September 27, 2023

Judgment doesn’t have such a good rap. Calling someone “judgmental” today has the feel that calling someone a heretic had a few centuries ago. It is an uncomfortable accusation and meant to be so. It’s a measure-for-measure response for being made to feel uncomfortable, a grave sin in a therapeutic society that makes fragile personalities the norm.

But this is not a cheer for the good old days when everybody liked judgment. Turns out that judgment is never very popular. To the degree that we are compelled to answer the judgment, just so is it uncomfortable and frightening. (READ MORE from Shmuel Klatzkin: Support Policies We Can Live With)

We enter today into a period of 10 days beginning with what the Bible calls the first day of the seventh month. Together, these days are called in Hebrew Yemei Hadin, the days of judgment. The Book of Nehemiah tells the story of how the first of these days was marked by the exiles who had returned to Jerusalem. Ezra the priest read to the assembled people from the Five Books of Moses, and the people were weeping as they listened. 

Ezra and Nehemiah responded to the people by saying to them that the day is holy and that they should not weep. Ezra said to them that instead, they should go and eat choice foods and drink sweet drinks and share their feast with those who lacked. “Do not be sad,” he said, “for rejoicing in the Lord is your strength.”

The natural inclination is to feel uncomfortable at being held to account, and the people were moved to tears by the discrepancy between how they knew they had lived and what was being asked of them by God. Yet Ezra told them that that must not be the final word. They must rejoice.

When we live lives running away from accountability to others, running away from accountability to truth and the Reality that upholds truth and the good, our lives are objectively uncomfortable and unsatisfying. Avoiding challenges — for challenges imply standards — life collapses into cliché and sterility. There is nothing to celebrate because there is nothing to overcome, no milestone that isn’t contrived. A person satisfied by a participation trophy or by inflated grades counterfeits happiness. Eventually people taking that path feel that happiness and comfort are owed them, and they will come after you for not providing it to them.

Of course, that last step involves judgment, but they have outsourced judgment to be suffered by others so that it won’t bother them. They don’t feel its sting, and they choose to deny that they are judging because it would be too uncomfortable to admit it.

The truth is that we cannot evade judgment. In a world in which there is meaningful difference between things, we cannot help but choose just to keep the flood waters of randomness and entropy at bay. We will judge — there is no real choice in that.

The choice we have to make is whether we will judge well. 

What is characteristic of good judgment?

It is engaged in consciously and deliberately — true enough. And it is practiced as a responsibility rather than as an unaccountable power. And, therefore, the judgment begins with ourselves. 

The people gathered together in Jerusalem were crying because they were clearly seeing their own shortcomings. And it was precisely because they were doing that that Ezra and Nehemiah told them that now, they need no longer cry but celebrate and that that celebration and joy would be their Godly strength.

Such judgment is what makes a free society possible, a society in which one class is not the slave of another. But it is not just any judgment — it is the judgment of people willing to look at themselves in judgment, to commit themselves to a return to their truest self, their self as glimpsed from above, the way they looked to their Creator when they first appeared in the thought that encompasses and upholds the creative outpouring of the cosmos in all of its ever-unfolding particulars.

The public reading of the law in Jerusalem is a powerful expression of what free societies do, guided by the biblical heritage that underpinned the culture of the West. The law is meant to be the law of the people, who govern themselves through the institutions they ordain by their Constitution, whom they staff through their votes, and with whom they communicate through free speech and a free press in all its forms.

A despotic law, on the other hand, is written by and understood by an elite and no one else. It is designed to benefit that elite only, all others only accidentally, to the degree that the elite find it worthwhile. It is the Book of Torah that Ezra was reading that started the revolution, for it insists that its laws are something each parent teaches to their children, and it is not ever meant to be reserved for one class.

We must all learn to judge well, to be discerning, to choose deliberately and well among the many choices free people are challenged with every day. And even more importantly, we must realize we cannot export the consequences of our decisions for others to suffer. Free people must above all learn to judge themselves in the light of truth and embrace theirown responsibility for the results of their judgments.

The judgment that results from such a process is a judgment sweetened with love. We need neither a lawless love nor a loveless law, for both are weak and shallow, and poor counterfeits of the divine law.

Holding ourselves courageously accountable, even braving the deepest of discomforts, we meet our challenges and celebrate our achievements together.

May we embrace the challenge to judge well. Braving that challenge to see ourselves truly is the tonic for a democracy that has become weakened and bewildered, vainly seeking salvation by outsourcing blame. That courage we embrace will enable us to speak with a voice of love and truth together, rallying our fellow citizens to look anew, to examine themselves. They will hear us because we ourselves identify with them as bound together in our citizenship in a unique and transforming political endeavor — this amazing American adventure. We can spur and inspire each other to succeed together. We can see around us the results of shirking this challenge. 

May we find that voice and be able to rejoice together in that true and goodly strength that comes from accepting the challenge to judge well.