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Even the Greatest Prophet Understood the Pitfalls of Bias

    Rabbi YY Jacobson

    2309 views
  • July 28, 2016
  • |
  • 22 Tamuz 5776
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Class Summary:

It is a puzzling story—the tale of the five daughters of Tzelafchad, recorded in the portion of Pinchas. They asked a simple question. The answer seemed obvious. Yet Moses immediately refused to give his view of the law. Instead, “Moses brought their case before G-d.” Why? Ask the commentators. The details of Torah law are based on logic deduced from the laws articulated in the Torah. Why did Moses not even give it thought, but went running to G-d?

The 13th-century Spanish commentator of the Torah, Rabbanu Bachaye, offers a daring insight. Is there such a thing in our world as objectivity? Are humans capable of objectivity? Is objectivity real, or just another idealistic principle like justice or truth, nice in principle but imperfectly operated in human hands? Do our past experiences and encounters influence/taint everything that comes after them? It is fascinating that literally thousands of years ago, the Torah and the Talmud understood this truth about humanity. A fascinating law in the Talmud about the king and High Priest plus four stories about bribery teaches us the depth of human bias.

This is the level of self-awareness Judaism asks of us. Don’t be perfect, but be accountable. Don’t be flawless, but be honest with yourself. Realize how subjective and bio you may be on any given issue, perhaps beyond realizing it. Thus, always retain your humility, allow yourself to be challenged, listen to another perspective, and be open to the truth that you may really be wrong. How do we make decisions in life unmarred by our prejudice and hidden agendas? The Mishnah states it clearly: Every person needs a mentor, a confidant.

Dedicated in the memory of Harav Akiva ben HaRav Avraham Binyamin Zilberberg, in honor of his yartzeit, 23 Tamuz.

Accepting a Bribe

A government official was arrested for accepting a bribe from a contractor. A friend who went to visit him in the lock-up asked, "How are you going to get out of this mess?"

The official replied calmly, "I got into trouble for accepting a bribe; I will get out of it by giving it."

The Judge

Taking his seat in his chambers, the judge faced the opposing lawyers. “So,” he said, “I have been presented, by both of you, with a bribe.” Both lawyers squirmed uncomfortably. “You, attorney Leon, gave me $15,000. And you, attorney Campos, gave me $10,000.”

The judge reached into his pocket and pulled out a check. He handed it to Leon … “Now then, I’m returning $5,000, and we’re going to decide this case solely on its merits.”

Five Daughters Petition

It is a puzzling story—the tale of the five daughters of Tzelafchad, recorded in the Torah portion of Pinchas.

Tzelafchad was Jewish man, of the generation born in Egyptian slavery, liberated by the Exodus, and granted the Land of Canaan as Israel's heritage. Although that generation did not merit to take possession of the land themselves, when their children crossed the Jordan River to conquer it, they did so as their fathers' heirs. Each family received its share in the land in accordance with its apportionment among the 600,000 members of the generation of the Exodus.

Tzelafchad had five daughters but no sons. (Their names were: Machlah, Noah, Chaglah, Milkah and Tirtzah). The laws of inheritance as they were initially given in the Torah, which recognized only male heirs, in which sons inherit their fathers and they are responsible to fully support the widow and daughters as long as they do not marry. In this case, there were no sons to inherit Tzelafchad’s portion in the Land. The daughters refused to reconcile themselves to this situation, and approached Moses with the petition:

The daughters of Tzelopchad the son of Chefer, the son of Gilead, the son of Machir, the son of Manasseh, of the families of Manasseh the son of Joseph, came forward, and his daughters' names were Machlah, Noah, Choglah, Milkah, and Tirzah.

They stood before Moses and before Eleazar the kohen and before the chieftains and the entire congregation at the entrance to the Tent of Meeting, saying,Our father died in the desert, but he was not in the assembly that banded together against G-d in Korah's assembly, but he died for his own sin, and he had no sons.

Why should our father's name be eliminated from his family because he had no son? Give us a portion along with our father's brothers..

So Moses brought their case before G-d.

God spoke to Moses, saying: The daughters of Tzelafchad have a just claim. Give them a hereditary portion of land alongside their father's brothers. Let their father's hereditary property thus pass over to them.”1

What Happened to Simple Logic?

It seems that as soon Moses heard the question posed to him by the daughters of Tzelafchad, he immediately, without skipping a beat, declared “I will bring this to G-d.” None of his own deliberation was employed here. But why?

This episode occurs at the end of the forty year in the dessert, during which Moses had amassed great knowledge of Torah law, including the system of formulas as how to tackle any new question that may arise in the future. Moses surely could have employed his wisdom to tackle this question. Most details in Torah law are logically deduced in a rational system based on Torah formulas. Yet Moses did not even attempt to do so; he immediately passed it along to G-d.

Moreover, the correct decision for this question requires no more than simple logic. What else should be done with the piece of land belonging to Tzelafchad? Should it be transferred to someone who is not related to him? It would not make sense to have his brothers receive it, because as mentioned, according to Torah law, orphaned daughters need to be supported by the brothers until they marry, during which time they live in their father’s estate now inherited by the brothers. In our case, when there were no brothers, and all of the women were single (they marry only later at the end of Massei), where would they live? Who would support them? If they do not inherit any part of the land or of their father’s possessions they will remain homeless and destitute. That is senseless. Logic dictates that the daughters should inherit their fathers’ piece of land—and logic is the way we deduce the intricacies of Torah law. Why then did Moses feel it necessary to bring this seemingly obvious ruling directly to G-d and not even begin to seek an answer?              

The 13th century Spanish commentator of the Torah, Rabbanu Bachaye2, offers a daring insight.

Can Humans Be Objective?

To appreciate his answer, we must examine this question: Is there such a thing as objectivity? Are humans capable of objectivity? Is objectivity real, or just another idealistic principle like justice or truth, nice in principle but imperfectly operated in human hands?

Is it possible for a person to be totally objective, or do our past experiences and encounters influence/taint everything that comes after them? In other words, is it possible to disconnect yourself totally from your opinions, prejudices, and anything that might influence your choice or response to some stimulus, and deliver a completely logical and impartial judgement?

If in days of yore, people still thought that they can be objective; in modern and post-modern philosophy it is seen not only as an attainable dream, but as an essential paradox. Based on nature or nurture, or both, we each have our own paradigms which define our judgements. Can we ever set ourselves beyond them? What is more, we define reality based on our senses and interpretations, hence we are forever subjective, or what is known today as “cognitive bias.”

It is fascinating that literally thousands of years ago, the Torah and the Talmud understood this truth about humanity. Listen to this fascinating law in the Talmud.3

Bias of a King and High Priest

In the Jewish Hebrew calendar, every few years was made a leap year, when an entire additional month is inserted. It is always in the last month of the year, Adar.

But this was no simple matter. The law prohibits just adding a month randomly. There has to be good reason for it. In Temple times, the Jewish Supreme Court, the Sanhedrin, and a panel of experts would decide whether to make a year a leap year or not. This was based on astronomical calculations, to ensure that Passover will be in the spring as the Torah explicitly states (since our months and holidays follow the lunar calendar and the seasons follow the solar cycle, we need to add a month every few years so that the lunar calendar catches up to the solar cycle, if not Passover would be like Ramadan: Sometimes in the summer and sometimes in the winter), but also on practical considerations. For example, if it was a rainy winter, the roads were muddy, and the Jews would not be able to travel to Jerusalem for Passover, the panel would consider adding a month before Passover so the roads can dry up, and other similar factors.

The Talmud states that “the king or the Kohen Gadol – the high priest -- may not sit in on the court proceedings as to impregnate the year with an extra month.” Why? The king has an invested monetary interest, since the budget is a yearly one, if the year has thirteen month the treasury gains. The king would pay salaries by the “year,” if the year was longer the burden was lighter. Hence, we cannot trust the king to be objective in the matter.

Makes sense. How about the High Priest? Listen to this: He might not want the year to have thirteen months, for then Yom Kippur will be later in the season and it will be colder, and he has to immerse himself in the Mikvah five times that day! Plus, he serves in the Temple barefoot, and he does not want the floor to be cold.

This is strange. Are we afraid that the High Priest of Israel will distort the objective truth of whether a leap year is necessary just that on Yom Kippur the water in the mikvah will be warmer? And the floor will be more cozy? Really? And when—on Yom Kippur, the holiest day of the year, when the High Priest enters into the Holy of Holies. Do we really think that on such a day, he will be focused on the Temple Jacuzzi being hot to the extent of distorting the law?  

Yet Judaism recognized how deep human bias runs. I may be a High Priest, a very holy Jew, it may be Yom Kippur the holiest day of the year, I may be dealing with a national issue—adding a month to the year for the entire Jewish world, with all of the great consequences, yet deep down—consciously or unconsciously—what is determining my decision? The need for a warm mikvah!4

In the world-view of Judaism, for a human being to become great he or she must first know how small they are, how pathetic they can be, how much bias may exists in their hearts, consciously or unconsciously. We ought never to deny or repress this truth, we must acknowledge it, and that is the first step in us not getting entangled by it.

I will present another fascinating illustration from the Talmud.

Four Stories

The Talmud5 relates six episodes—I will share four of them—to illustrate how the Talmudic sages viewed the challenge of human bias.

The Babylonian sage Shmuel was crossing a bridge when and a fellow stretched out his hand to help him come across. Shmuel asked him what brought him here? He answered: I have a pending court case by you (Shmuel was the Jewish chief judge in the Babylonian city of Nehardah). Shmuel said: I am disqualified to adjudicate for you, because you did me a favor.

Next episode: Amaimar was sitting during a trial and feather landed on his head. A man came and took it off. Amaimar said to him what brings you here? He answered: I have a pending court case by you. Amaimar said to him: I am disqualified to adjudicate for you, as you removed the feather.

Third episode: Mar Ukvah was walking and there was saliva on the floor in front of him. Came along a man and covered the saliva. Mar Ukvah said to him, “What brings you here?” He said: I have a pending court case by you. Mar Ukvah said: “I am disqualified to adjudicate for you.”

Fourth story: The sharecropper of Rabbi Yishmael the son or Rabbi Yosi used to bring him a basket of fruits every Friday from the harvest of his own orchard. This was part of the business arrangement they had made. One week he brought in on Thursday. Rabbi Yishmael asked: “Why did you come early?” He answered: I have a pending court case by you [with another person], so I figured that on my way I will bring to my master the basket of fruits. Rabbi Yishmael did not accept the basket and disqualified himself from judging this person.

Let us reflect on this story: This worker of Rabbi Yishmael certainly had no intention of bribing him because he was obligated to bring him the fruits at the end of every week. If he brought the fruits a day earlier on Thursday, the day the court was in session, he did it just to save himself a trip from the orchards into the city a second time. Yet, Rabbi Yishmael did not accept his own basket of fruits and he did not allow himself to adjudicate this case. He felt that he was already “bias” in the case.

The story continues: Rabbi Yishmael disqualified himself to adjudicate. So he found other scholars to adjudicate for him. In the midst of the trial, Rabbi Yishmael found himself mentally engaged in how this person can win his case. Then Rabbi Yishmael said: See the power of bribery! I did not take the basket of fruits. Even if I would take the fruits it would have been allowed as the fruits belonged to me. Still I found myself favoring this man! Imagine those who actually take a bribe!

The moral sensitivity and integrity of the Talmudic sages displayed here can explain to us the spiritual weight they carry in Jewish history. When we encounter people who are so keenly aware of the pitfalls of human nature, the depth of self-deception, the penetration of bias and personal agendas into a seemingly detached issue, we can trust them. For the greatest obstacle to truth and trust is not that humans have agendas; it is that humans have agendas and deny it.

Moses’ Integrity

Based on all of this we will appreciate what occurred with the daughters of Tzelafchad.

If we are to look at how they presented their case they prefaced, “our father died in the desert. He was not among the members of Korach's party who protested against G-d, but he died because of his own sin without leaving any sons’.”

This detail is the key to it all. Korach staged a ferocious rebellion against Moses. He saw Moses as his arch-enemy and attempted to rally up the entire nation against Moses. Korach claimed that Moses was a power-hungry demagogue (heaven forbid), who craved nothing but absolute control and authority. The moment Moses heard the daughters say that their father was not part of Korach’s mutiny, he felt that his psyche has just become bias toward them and their father. This was a verbal bribe, subtle as it may be, and he might not be fully objective in his decision.

Now let us understand: The episode of Korach challenging Moses’s authority and Ahron rights to priesthood took place thirty nine years earlier! Lots of water has flowed under the bridge since then. Korach’s end was ugly as he was swallowed up by the earth and Moses’s authority had been restored. Over the past four decades no one any longer suspected Moses in being a dictator or challenges his role as leader. Korach’s story has long abated.

Add to this that Moses did not have anything personal against Korach. Moses actually never wanted to become a leader. It was G-d who “twisted his arm” into taking the position. Moses would have been more than happy to obey Korach and retire from his post. Moses, however, was defending not his honor but the honor of G-d and the Torah.

Consider further that Moses was now reaching 120 years. He has been the greatest prophet and scholar who ever lived, the greatest human being who ever walked our planet, a person who for the last forty years communed with G-d and brought his Torah to the world.

Yet this man felt that the moment a few young women mentioned the fact that their father was on the right team, that their father did not join the mutiny 39 years earlier, he is disqualified of judging their case! He immediately said: I cannot be objective in this case thus I must ask G-d what needs to be done in your case.

Had they not mentioned the saga of Korach, Moses might have contemplated the question and offered his view on the law. But they moment they mentioned that 39 years ago their father was on the right team, Moses said: I cannot be the judge!

The Lesson

This is the level of self-awareness Judaism asks of us. Don’t be perfect, but be accountable. Don’t be flawless, but be honest with yourself. Realize how subjective and bias you may be on any given issue, perhaps beyond realizing it. Thus, always retain your humility, allow yourself to be challenged, listen to another perspective, and be open to the truth that you may really be wrong.

If Moses at the peak of his life felt that that no matter his standing, a small compliment from five sisters can alter his objectivity and distort his sense of truth, if the man whom G-d entrusted with His wisdom, about whom G-d declares, “He is trusted in my entire home,” still felt he can be bias, certainly you and I must ask ourselves, “Maybe there is another perspective?” “Maybe my wife has a point?” “Maybe my mother in law is in the right?” Okay, let’s not push it… but “maybe my husband has a point?” “Maybe I need an outside opinion?”

A couple comes to me and they are having an issue with their marital harmony. Each one has a complaint and 1,000 verifications that they are right and their spouse is absolutely wrong. In each of their minds, the other person is behaving in a horrible way. At such moments we must recall the wise words of the Talmud:6 “A person is considered related to himself.” Just as we don’t accept testimony from a relative, we don’t accept testimony from man himself about himself.

You Need a Mentor

If people are inherently subjective and might always have a lurking agenda, what do we do? How can one possibly gain objective perspective on people places and things? When we have to make important decisions in our lives that affect us and other people, especially moral decisions, how do we know that we are not stuck in the quagmire of our own biases?

To this, the Mishna gives us a clear directive (Ethics ch. 1): “Joshua the son of Perachia would say: Assume for yourself a master, acquire for yourself a friend, and judge every man to the side of merit.”7

“Assume for yourself a mentor,” a mentor, an instructor, a confidant. Every one of us must have a mentor, a human being, in whom we confide and discuss important matters pertaining to the course of our lives. The value of that confidant is not that he is smarter than you. We know no one is smarter than you… the value is that he is simply not you. We all need an outside voice before whom we can run by issues, concerns, questions, before whom we can share what is going in in our lives, someone who can listen to us, and give us the feedback we often dread but which we desperately need.8

1. The woman does not lose out on inheritance because although she does not receive from her father as much as the boys, she will receive inheritance with her husband from his family. Therefore the son who continues his father family and stands in his stead will receive (more) inheritance. When there are no sons, the daughter(s) inherits all that belongs to the father. She receives all of the money of her father, but by definition she does not REPLACE her father’s position in life. As she becomes the feminine foundation of her family. Thus if there are sons, they inherit the father. There is another important law to be stated: Even when there are sons, they cannot inherit anything as long as the single daughters who are not yet married do not receive all of their living needs till their marriage. So in effect, even when there are sons, often it is the daughters rather than the sons who are benefiting from the inheritance.
2. Rabbeinu Bechaye is considered to be one of the most distinguished of the Biblical commentators of Spain. He was a pupil of Rabbi Shlomo ben Aderets, the Rashba, who was a student of Rabbi Moses ben Nahman, the Ramban. He was one of the first to make use of the Kabbalah as a means of interpreting the Torah. He served also as teacher and preacher in his native city of Zaragoza, Spain. He passed away in 1340.
3. Sanhedrin 18b
4. This insight was shared by the Lubavitcher Rebbe at a meeting with the secretary of Yad Leachim who lamented to the Rebbe about a Rabbi who blatantly denied a letter that he himself has signed. The Rebbe explained to him that even the High Priest was not free from biases (shared to me by Rabbi Yosef Katzman, NY, who heard it from this man.)
5. Kesuvos 105b
6. Yevamos25b
7. Later in the same chapter Rabban Gamliel repeats the same directive: “Assume for yourself a master; stay away from doubt; and do not accustom yourself to tithe by estimation.” For an explanation on why this lesson is mentioned twice in the Mishna see Sichas Parshas Shmini 5747 (Hivaduyos Vol. 3 Page 196, 202).
8. This essay is based on a talk delivered by the Lubavithcher Rebbe on the third night of Succos, 16-17 Tishrei, 5747, October 16, 1986. Published in Hisvaduyos 5747 Vol. 1 page 206. A similar theme is found in Likkutei Sichos vol. 13 Pinchas.

Please leave your comment below!

  • A

    Aliza -5 years ago

    Excellent Dvar Torah.

    Reply to this comment.Flag this comment.

  • RS

    Ronnie Samet -5 years ago

    Superb

    Great piece!

    Thank you and good Shabbos!

    Reply to this comment.Flag this comment.

Essay Parshas Pinchas

Rabbi YY Jacobson
  • July 28, 2016
  • |
  • 22 Tamuz 5776
  • |
  • 2309 views
  • Comment

Dedicated in the memory of Harav Akiva ben HaRav Avraham Binyamin Zilberberg, in honor of his yartzeit, 23 Tamuz.

Class Summary:

It is a puzzling story—the tale of the five daughters of Tzelafchad, recorded in the portion of Pinchas. They asked a simple question. The answer seemed obvious. Yet Moses immediately refused to give his view of the law. Instead, “Moses brought their case before G-d.” Why? Ask the commentators. The details of Torah law are based on logic deduced from the laws articulated in the Torah. Why did Moses not even give it thought, but went running to G-d?

The 13th-century Spanish commentator of the Torah, Rabbanu Bachaye, offers a daring insight. Is there such a thing in our world as objectivity? Are humans capable of objectivity? Is objectivity real, or just another idealistic principle like justice or truth, nice in principle but imperfectly operated in human hands? Do our past experiences and encounters influence/taint everything that comes after them? It is fascinating that literally thousands of years ago, the Torah and the Talmud understood this truth about humanity. A fascinating law in the Talmud about the king and High Priest plus four stories about bribery teaches us the depth of human bias.

This is the level of self-awareness Judaism asks of us. Don’t be perfect, but be accountable. Don’t be flawless, but be honest with yourself. Realize how subjective and bio you may be on any given issue, perhaps beyond realizing it. Thus, always retain your humility, allow yourself to be challenged, listen to another perspective, and be open to the truth that you may really be wrong. How do we make decisions in life unmarred by our prejudice and hidden agendas? The Mishnah states it clearly: Every person needs a mentor, a confidant.

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