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You Be the Judge

From Top Chef to online restaurant reviews, we love to pass judgment—but we’re doing it all wrong. Judaism offers a blueprint for doing it wisely.

Liel Leibovitz
March 30, 2012

Walking down the street the other day, I came across a lovely little church I had never noticed before. The skies were cold and gray, and something about the stone and the moss and the cross seemed like a befitting antidote to New York’s impervious façade of glass and steel. I had a moment. But then, I noticed a small sign. “Come in,” it read. “We don’t judge.”

Coming from an institution known for St. Paul and Savonarola, this is—forgive me, fathers—entirely incongruent with our culture. We do judge, everyone and all the time. We judge those who are socioeconomically dissimilar: Last week, for example, a popular quiz, devised by political scientist Charles Murray, went viral by purporting to assert whether one lived in the real America or in an elitist bubble. In the quiz’s particular postulation, adherence to low-grade alcoholic beverages and nearly defunct economic modes were the real values of the red, white, and blue; if you never stocked your fridge with Bud Light or walked a factory floor, Murray suggested, you ain’t really from around here.

We reserve judgment not only for the heady realm of politics, but also for the quotidian. We have mommy judging, the phenomenon of mothers savaging other mothers’ allegedly inadequate parenting skills. We watch reality shows not only for the moments of judgment—distilled into some asinine catchphrase like “You’re fired!” or “You are the weakest link” or “Please pack your knives and go”—but also for the inevitable counter-offensive in which the jilted former contestant rails at the judge and questions his or her credentials. In other words, we love judging.

The thing is, we’re very bad at it—and that’s a problem.

Just look at Yelp. Having gone public earlier this month, the site offers user-generated ratings and reviews. The average rating is a 3.8; as Sam Graham-Felsen noted in an impromptu test of the service for a story last week in New York magazine, “Out of 470 options for ‘cheap dinner’ in the East Village, only seven earn two stars or less.” Anyone who has ever sampled inexpensive food in the East Village’s faux squalor knows very well that one can go wrong much more often than 1.4 percent of the time.

Yelp is hardly the only, or the worst, offender. A few years ago, the Wall Street Journal found that the average online review awards 4.3 out of 5 stars. YouTube, to name but one prominent example, was so flustered with its ranking system that it dropped it altogether, going with thumbs-up and thumbs-down buttons instead. That rating system, too, is far from perfect.

There are many reasons for all these instances of poor judgment, but at their core is a collective failure not of imagination but of character. From a very young age, we’re raised to believe that we are each lovely and precious and unique. We are taught that our potential is unlimited, which means that others, too, enjoy similarly boundless possibilities. To pass judgment is to call all that into question, to suggest that we may be fallible and flawed and all too human. It is an affront not only to our perception of our selves, but also to our understanding of morality. To us, to be a good person means to be a person who doesn’t judge.

But this is exactly wrong: We judge because we’re social animals, and because we’re constantly evolving, and because there’s no better way for us to grow than to constantly compare ourselves to our peers. The faults we find in them are often the ones we strive to correct in ourselves.

And so, a better bit of advice than “don’t judge,” then, would be “judge wisely.” Judaism offers quite a blueprint. Rather than gear its spiritual energy toward one final day of judgment—a concept shared, with some divergences, by most Christians and Muslims—it believes that God judges us all each day, and it devotes its annual High Holidays in large part to the notion of standing trial. That being the case, Judaism is particularly interested in particulars. While Jesus speaks in parables, Moses recites laws. Followers of the former have grace to count on, the act of being saved due to the Messiah’s supreme sacrifice. Followers of the latter have only themselves to count on. They are constantly judged and must therefore judge in turn. They have to be careful and discerning and specific and unremitting or else face doom.

What we need, then, is to embrace a Jewish way of judging. It’s easier than it sounds. Here’s a primer.

First, be grounded. If the yardstick according to which you judge all things is yourself, you’re doing it all wrong. Judgment isn’t about what you like or dislike, subjective and fickle criteria that change with age and mood. It’s about being a part of a tradition, taking the time to study its past, understanding its inherent sensibilities, and operating within it with a small measure of personal freedom and a much larger sense of commitment to its values. Resist, then, the Yelpish call summoning you to opine about your local Mexican joint just because, you know, you’re like totally into Mexican food. Unless you’ve made an effort to cultivate your palate—which means that you have sampled the finest your local dining scene has to offer; sought divergent and unusual flavors; traveled elsewhere, if you can afford it, and tasted local fares; taken time to understand the fundamentals of cooking techniques; contemplated basic ingredients and their use in various cuisines—your judgment isn’t really judgment at all. It is opinion, which is cheap and plentiful and meaningless.

Good judgment is also too complex to be captured on a scale of one to five. A few weeks ago, the Los Angeles Times announced that it was abolishing its star rating system for restaurant reviews. “The stars have never been popular with critics,” the newspaper wrote, “because they reduce a thoughtful and nuanced critique to a simple score.” Amen. Let’s take the same approach to movies and music and wine and everything else we’ve subjected to the flattening and ultimately random rule of numbers. Let’s use our words again.

And by words I don’t mean the superlative-laden speech so common in social media that is dulling our critical blades: Let’s reserve “awesome” to describe God, “genius” as a fitting title for Michelangelo, and “worst ever” to capture, say, the years between 1939 and 1945. This is more than mere semantics. Language shapes our thought. Let’s be sure both are sharp. We better: Someone is always judging us.


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Liel Leibovitz is a senior writer for Tablet Magazine and a host of the Unorthodox podcast.

Liel Leibovitz is editor-at-large for Tablet Magazine and a host of its weekly culture podcast Unorthodox and daily Talmud podcast Take One. He is the editor of Zionism: The Tablet Guide.