Objecting to “Objectivity”

In our current enlightened state of human history, having transcended the ideologies of prior, provincial, primitive societies, we are finally in a position to be able to identify, with exquisite objectivity, the biases of all those around us. Perched on high from our ivory tower, immune to subjectivity, and with a birds-eye view of the world and history, we magnanimously look down and point out for the benefit of others what “socializing influences” caused them to espouse their small-minded beliefs. Of course, it goes without saying that we don’t take credit for this privileged position we find ourselves in; we owe a tremendous debt of gratitude to the broad, liberal arts education that liberated us from the insularity that plagues other cultures and religions that don’t know better.

Or so we may think.

But, maybe — just maybe, we should double-check the objectivity of our own minds before assessing the objectivity of others?

In perhaps its most definitive statement of psychological fact, the Torah prohibits a judge from accepting any form of bribe, even if it favors the side of the dispute that is ultimately correct:

…you shall not take a bribe for bribes will blind the eyes of the wise…

The Talmud makes this even more explicit: is impossible that the judge will not tilt his heart towards the one [who bribed him]…

How far does this prohibition reach?

The Talmud cites a few startling precedents for how easily our judgment is corrupted. One of them involves a judge, Rabbi Shmuel ben Reb Yossi, who pulls himself out of a case when he discovers that the plaintiff, who happened to professionally deliver groceries to him on Fridays, happened to have delivered the previous week on Thursday since he had to come into town early that week to run a different errand.  Even though it was not meant as a favor, it was functionally enough of an inadvertent favor that Rabbi Shmuel saw it compromising his objectivity.

Just to bring out the point with a more modern example — Walmart, which is widely considered one of the most efficient companies in the world, has a policy to strictly guard the objectivity of its company buyers.  When they visit distributors, they aren’t allowed to take even a coffee lest it compromise their objectivity in deciding whether on not to stock the product in Walmart stores.  We’re not talking about a briefcase of cash that is slid to them under the table; we’re talking about a mediocre Keurig coffee that has the power to determine millions of dollars of expenditures!  The most subtle of pleasures creates gentle feelings of indebtedness that imperceptibly tip the scales of our judgment.

Awareness and acceptance is the first step to change.  If we think that we’re immune to subjectivity because we’re too busy accusing FOX News of pandering right-wing agendas, or the New York Times for using anti-Israel terminologies (as right as we may be in our critique), we ourselves are in the deepest trouble in our cluelessness of our own bias.

We are the judges of our own lives, making judgments and decisions from when we wake up until we go to sleep.  If we stop to think critically and honestly about ourselves, we will all find “bribes” and “blackmails” of all forms and sums that make up the very fabric of our thought and values.  Our aversion to change, our desire for comfort, our need for the affirmation of others, our need to “be right” in an argument — the list goes on and on the longer we think about it.  To deny the significance of these desires is to deny the basis of the entire marketing and advertising industry that works so diligently to prey on them.

Is it really possible to believe that these underlying desires are not profoundly affecting all the decisions we make all day everyday?
Do we stand a chance of breaking free from these biases that run our lives on autopilot, which veer us away from our ideal direction with our eyes closed?

The quintessential Jewish response to the inescapable problem of bias in our own psyche is the ancient discipline of Mussar.  Mussar is the lifetime project of setting aside time to probe our hearts with questions, understand what makes us tick, and the patterns that we unconsciously follow.  People are usually shocked but excited to find out that there are Mussar groups in most major cities around the world that meet regularly to study the vast wisdom of self-awareness, and work as teams on one character trait at a time sometimes for a period as long as a few years.

Hashem should open our hearts for us to hear the call of the shofar.  We should be blessed to understand our own souls, free them from the short-sighted captivity of our petty desires, and have the vision to lead the lives of higher ideals and service that are our souls’ deepest desires.

*See Devarim 16:19 with Rashi; Talmud Ketubot 105b; Ohr Yisrael 8 of R. Yisrael Salanter

About the Author
Rabbi Jack Cohen is the Director of Education of the Jewish Enrichment Center in West Village of New York City, working to create interactive educational programs that grant access to Torah that is deep and relevant to 20-somethings who are thirsty for it. Rabbi Jack served as a campus rabbi for Meor at the University of Pennsylvania and an Israel programs educator before that. He is currently coauthoring a book on the subject of individuality and self-esteem through the eyes of the Sages, called "Born to Be." He received his Rabbinic ordination in Jerusalem after his BA from Penn in Physics and Philosophy, and earned his Masters in Education at Harvard last year.