A few years ago, at a Netzer (progressive Zionist) youth camp in New South Wales, Australia, twenty students were challenged by an activity related to Parashat Yitro. Divided into groups of four, their first task was to identify the “Ten Commandments.” Their second task was to develop their own list of “Ten Commandments.” The activity presented a way for the participants to engage in a clarification of their Jewish values.
Such a clarification is necessary, especially for teenagers. In this day and age where every piece of information we could ever want is readily available at our fingertips, it has become a natural practice to interpret traditional teachings through our own personal lens. Rather than asking the questions, “What does this text teach?” or “What is God teaching through this text?” the more common question being asked is, “What is the importance of this particular text for me?” Lessons today often need to be reframed in the context of personal meaning and relevance for the individual — whatever age they may be.
The participants in the exercise kept some of the “Ten Commandments” while gently rejecting others. Not surprisingly, “you shall not commit adultery” did not rank particularly high on a list of commandments written by a group of fourteen-year-olds. Similarly, four out of the five groups rewrote the command “you shall not covet,” as “You should be happy with what you have.”
All five groups shared one commandment — “You should not judge other people.” While Torah and rabbinic tradition have much to say on the topic of judging fairly and creating appropriate systems of justice to govern over and legislate within a community, it was fascinating that this small group of students found the concept of judging other people to be such a significant issue. One girl said, “I don’t like it when other people judge me, so I’m conscious to make sure that I don’t judge others.”
And yet, judgment is such a huge part of Jewish life. In the morning blessings, we praise God for giving us the ability to distinguish (or judge) between day and night. In reciting Havdalah, we bless God as one who separates between sacred and ordinary, between light and darkness, between Israel and other nations, and between the seventh day and the other days of creation. In reading Leviticus, there are constant divisions made between what is ritually pure and ritually impure, who can enter the camp, and who must remain outside. Judgment, distinguishing, and discerning are part and parcel of Jewish, and even human, existence.
Deeply aware of the need for boundaries in our personal and Jewish lives, we need to retain structures that help us to understand what is acceptable and what is not. But it should be possible for us to accomplish this goal without judging one another. In Exodus 19:4, God offers us a powerful image and beautiful metaphor in saying, “You have seen what I did to the Egyptians, and [how] I bore you on eagles’ wings, and I brought you to Me.”
Picture an enormous eagle (symbolic of God), with a long wingspan. Israelite after Israelite, one by one, climbs on board the back of the eagle. But at this point, there’s no judgment, no distinguishing, and no discerning. No one among us gets to fly first class and there’s no fear about being seated on the back of the bird. Those who are more ritually observant than others don’t get preferential boarding, and those who pay more money can’t purchase seats with extra legroom. On board this particular eagle, there happens to be room for all of our baggage. All of us, standing at Sinai together, in our humanity, our brokenness, our searching, and striving, are carried on an eagle’s wings. There was room enough for all of us, room enough for God to love and appreciate us, even amidst our frailties and imperfections.
If God has demonstrated that God can love us in such a way, how might we demonstrate a similar love toward each other? How might we refrain from judging the differences we see in one another in the Jewish community? What would it mean for us to learn from one another, even given the difference of our opinions and levels of practice, without being dismissive? What would it mean to teach the beauty and value of Jewish life, rather than shunning those who might not (yet) follow similar practices?
The late Emil Fackenheim once said that the 614th commandment is “you shall not give Hitler a posthumous victory.” Perhaps we fulfill this commandment by leaving “judgment” to God. If we can find a way to share space, like our ancestors, on the back of an eagle’s wings, perhaps our entire community could take flight and soar to unknown heights.