NEEDED: JUDGES, NOT FRIENDS
A Sermon for the Second Day of Rosh Hashanah 5772
By Rabbi Wayne Allen
In one of the central prayers of the Days of Awe, “u-N’ta-neh Tokef,” we, along with the Hazzan, declare: “Hi-neh Yom Ha-Din,” “Behold: it is the Day of Judgment.” No one likes being judged. But for us as Jews, being held accountable for what we do is essential. Being accountable circumscribes our lives with responsibility. Being accountable holds our conduct up to scrutiny. And although being judged is uncomfortable, it is necessary for steering us in the right direction. Unless we are made aware of our failings, we will have no way to measure our success.
As sensible as this seems, the notion of being judged has largely fallen into disrepute. Moral failings today have been reduced to but a few. Of those that remain perhaps the one that is most damning is being “judgmental.” To call someone “judgmental” is the equivalent of identifying that person as a moral reprobate, someone who is close-minded, prejudiced, hateful, and backward. To call someone “non-judgmental,” on the other hand, is to compliment a person as loving, sensitive, open-minded, sympathetic, and supportive.
When I meet with brides and grooms before their weddings, particularly when I do not know them well, I ask each in turn to give me three adjectives that describe their partner. Almost always “non-judgmental” appears on the list. I am not surprised. We live at a time when moral relativism has suffused our universities, our culture, and thus our thinking. Moral relativism is a doctrine that proclaims that there is no absolute right or wrong; everything varies according to time and place. In international relations, it is expressed by giving terrorists a “pass” for, after all, how can we condemn anyone who lives under such harsh conditions? When murders are committed because of some perceived offence, we brush them aside under the excuse that it is a cultural difference.
But moral relativism is an empty doctrine. In his important book Reclaiming Goodness (p. 69), my friend and colleague, Hanan Alexander, exposes the logical flaw in it. The proposition that ALL truths and values are subjectively constructed is itself NOT a subjective or constructed assertion. If this claim is true, then subjectivism must be false, and only if it is false can subjectivism be true. Since no doctrine can be simultaneously both true and false, subjectivism is incoherent.
To make this a bit more comprehensible, an example helps. Students often complain that teachers judge different students’ essays subjectively. And a student once challenged his teacher accordingly. “The grade I received is based on your feelings alone. Another teacher would have given me a better grade.” The teacher asked in response: “On what basis do you say this?” And the student said: “On the basis that all opinions of this kind are subjective. There are simply no objective standards against which to judge good writing.” “I see,” said the teacher. “Does this mean that your opinion that ‘All opinions about writing are subjective’ is also a subjective opinion?” “I suppose it does,” said the student. “Then aren’t you doing the same thing you accused me of doing when you complained that I relied on subjective standards in grading?” “What do you mean?” the student asked, somewhat taken aback. “Your view,” said the teacher, that ‘all opinions are subjective’ is itself subjective. So following your own thinking, there is no reason for me to accept your critique.” “I guess so,” said the student. And the grade stood.
Grades are a form of judgment. And so are critiques. Yet offering meaningful and helpful critiques is suddenly considered spiteful and even cruel. Consider the case of “American Idol.” As much as Simon Cowell, the creator and one of the judges on the television show, was reviled for his criticism of some performances, he insisted on standards and held participants accountable to them. Yet as Idol’s ratings began to decline, the show began to moderate its tone. Cowell cut back on his insults. And new judges were put in place that had only nice things to say. But as the culture critic of Time magazine (May 9, 20110), James Poniewozik, notes, the problem with liking everything is that it becomes meaningless to like anything. If everything has the same valence, it is impossible to distinguish good from bad.
A similar trend may be identified in children’s sports and in schools. Awards were once given to the top performers. But now everyone receives an award lest someone feels left out or hurt. But in the name of sensitivity, excellence has been compromised. Where everyone is a winner, winning is meaningless.
I have only recently succumbed to joining Facebook. And still, I am not a regular participant. But for those of you unfamiliar with social networking, I am going to describe one feature. A person on Facebook can post a picture or message and others can react by clicking a button: a thumbs up button for “Like,” and a thumbs down button for “Don’t Like.” As much as I believe Facebook can be an extraordinary waste of time, it gets my vote for helping to restore some semblance of making distinctions in world denuded of the possibility.
“Behold, It is the Judgment Day.” On Rosh Hashanah we stand before God accountable for our actions. We are judged by the good we have contributed and by the bad we have perpetrated. And whether or not we believe that there is some heavenly ledger recording our deeds, the underlying message is that the route to improvement is by holding ourselves to account. We do not need more friends or sycophants; an entourage that will pay us perpetual compliments. We need judges who will honestly tell us where we have gone wrong. The rabbis teach us that the verse that demands we rebuke our fellows who have committed some wrong (Leviticus 19:17) begins with warning against hating one’s fellow. The connection sends the message that if you truly care for another person, you must hold them accountable for where they have gone wrong.
Today we stand before the ultimate judge. And it is out of caring for us and desiring, as it were, our improvement that God will render a judgment. As Jews we recognize that there are standards by which we are measured. Let us resolve to measure up.