Message for the Week from Rabbi Stein
Presumption of Innocence
Rabbi Jay M. SteinTuesday, October 31, 2017 at 12:00:00 am
One last comment about Friendship...
JUDAH B. TABBAI SAID: DO THOU NOT [AS-A JUDGE] PLAY THE PART OF AN ADVOCATE; WHILST THEY [I. E. THE PARTIES IN A LAWSUIT] ARE STANDING BEFORE THEE, LET THEM BE REGARDED BY THEE AS IF THEY WERE [BOTH OF THEM] GUILTY, AND WHEN THEY LEAVE THY PRESENCE, [AFTER] HAVING SUBMITTED TO THE JUDGMENT LET THEM BE REGARDED BY THEE AS IF THEY WERE [BOTH OF THEM] GUILTLESS.
In American law there is a presumption of innocence. We ought to give people the benefit of the doubt. The problem is there are so many factors that sway us in one direction or another. There are specialists who prepare people for trial, helping the individual to select the appropriate clothing, the best posture, even facial expressions all in an attempt to influence a jury to rule in their favor. We know there are many factors that go into how we judge others.
That is where this Mishna is particularly powerful. We instinctively, sometimes for self-preservation, sometimes merely out of habit, judge others. This Mishna teaches us to be mindful of that inclination and then compensate for it. Be scrupulous in deciding on whether or not a person is telling you the truth, but then make sure, if it is at all possible, to believe them.
Human interaction is filled with moments of judging. In those moments we must always find a balance. We must regularly hold our skepticism in check with our optimism about the human spirit.
Rabbi Jay M. SteinTuesday, October 24, 2017 at 12:00:00 am
When I graduated Rabbinical School our class commissioned a piece of artwork to hang at the Seminary. As part of the creative process, each of us chose a quote from our tradition that inspired us. We were each given a lithograph of the piece that had been created and it hangs in my home. My quote, taken from the Talmud was, "Great is learning when it leads to action."
Raised the son of an activist, I have always felt that the texts of our tradition must spur us to work for the betterment of the world. In the polarizing society in which we live it is easy to retreat to our silos and dedicate our energies only to those of whom we are most closely connected. This myopic approach leads to isolation and ultimately to greater polarity. It is a system that is truly damaging.
The number of sources within our sacred library that speak to the repairing the world abound. They teach us over and over again of the need to fix the ills that beset us. If each of us would devote ourselves tirelessly to alleviating one problem we would still have a world wrought with wrongs. Yet we must not desist from the effort.
Rabbi Jay M. SteinWednesday, October 18, 2017 at 12:00:00 am
Mishna Avot 1:7
Nittai of Arbel taught; Keep far from an evil neighbor; be not a partner with an evil person; never despair the retribution of the wicked. (Mishna Avot 1:7)
In last week’s installment I suggested that friends are important. We cannot go it alone. This week I dial back that suggestion and offer a correction. Everyone needs good friends. Rather, everyone needs friends that are good. I have often remarked, “if you are the smartest of all of your friends, you need to get a few new friends.” We need to surround ourselves with people who challenge us to be better, to be more open minded, to be more kind. We need to surround ourselves with people who gently guide us. Unfortunately, because true, honest, sincere, deliberate friendships are so hard to come by we are willing to accept any that are offered.
This week’s course correction suggests we ought to be more selective. We have to find people who will elevate us not drag us down. The people we associate with are our compass and if their direction is off, our perspective will be as well. We evaluate ourselves in comparison to those around us and morality ought never be relative. Start with high quality people and then demand more from them. One last piece of advice this week, good luck finding them – they are hard to come by and if have already, don’t let them go so easily.