because "judgement is God's". The judge must not say, "I fear this person because he may kill my son or burn my wheat or destroy my plants."
The Talmud says that "judges should see themselves as if a sword were hanging at their necks and as if hell were open at their feet. They should know whom they are judging and that God will punish judges who depart from the strict line of justice ... Whenever judges render true decisions, it is as if they had put right the whole world."
The emphasis of Jewish tradition upon hearing and judging disputes justly is not simply for judges. The guidelines also apply to all engaged in hearing arguments and helping others solve disputes: friends, couples, parents, children, business partners, colleagues, students, team-mates. If a third party listens with patience to both sides, does not cut off discussion but asks questions that clarify matters, pays attention to the nuances of each party's claim, and strives to treat both disputants equally, there is a good chance that a reasonable settlement will be reached. Since making judgements about others is "dealing with fire", these important guidelines may save us from being burned.
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