What is the primary approach judges should take? In this week’s Torah portion, we learn about the nature of the Sanhedrin and its role in ensuring keen justice for the Jewish people. Indeed, compared to systems of justice that only seek retribution over rehabilitation, Judaism takes a more utilitarian approach. Further, Judaism offers a novel approach; that arguing that compromise is the approach of the wise.
Rabbi Yehoshua ben Karcha says, “It is a mitzvah to seek compromise.” As it is written, “Truth and peaceful judgment should you judge in your gates.” It would seem that where there is judgment there is no peace, and where there is peace there is no judgment. Compromise is the judgment that incorporates peace (Sanhedrin 6b).
In the Talmud, Rabbi Yochanan is quoted as saying that the first-century Temple in Jerusalem was destroyed in the time of the Romans only because the people judged according to the Torah. The astonished reply was, “What kind of judgment should they have applied – that of the sorcerers?” The reply: “What Rabbi Yochanan meant was that litigants insisted on strict enforcement of the law and were unwilling to compromise” (Bava Metzia 30b).
This is not only true for political matters, but also for financial ones: “When Rabbi Nehuniah ben ha-Kaneh was asked the secret of his unusual longevity, one of the traits he mentioned was, ‘I was always willing to yield in monetary matters’” (Megillah 28a).
One’s character is not solely measured by his ideals, but also by how he’s willing to compromise. There are, of course, values that should not be compromised, but when identity supersedes dignity, then nothing can be achieved. But for the sake of peace, often we must compromise our upper hand even when we are certain of the truth. Rashi taught that doing “the right and the good … refers to a compromise, within the letter of the law” (Devarim 6:18). Even when it is difficult to achieve everything that we want, finding the balance where everybody receives something is better than receiving nothing at all.
Yet history is replete with the tragic consequences of a failure to compromise. The Civil War, for example, was the result of 11 Southern states refusing to deal with an elected president who was opposed to slavery and their attempt to secede and drive Union forces out by military force. Will the world today heed the warning of Rabbi Yochanan or will we sink further into pettiness and avarice?
The art of compromise is far from easy, and all of us have much to learn. So much more work needs to happen on the global, national and interpersonal front. Swallowing our pride and reining in our egos is essential to building a world we want to see. It won’t be perfect, but it allows us to endure.
Rabbi Dr. Shmuly Yanklowitz is president and dean of Valley Beit Midrash in Phoenix.