Tuesday, August 07, 2007

5 Minute Jewish Wisdom

I’m starting a series soon on Radio Shalom, Montreal’s Jewish radio station, of short inspirational commentaries. They will comment on passages in an ancient Jewish book, Pirkei Avot (Chapters of the Fathers), and center on insights related to day to day life: on proper judgment, the pros and cons of snobbery, the importance of focus, etc. Below is a written version of the first commentary, on the first Mishna (passage) in Chapters of the Fathers.

Be Deliberate in Judgment

The first Mishnah in Pirkei Avot says:

The Men of the Great Assembly said three things: Be deliberate in judgment, raise many students, and make a protective fence for the Torah."

This Mishna is primarily intended as advice for judges; deliberate carefully before rendering judgment.

But the genius of this Mishna goes beyond the jurist, and provides excellent advice for the average man in the street.

The advice is simple: Don’t rush to judgment!!

All of us, whether or not we are judges, have to make hundreds of judgments a day.

You meet someone, you have to judge their personality; you buy something, you have to judge its value; you make plans, you have to judge their usefulness. We’re constantly judging every aspect of the world around us.

The Mishna is reminding all of us to judge carefully and methodically. Snap judgments are often corrupted by preconceived notions and emotional responses.

Many people have made foolish snap judgments.

An executive director at a large charity in Toronto (who will remain anonymous) can tell you about judging someone by their appearance. An older man in a rumpled suit and somewhat gruff manner showed up in his office one day, asking to join his board. The executive director dismissed him immediately, assuming that a lack of fashion sense and social graces meant he had little to offer. Unfortunately, he soon found out that he had turned away someone who was about to become one of Toronto’s largest philanthropists. Like all snap judgments, judging a book by its cover is simply knee jerk stupidity.

Richard Jewell can tell you about preconceived notions. On July 27, 1996, during the Summer Olympics, Jewell alerted the Atlanta police about a suspicious package that turned out to be a bomb. Because some of the elements in Jewell’s life resembled a hypothetical FBI profile of the bomber, the FBI immediately assumed Jewell was guilty. Only on October 25th, 3 months later, did the FBI realize they had besmirched the reputation of the one true hero of that July evening.

Jesse Ramirez can tell you about emotional decisions made in haste. As the Arizona Republic reports:

“Ramirez suffered major brain injuries in a car accident on May 30. Doctors said the injuries could have left him blind or in a permanent vegetative state.On June 8, his wife, Rebecca, asked doctors to remove his food and water tubes….Now, he can hug and kiss, nod his head, answer yes and no questions, give a thumbs-up sign and sit in a chair...”

Luckily, Jesse didn’t die because the rest of his family stopped his wife from removing life support. But it’s not just Jesse; hasty hospital decisions affect a lot of people. I see people overwhelmed by emotion, frightened that they will have to watch a loved one linger in a permanent vegetative state, make foolish and hasty decisions about a relative’s life. Tragically, snap decisions made in an ICU have life and death consequences.

The Mishna is advising judges to be thorough in researching a verdict. But its advice goes beyond judges. It is reminding the rest of us, who make multiple judgments every day, never to rush to judgment.

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