Here Comes the Judge

Rabbi Megan GoldMarche

By Rabbi Megan GoldMarche

Parshat Shoftim

As we enter the month of Rosh Hashanah, I get a bit more self-reflective. Both in the lovely thoughtful way and in the self-criticizing judgy way. Am I being the person I want to be?

How many al-heits will I have to say with genuine admonition this Yom Kippur?

While we all claim to not want to be judgmental, we also play the judge all the time, for our friends and family, for ourselves and, for most of us, for strangers, famous people and just about anyone else with whom we come into contact.

This parsha is definitely not anti-judging: We are told we must set up judges in all of our cities, but, of course, it is not just left at that. It is written in Deuteronomy 16:
“They [the judges] shall judge the people [with] righteous judgment. You shall not pervert justice; you shall not show favoritism, and you shall not take a bribe, for bribery blinds the eyes of the wise and perverts just words.”

Of course, it would be ideal if we all judged that way but is that really how it works? Is it possible to avoid favoritism? Research shows that we are biased toward people who we like, people like us and people who have been good toward us in the past. We can and should work to eliminate these biases, but they are natural and difficult to uproot.

This leads me to one of my favorite Talmud passages, from B. Sanhedrin 17a:

Rabbi Yohanan says: They place on the Sanhedrin only judges of high stature, and of wisdom, and of pleasant appearance, and of suitable age so that they will be respected. And they must also be masters of sorcery, i.e., they know the nature of sorcery, so that they can judge sorcerers, and they must know all seventy languages in order that the Sanhedrin will not need to hear testimony from the mouth of a translator in a case where a witness speaks a different language. Rav Yehuda says that Rav says: They place on the Sanhedrin only one who knows how to render a carcass of a creeping animal pure by Torah law.

Based on this passage, to be one of the judges we are talking about in the Torah, one needs to be wise, powerful, attractive, not too old or too young, experts in magic, fluent in 70 languages and able to produce a convincing argument that creeping animals, which the Torah states explicitly are ritually impure, are actually pure.

What is this telling us? Basically no one is fit to be a judge. But, of course, we need judges; the Torah just told us we must appoint them.

What does this have to do with me, a local rabbi who recently moved to town to lead Tribe 12, a local nonprofit that connects people in their 20s and 30s to Jewish life and community in Philadelphia today so they will choose to stay connected tomorrow?

I am pretty sure that I am one of the foremost experts in 20s/30s Jewish life based on my work experience. I have been working with 18-39-year-olds to build Jewish community since 2006 and, before that, I was doing the work as a college student at Penn.

And yet I acknowledge that in reality to really know exactly what all 20s and 30s young Jews want and need, you need to be simultaneously 22 and 26 and 30 and 35 and 39. And you need to be single and coupled and queer and straight and white and a person of color and neurotypical and neurodiverse. You need to be Reform, Reconstructionist, Conservative, Orthodox and post and non-denominational. You need to come from an interfaith family and a Sephardic family and from the FSU. And I could go on and on and on.

And you can see where I am going. No one person can have all of these traits. And yet we need to do the work of building community for this population and all other populations.
So what do we do? We try our best. At Tribe 12, we pay attention, actively listen and then respond, we create diverse offerings, we live in the now and watch for what’s next, but most importantly, we are not convinced we are right. We know that what was explicitly impure yesterday may be the purest thing we need tomorrow. We have always been committed to disrupting the ordinary, and we do our best to do it righteously, knowing every day we have a chance to do better.

Thank you for such a warm welcome to Philadelphia and happy end to 5782

Rabbi Megan GoldMarche is the executive director of Tribe 12. The Board of Rabbis of Greater Philadelphia is proud to provide diverse perspectives on Torah commentary for the Jewish Exponent. The opinions expressed in this column are the author’s own and do not reflect the view of the Board of Rabbis.


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