Do not pervert judgment, do not show favor, and do not accept a bribe, for bribery blinds the eyes of the wise and distorts words of truth.
The Torah’s admonitions, although unsurprising, nevertheless make us wonder. Are not all three injunctions expressions of the same idea, particularly since the preceding verse has already commanded us to judge righteously?
Rashi addresses the question, suggesting that the prohibition against perverting judgment applies to the verdict, the prohibition against showing favor applies to the courtroom (lest one litigant doubt the judge’s impartiality and alter his claim), and the prohibition against accepting bribes applies even to a case where the judge has not altered his verdict on account of the bribe he received.
Even so, in light of the prior mandate to judge righteously, why are further qualifications necessary? And how can we understand Rashi’s case of a judge who accepts a bribe without altering his verdict?
The adage that justice is blind traces its origins to these verses. Rabbi Zev Leff offers the hypothetical case of a man brought before the court and found guilty of murder. Before the judge can order the criminal’s execution, the wife of the offender steps forward and argues that, since she committed no crime, she does not deserve to be made a widow. Then her children step forward and argue that, since they committed no crime, they do not deserve to be made orphans. Finally, the criminal’s creditors step forward and argue that, since they committed no crime, they do not deserve to suffer financial loss.
What is the judge to do? He has no choice but to disregard all the apparent injustices of his verdict and rule according to the law.
Any flesh and blood judge may become so intoxicated with his own power that he begins to see himself as if he is the One Judge sitting upon the throne of Ultimate Justice. He may come to believe that he is not merely an agent of the justice system but the administer of justice, that he is empowered not merely to interpret the law but to engineer civil and social justice. He may eventually view the law as his own personal instrument with which to forge a perfect society. In the end, he may distort legal justice in the misguided belief that he is the architect of a greater justice. By doing so, he plays into the hands of his yeitzer hara – his evil inclination – becoming an agent of corruption in his pursuit of higher justice.
By acting thus, a judge accepts a bribe more subtle and insidious than money. Convinced of the integrity of his own actions, he becomes blind to the wisdom that qualified him from the start to serve as an arbiter of justice as he unwittingly twists the words of true testimony to serve his preconceived notions of right and wrong. When the judge comes to believe he is above the law, there is little hope that justice will be done.
In this warning, however, the Torah does not limit itself to the office of the judge. In many ways, we are all judges, evaluating and passing judgment upon our fellow human beings in the courtrooms of our minds. On the one hand, we may fear to judge at all, indulging the moral equivalence of non-judgmentalism by refusing to acknowledge wickedness no matter what its form. On the other extreme, we may judge too hastily or superficially, passing judgment without adequate information or based upon our preconceptions and stereotypes.
Here especially the Torah warns us against bribery. For whenever we indulge our prejudices, biases, and stereotypes in a rush to moral judgment, we are effectively accepting a bribe from the yeitzer hara – allowing our natural inclination toward evil to win out over our wisdom, our judgment, and our equally balanced inclination toward what is good and what is right.