Monday, October 6, 2014

Yom Kippur 5775: Judge Away, by Rabbi Shira Stutman

Judge Away
Rabbi Shira Stutman

This past June 20, a newly minted high school graduate from eastern Alabama took a tour of Auschwitz-Birkenau. She stood in front of the barracks, with an ear-bud in one ear, grinned widely, took a selfie, and tweeted it along with a caption: “Selfie in the Auschwitz concentration camp!” Smiley face.

As you can imagine, the response was tremendous. And not in a good way. Within 24 hours, “Princess Breanna” (that’s her handle) had received more than 6,000 angry tweets, including more than one death threat. She responded to dozens of them, and spoke to numerous news outlets, always with the same response: nope, not really sorry.

All the tumult died away, as these things do, but the question remained--how in the name of all that is good and holy could this young woman think that a smiling Auschwitz selfie was a good thing? And who were these thousands and thousands of people who tweeted back immediately, most of them jumping on the bandwagon of hate and outrage?

It was questions like these that were discussed this past July when a group of us got together to talk about “judgmentalism”. We studied a number of texts: traditional Jewish ones, a few Buddhist teachers, scientific research on what it means to use judgment, legal briefs. Wasn’t unusual for someone to compare the teachings of Rabbi Abraham Twerski, a 20th c Orthodox scholar, with Allie Brosh, author of the important book and blog “Hyperbole and a Half.” Wasn’t too long before we started speaking very personally. The conversation was wide-ranging and at points profound.

When we had announced this class in the Sixth & I email, it had sold out within days. We had touched a nerve. But why? In the class itself, and in the weeks following, I have tried to unravel what it was that brought us together, what it was that we learned.

Here’s what we already knew: we need to separate the term “judgment” from “judgmentalism”, the latter of which is, in point of fact, not a word. Having judgment is not a problem. We make thousands of judgments a day, many of them quite innocuous, some of them life-and-death. Judgmentalism, on the other hand, is a colloquialism that we can define as forming an opinion, usually negative, about another human being based on your own value system, often because you consider yourself morally superior to whomever you’re talking about. And it’s judgmentalism that is somewhat of a team sport in Washington DC. We sit around with our beer or wine and gain strength from critiquing others. We talk about politicians, we talk about “friends”. We discard nuance in favor or ridicule and critique. Because, let’s be honest, context doesn’t fit into 140 characters.

Often, the most judgmental folks of all are the religious. And to a small extent, that’s warranted. Any religion worth its salt will have positions on certain moral and ethical issues--taking care of the poor, not murdering, not stealing, etc. Adherents will judge those who transgress. The current pope is one of the most inspirational spiritual leaders of our time, but I must admit to being a little disappointed that when he was asked about gay priests and he answered, “who am I to judge?” You’re the pope. You are an arbiter of moral right and wrong. I appreciate the sentiment, which is that he is trying to create a welcoming space in the church for all kinds of people. But he’s judgmental all the time--when he critiques people for wasteful spending or when he chides governments for violent war-time campaigns. One of his jobs is to be a moral compass. One of the tasks of religion is to stand for and against, whether we’re talking about marriage equality or murder.

I spend a fair amount of my time with people who are new to Judaism. If I had a dollar for every time someone makes the following statement, I’d be a rich person: “Rabbi Shira, what I love about Judaism is that it’s not judgmental. The religion I grew up in (or, religion as I see it) is so judgmental. People back-biting all the time, against certain practices or ways of being. But the Jews aren’t like that.”

Ha. From Steven M. Cohen: “Judgment is part and parcel of our tradition, from the Bible, to the the civil rights and anti-war movements of the sixties, to present-day Israel, and to Jewish families and synagogues in all times and places. We are a judgmental and argumentative people. A long rabbinic tradition...enjoins us not only to judge, but to reproach and reprove (hochacha).” The Talmud teaches that we are so responsible for each other that if we are able to protest against another’s actions but do not, we are punished for this other person’s actions. We are required, then, to be judgmental (Shabbat 54b), required to call out when someone is missing the mark.

The difference, I am always quick to tell these students, is not between Jews and the rest of the world. The difference is between religious folks of any stripe who make judgments with compassion, nuance, and open-mindedness, and fundamentalists, who do not. If I am your rabbi, I have a right to judge your behavior. That’s why you sit in my office. I do not have the right to consider myself morally superior because of your behavior, though, nor do I have the right to treat you like a bad person even if you made a bad decision. Believe me, I have made enough of them.

The true irony here is that it’s not even like humans judge well when they do make judgments. Study after study has proven what is known as “confirmation bias”, the human tendency to look for/assimilate information that confirms what they “know” to be true. That is why, for instance, we read news sources that agree with what we already believe. Our minds are not as evolved as we would like them to be, so we must be careful. Our judgments often come from deep places that have nothing to do with rational thought. To pretend otherwise is to delude ourselves. There’s just so much noise, so many ways that we can err in judgment; perhaps it’s better for humans not to judge at all.

But God is a different story. One of the predominant images of the high holy day season is that of God sitting in judgment over us. The Talmud teaches that:

All are judged on Rosh Hashanah and the verdict is sealed on Yom Kippur—three books are opened on Rosh Hashanah, one for the completely evil, one for the completely righteous and one for everyone in between. The completely righteous are written and sealed in the book of life immediately. The completely evil are written and sealed in the book of death immediately. Those in between stand suspended from Rosh Hashanah until Yom Kippur. If they merit it, they are written for life. If they do not merit it, they are written for death.

This is no jolly Santa Claus figuring out who’s “naughty” or “nice.” Many a child--not only children, perhaps--has had nightmares of a judging, anthropomorphic Gd writing our names in the “life” or the “death” column. Many a congregant has complained over the years about this high holy day image. It is, indeed, a scary one.

But the difference between being judged by Gd and being judged by humans is that Gd is not human and therefore not susceptible to the confirmation bias. The unetaneh tokef prayer reminds us that God is knowledge and God is witness and God is all-knowing, past, present and future. “Do not judge your fellow until you have stood in his place,” Rabbi Hillel teaches us. In other words, humans should be wary of judging at all, because we can never actually stand in someone else’s place. Only Gd has full information.

If we take as a given that we are not God, and we take as a given that human judgments are subject to fallibility, yet we also take as a given that making judgments is not by definition problematic, where does that leave us? Consider the Hebrew grammar construct known as “Smichut.” With apologies for oversimplification, smichut occurs when we take two nouns, change the vocalization slightly, place one after the other, and create a new, often quite similar, word; basically a compoud noun. So the word for bayit, house, and sefer, book, becomes in smichut “Beit Sefer”, or school. Or ooga, cake and g’vinah, cheese, becomes oogat g’vinah, “cheesecake.”

When we talk about passing judgment, then, given our inherent humanness, let us never use the term on its own. Instead, let’s always do it with another, creating smichut, a compound term. Compassionate judgement. Curious judgement. Empathic. Humble. Forgiving. Trustful. Accepting. Discerning. Never just judgment, all on its own.

Or if you’re not a grammarian, consider the “term in carpentry called Sistering. Sometimes an existing joist, which was designed to handle a certain load can no longer handle its load alone….When a builder needs to strengthen that joist, she puts a new member right next to the original one and fastens the two together. Sometimes, two new joists are needed- one on either side….they call that? A Sister Joist.”

What we are doing is not agreeing that we will not judge. For better or worse, we will continue to judge. But we will do it with smichut, we will do it with a sister joint. In that way, just perhaps, we will acknowledge that while we are not God, we can walk in God’s ways. “The Holy One, blessed be God, says prayers,” the Talmud teaches. “What does God pray? “May it be My will that My compassion may suppress My strict judgment, and that My compassion may prevail over My [other] attributes, so that I may deal with My children in the attribute of compassion...” (Brachot 7a). God never walks just with strict judgment. God walks with compassion, always, at the same time.

Be Godly in judgments. Do it not just for others but for ourselves, as well. For if I learned a lot of Torah in that classroom in July--and I did--what I was reminded of most of all is that we are our own worst critics, that the person that we all judge most of all and most unfairly is our own selves. “Each of us carries around within ourselves...a critic,” [teaches Corey Fischer,] “an inner tyrant and constant commentator who judges and scolds, reprimands and censures...for...whom we can ever do—or be—‘good enough.’ Some try to silence that...critic...through the use of alcohol or drugs...or the amassing of material possessions; but always, inevitably, these are doomed efforts...if we cannot rid ourselves of that voice, we can, at least, balance its effects, purge its power and its sting.” We can disarm the inner critic by sistering it with the inner advocate. Do it for yourself, and perhaps also do it because it will make you less judgmental towards others.

Research on the connection between how we judge ourselves and how we judge others is quite astounding. In a May 2014 article in The New Yorker, Maria Konnikova writes about “false beliefs” that people hold as very dear even if not factually accurate--that there is no climate change, for instance, or that children should not be vaccinated. It is extraordinarily difficult to get people to change their minds, and offering facts and figures does not help. What does, it turns out, is helping people feel better about themselves. Researchers “propose[d] an exercise in self-affirmation: either write down or say aloud positive moments from your past that reaffirm your sense of self and are related to the threat in question. [R]esearch suggests that affirmation makes people far more resilient and high performing...On all issues, [including highly politicized ones] attitudes became more accurate with self-affirmation, and remained just as inaccurate without.”

This is an extraordinary teaching for Yom Kippur, as we figure out how we, mere humans, should judge others: if we feel affirmed about who we are as human beings, we are able to hear facts better and therefore judge more accurately. But if we feel badly about ourselves then we are more likely not to listen to others and not to judge as fairly. Judging people does nothing to alleviate your own suffering, and it doesn’t alleviate others’ either. If you want to learn how to be less judgmental, then, begin with yourself.

Before we close, let’s return for a moment to Princess Breanna and the infamous Auschwitz selfie. Many of the tweeters, like some of you perhaps, hadn’t heard the full story. Turns out that for some time before the trip, for whatever reason, Breanna and her parents studied the history of the Holocaust together. It was a bonding experience. Brianna and her father scheduled a European tour, including a stop at Auschwitz, a year earlier he had collapsed of a heart attack and died. She still went on the tour, but with her grandmother in her father’s stead. When they arrived at Auschwitz, Breanna realized that it had been one year to the day since her father died. The selfie, the smile, was not a smile of “Awesome! Auschwitz” but instead of “in spite of it all, I’ve made it here. Dad, I’m thinking of you.” Was it in good taste? Fair to say no. But was there more to the story than many of us initially knew? Yes. Even now do we have all the information and the right to strict judgment? No, no we don’t.

In the year to come, judge away, Sixth & i’ers. We’re going to do it anyway. But try, let’s all try together, to do it a little bit less often. And when you do, take heed of a few important lessons. First, and this may be the most difficult, remember that you are not God. Only God has perfect information, so only God is the true judge. You are just...human. But with your human-ness comes your humanity, so if you’re going to judge, then do it in smichut. Do it through sistering. Do it with compassion, with curiosity, with generosity, and without fundamentalism. And do it with insight, noticing when you may be judging unfairly because of some perceived lack in your own self. Judge yourself a little bit less, love yourself a little bit more, and you will do the same for others, as well.

And most of all--to Shadrach, Lisa, Andrea, Mariel, Katherine, Gary, Roxy, Rachel, Chris, Jake, Carla, Ari, Cheryl, Emilie: thank you for all the Torah we learned together back in July. Thank you for sitting on my shoulder, metaphorically, these past months as I’ve processed the conversation. Thank you for teaching me the difference between judgment, which we need, and judgmentalism, which we don’t. Thank you for sharing your experiences of snap judgment, which is not desirable, and loving-judgment, which is. Thank you for reminding me that whatever work we all need to do to eradicate poisonous self-judgement, which is a lot, it is always better when we talk about it, process it and learn from each other, in community. I look forward to studying Torah with all of you, in Sixth & I’s non-judgmental space, now and into the future.

G’mar tov. May we all be signed and sealed in the book of life.

1 comment:

  1. This is a wonderful lesson that all religions can learn from and appreciate. I was able to pass judgment, appropriately, about my appreciation for Judaism. For now, I hail from First Christian Church in Decatur, IL, and I have a friend that follows your spirit, religion and guidance. Yet we believe in the same God, and I believe all faiths can use a reminder that judgment is best concluded with access to deeper context and appreciation for the less obvious influences upon the actions of others around us. For that makes up our congregation, and allows us to remain brothers upon this Earth in the spirit of affirmation and negation (we, as humans, are not God). I affirm my faith through yours, and believe that your message is a worthy one for all to hear.