Taking Bribes (Edited Transcript)

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This week’s parsha, Mishpatim, discusses the prohibition on a judge to take a bribe. As the Torah puts it, “A bribe blinds the eyes of the intelligent and corrupts the words of the righteous.”

Rashi, quoting from the Gemara, says the prohibition against taking a bribe remains in effect even if the judge intends to deliver a judgment which is true and fair. Why? Because he is blinded. Despite his intentions to serve justice, he will inevitably be more favourably disposed towards the person who gave him the bribe. In other words, he has lost the ability to be objective about the case. This mitzvah teaches us the inherent bias of human beings; that our ability to maintain a fair and objective judgment about a situation is severely limited the moment we have a personal interest in it.

The Malbim points out how this applies even to the greatest of people. He emphasises how the Torah specifically mentions the susceptibility of pikchim, “the intelligent”. He says this refers to people of intelligence and insight who are able to see things other people cannot see. The verse also mentions how a bribe corrupts tzaddikim, righteous people who are defined by the pious, morally upright lives they lead. Furthermore, in parshat Shoftim the Torah mentions the chachamim in this context – even people who have tremendous Torah knowledge are unable to be objective once they have received a bribe.

What is a bribe?

When we talk about a bribe, what do we mean? What is the quantum? Our Sages explain that it could even be the most minimal amount of money. In fact, they go one step further and explain that even just doing a favour for the judge constitutes a bribe. The Rambam in his halachic magnum opus, Mishneh Torah, cites the example of the judge Shmuel – one of the great rabbis of the Talmud. Shmuel was travelling on a ferry, and when he came to the end of the river and was about to disembark from the boat, somebody on the shoreline extended a hand to help him. When Shmuel asked him what his business was, the man responded that he was soon to appear before Shmuel as one of the litigants in a court case. Shmuel recused himself from the case immediately because of the favour done for him.

The Gemara cites various other examples of seemingly small favours performed for judges which disqualify them from sitting in the trial because they are considered bribes – brushing a feather off the clothing of a judge, for example, or covering up some spit on the ground so the judge wouldn’t step in it. There is no gesture too small, no payment too little, to compromise a judge’s impartiality and disqualify him from a case. Objectivity is that fragile.

The G-d delusion

Of course, this principle applies not just to a judge. The point is, we all have the propensity for bias. Rabbi Elchanan Wasserman, the great 20th century Sage who was martyred in the Holocaust, illustrates this point with an observation that goes right to the heart of faith and belief. The Rambam counts as one of the 613 commandments the mitzvah to believe in G-d. Rabbi Wasserman asks, quite reasonably, how there could be a mitzvah to believe in G-d. How can belief be legislated? You either believe or you don’t. If you believe in G-d, you don’t need a mitzvah; and if you don’t, how is a mitzvah going to help? Furthermore, like any other mitzvah, the commandment to believe in G-d applies from the age of bar- or batmitzvah. And yet many of history’s greatest philosophers didn’t believe in G-d. How, then, can a 13-year-old boy or 12-year-old girl be commanded to believe in G-d?

Rabbi Wasserman explains that, actually, faith and belief in G-d is straightforward from an intellectual, rational point of view. He quotes the great Jewish philosophical work, Chovot HaLevavot (Duties of the Heart), which provides one of the most vivid formulations of the idea that the world in all its precision and complexity could only have been created by an intelligent designer. Chovot HaLevavot puts it this way:

“Do you not realise that if ink were poured out accidentally on a blank sheet of paper, it would be impossible that proper writing should result, legible lines that are written with a pen? Imagine a person bringing a sheet of handwriting that could only have been composed with a pen. He claims that ink spilled on the paper and these written characters had accidentally emerged. We would charge him to his face with falsehood, for we could feel certain that this result could not have happened without an intelligent person’s purpose. Since this seems impossible in the case of letters whose formation is conventional, how can one assert that something far subtler in its design and which manifests in its fashioning a depth and complexity infinitely beyond our comprehension could have happened without the purpose, power, and wisdom of a wise and mighty designer?”

Rabbi Wasserman cites a similar argument from the Midrash. A heretic came to Rabbi Akiva and asked him to prove that G-d created the world. In response, Rabbi Akiva asked the man to prove that the clothes he was wearing were made by a tailor. Rabbi Akiva went on to point out that just as a house indicates a builder, a garment a tailor, and a door a carpenter, so too does the world speak of its Creator. Rationally and intellectually, it’s absurd to maintain that a world this complex, this beautiful, this detailed, came about simply by chance.

Blinded by the truth

The question is, says Rav Wasserman, if it’s such an irrefutable argument, why is it that there are people – very wise, brilliant people – who don’t accept it? His answer is profound and ties in with the topic of our discussion. He refers to the verse from our parsha, “A bribe blinds the eyes of the wise…” – the idea being, as we have explained, that someone – anyone – who has a personal interest in something can no longer be objective. If there’s a G-d, a Creator of the world with a personal interest in humankind, there are weighty implications – there is accountability, there is right and wrong, there is what a person can/should do and what they cannot/should not do. A world without G-d, on the other hand, is a world free of responsibility and accountability. A world in which we are free to indulge our whims and desires, to help ourselves to all of its pleasures. And not just the pleasures of the body, but also the pleasures of the mind and the heart, pleasures such as honour and recognition. Explains Rav Wasserman, people are enticed – “bribed” – by the pleasures of the world such that they lose sight of the objective truth of G-d’s existence. And if we would simply set aside that “bribe” we would be able to see it. It’s there and it’s obvious.

To drive the idea home, he points out the ruling that the smallest favour performed for a judge – a great, wise Torah scholar who is transcendent in his intellect and unimpeachable in his character – would compromise his judgment and render him unable to deliver a fair and just verdict in a given case. How much more so, then, a person who indulges in all of the pleasures of this world and then has to decide on the existence of G-d. How much chance does such a person have of being objective?

Ultimately, then, the mitzvah to believe in G-d is just a commandment to be objective. It’s a mitzvah not to take the bribes this world offers. And it’s as clear and simple as a 12- or 13-year-old sees the world.

Rabbi Wasserman actually takes it one step further. He says logic and rationality not only dictates a belief in G-d, it also ratifies the idea that He gave the world a Torah. Because to believe that G-d created the world without a purpose is irrational. Of course, He created the world with a purpose that accords with His will. But how can He expect us to know His will? How can we mere mortals know the mind of G-d? So it must be that not only does G-d exist, but He revealed His will to us regarding how to live. And that He did when He gave us the Torah.

Transcending the maze

Mesillat Yesharim (Path of the Just), one of great ethical works written by the Ramchal (the great 18th century Italian sage, Rabbi Moshe Chaim Luzzatto), sets down a path for personal growth in life. The Ramchal structures this path like the ascending rungs of a ladder. The bottom of the ladder – the starting point for personal growth – is Torah learning. Torah learning then leads to the second rung – which is what he terms Zehirut. Zehirut means living with a heightened awareness of right and wrong.

The Ramchal explains that it is so easy for us to go through life spiritually and morally blind, unable to distinguish between right and wrong. We pursue paths and adopt positions and stumble into beliefs we think are correct and true but which really aren’t. And that’s because we aren’t objective; we are biased towards ourselves, and unable to see our faults and missteps. It’s very difficult to transcend who we are, where we are, to look at life objectively. The Ramchal says it’s like being lost in a maze. You cannot begin to see your way out of the maze because you are so enmeshed in it. In order to find your way out, you need to transcend the maze and see it from a bird’s-eye view. Only then can you work out how to extract youself from its traps and tricks and dead ends.

How do we transcend the maze? How do we get that bird’s-eye view? Number one, through Torah learning. As the Ramchal explains, Torah learning leads to Zehirut, to heightened awareness and objectivity. To learn Torah is to acquire objective truth about the world. When we learn Torah, we are able to see things in their proper perspective, to understand what’s right and what’s wrong, to transcend ourselves. And that’s always the challenge when we are learning Torah – not to slot what we learn into our existing frame of reference, but to slot how we see the world into our learning. We need to be able to step back and evaluate objectively whether or not we are on a path of truth and righteousness. Torah learning helps us do exactly that.

Introspection is another very important step towards objectivity. We need to keep our wits about us, and be aware of how easy it is to fall into the trap of personal bias. When we spend time introspecting – reflecting on who we are and where we are going, and whether or not we are on the correct path – we attain Zehirut, deep awareness. The Ramchal explains that one of the greatest enemies of this state of heightened awareness says is busyness, living a life of frnenzied activity. When we are too busy to stop and think, and are constantly running from one task to the next, we are unable to attain a bird’s-eye view. We are unable to rise above the maze and see where we are and truly assess the trajectory of our lives.

From this law pertaining to the judge – the prohibition concerning bribes – we learn the importance of objectivity, and we get a sense of its frailty. We understand our propensity for bias, and how that can skew the way we look at the world and our place in it. But just by understanding how vulnerable we are to bias, we can steel ourselves against it. And through immersive Torah learning and deep introspection, we can rise above ourselves and reach a heightened state of awareness that can put us back on the path of truth, connected to Hashem and to His Torah. That is our life’s work.

Ultimately, our parsha is calling upon us all to be great judges, evaluating our lives clearly and objectively, unmoved and uninfluenced by the “bribes” the world sends our way, so that we can pursue truth and righteousness.

Posted on 08 February 2018 in Text, Transcript