Bribes, Bias, and Blindspots — By Ben

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We all understand that judges and public officials probably shouldn’t take bribes. As the definitive example of corruption, it tilts the scales of justice towards the rich, clouds judgment, and in places where it’s wide spread, turns into a requirement when dealing with the system. You might think it is such an obvious detriment that the Torah doesn’t need to speak about it. But as reports of bribery are made virtually everyday, it’s clearly something to be reviewed, if not emphasized.

Do not pervert justice; do not display favoritism; and do not accept bribery, for bribery blinds the eyes of the wise and distorts words that are just. (Devarim 16:18)

No matter how much an individual might think accepting a gift or favor won’t obstruct their objectivity, bias creeps in coloring their view point. Judaism takes the idea of bias very seriously. There are dozens of stories about rabbis and judges who recused themselves from cases because of the slightest hint of what might be considered a bribe. One in particular is found in the Talmud (Kesubos 105b) tells of Shmuel who was judging on a local court.

Shmuel was once helped across a river by a passerby. He thanked the man and inquired as to his welfare. The man told him that he was on his way to the Beis Din (courthouse) for a case.
“I am not allowed to be your judge,” replied Shmuel, “since you have helped me.”
– Found in Lilmod Ulelamed by Rabbi Mordechai Katz

The First Litigant

The rabbis go so far as to prohibit a judge from hearing one of the litigants if the other litigant has not arrived. Why? The judge is going to hear both cases, one after the other, anyway. Why does it matter if the they are both present? The other litigant can refute any information they disagree with when they arrive. But the rabbis insist no, both must be present.

On this idea the Maharal brings a profound insight. It is not easy for a person to change their initial thoughts. Without the second litigant present to object or immediately offer their story, the first account of the incident feels as if it is the truth. Think about any time you have ever heard someone tell you a distressing story. Unless you have a skeptical outlook, you instantly become appalled by the wrong this person’s boss or coworker subjected your friend to. Even when you hear stories in the news, how quickly are we to accept that the other side is evil and corrupt without even considering the other side? How much harder must the other side work to overcome your bias?

The Trouble with Tribalism

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As important as this mitzvah is for the person judging a case, we must remember that every word of Torah has relevance to every Jew anywhere. The Torah is telling us that we act as judges all the time, not just when a friend comes to tell us a sympathetic story. This idea of the “first story bias” is far more pervasive than we might realize.

I grew up in a relatively liberal household. To me those values meant an emphasis on diplomacy, that conflict can be resolved through supplying people with their needs, an aim to reduce suffering at all costs, and that acts of charity are essential as the system we live in is unbalanced. Now, as I have grown up and moved into different communities, those values have been challenged and adjusted. (I personally consider myself much more moderate now.) As I have grown and changed my viewpoint, I have to admit that deep down I want most of those values listed above to be true. Despite the fact that I have seen the political party I grew up with drop the ball or run too far with those issues or I’ve just seen different realities, I still want the world to work along those lines. Because of that, I will always have a skepticism of the other side.

This extends to far more than politics. The writing teachers that made the biggest impact on me, the tastes of my friends, even the stores I used to shop at while I was a kid have a fondness that I want to protect even if they are a small remnant of their former selves. Best Buy has terrible prices these days, but I still like walking around in one. It is because of this effect bias has on us that we must be much more aware when rendering our judgements. There are always two sides to a story but it takes serious self awareness to be able to view them when those stories strike close to home.

The Deepest Bias

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More potent of a bias than political party, national pride, or family are our deeply set behaviors and character traits. The hardest thing to change in ourself are the very habits that hold us back. To set into motion actions to change them is one thing. But to quiet the voice imploring us to abandon the effort is something else entirely.

Often referred to as the yetzer hara, our evil inclination constantly tempts us with desires and provides us with brilliant rationalizations to persuade our judgement to make a poor choice. And what grander bribe is there than the desires our yetzer hara presents us? It knows what we want more than anything else. But if our same circumstances were told to us as a situation of our friend or a theoretical person, we would instantly know how to make the correct decision.

How do we overcome such a deeply rooted bias? For such a feat there are a few tools.

1) Write out you goals and moral guidelines. 
Short of making a vow (which I advise against) few things are as sustaining as writing out what you wish to change. Having it on your wall or refrigerator or even as the backdrop on your phone gives you uncompromising clarity to combat rationalization. Merely speaking our goals allows us to misremember the details or shrug off our intention at the time we made the declaration.

2) Train yourself to recognize your yetzer hara voice.
Just being aware that you’re in a conflicted moment between temptation and what you should do is a major step. Being more and more aware of the dilemma means you are becoming more active in your choices. If you’re persistent, you’ll come to recognize your triggers and how deep the habit is rooted. The earlier and earlier we notice that voice pop in, the easier it is to stop.

3) Know the biggest change comes from the hardest choices.
Eventually we all have that moment where we say “screw it.” It was a hard day, or I deserve it, or what are the odds I’m going to have a chance to enjoy this good of a scotch with these people? And in those moments, though it might be sweetest, if we can walk away from them, we reach a whole new level.

Ultimately what bias boils down to is, do we make our decisions about life from a place of emotion or do we make those decisions from a place of logic and intellect? If a judge allows their emotions to dictate their judgement it can be a perversion of justice. For us, it is a road that can lead us to lows we might view as absurd if we saw them now. Learn to recognize your biases and train yourself to refuse the bribes they offer.

For more on parsha Shoftim, check out this excellent article at Devorah Learns Masorah.

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