‘Who am I to judge?’

‘Who am I to judge?’

A year after Pope Francis assumed the leadership of the Catholic Church, much has changed in the style of the papacy.  But one utterance in particular has become emblematic of how many have come to perceive the contemporary face of the Vatican.  When asked about an alleged gay priest, the pope replied, “If someone is gay and he searches for the Lord and has good will, who am I to judge?”

No matter that the last five words were uttered within the context of a more nuanced and conditional sentence … it was not long until the “who am I to judge?” fragment stormed social media and was extensively reprinted on T-shirts and posters.  In the West especially, the words were taken as a clear sign of a “with it” pope who prefers embracing and loving to moralizing and judging.

It was hardly surprising then that when a priest, providing premarital counseling to a young couple, raised the issue of their cohabitation, the bride-to-be replied:  “Oh, that’s all changed now.  Pope Francis is far more understanding.  He’s in favor of gay marriage like most people are.  Cohabiting isn’t a big deal.  I don’t know why you’re bringing this up.  The pope wants you to be more welcoming.  Who are you to judge?”

The real pope, of course, has never said anything in favor of gay marriage or straight cohabitation.  The real pope has made no changes whatever in the rules concerning same-sex relations, divorce, women in the priesthood or almost any other area where liberalizing moves might signal a true course correction.  But the pope of subjective projections has apparently spoken with great clarity.

Judging, it is worth noting, is not unidirectional.  Had the pope declared gay relationships to be acceptable, that too would be judging.  Had he moved to make divorce possible, while calling on people to resist divorce because of its damaging impact, that would have been judging, if not “judgmental.”  Tellingly though, the applause came when the pope declined to make any judgment at all.

In the 1990s, sociologist Alan Wolfe wrote that middle-class America had added an 11th commandment to the original 10: “Thou shalt not judge.”  To the frustration of many, the church never received the memo.  Until now.  According to the narrative, there’s a “new pope in town” and he got it and he “gets it.”  He has uttered the hallowed words, “Who am I to judge?”

These few syllables are so important because we live at a time when the prevailing assumption is that style dictates substance.  Non-Orthodox synagogues illustrate this phenomenon well.  Nowadays, the great majority of non-Orthodox synagogues use some of the following terms to describe their congregations:  “welcoming,” “warm,” “caring,” “open,” “embracing,” “inclusive,” “diverse,” “respectful,” “engaging.”

It is hard to object to any of these endearing descriptors.  It is also hard to imagine synagogues thinking to deploy them a generation ago.  They didn’t need to.  Affiliation was not dependent on congregations demonstrating openness or diversity.  But in an age that is at once distrustful of authority and unenthusiastic about particularistic institutions that are not “broad tents,” creating likable perceptions is key to attracting participants.

If, though, such genial congregational self-portraits are to be credible, then pleasantness must penetrate deeper than the surface.  For if the affable smile and satisfying reception at the door is soon followed by a set of teachings that is perceived to be at odds with “who I am” or “how I live my life,” then the “warm” and “welcoming” will swiftly be apprehended as “cool” and “off putting.”  The logic is plain:  “As nice as these people might be, how can this place claim to be “warm” and “welcoming” if it simultaneously rejects or questions a critical part of what I stand for?”

Take intermarriage: Any congregation that is warm and friendly in its personal interactions with intermarried couples but delivers a message that in-marriage is the ideal will be regarded as “unwelcoming” to the intermarried.  Or casual sexual relations: In order for those engaging in casual sex to feel included, it is contrary to the “welcoming script” to speak against the phenomenon.  And it’s really not done to criticize over-the-top celebrations or excessive consumerism or supplanting seriousness with sports if there is a real desire to be viewed as “respectful.”

For the welcome to be truly effective, the marketing adjectives cannot be superficial.  The descriptors must penetrate to the core of the institution’s values.  A real commitment to the adjectives is, therefore, likely to indicate a dilution, if not a bypassing, of serious judgments about behavior.  For if the substance of the message does not follow the welcoming style, then the style will be assessed to be fake.  And if the style is fake – if the welcome is just a mask – then affiliation will likely be sparse.

Those who advertise “inclusive” and “diverse” and “welcoming” are conveying that the institution’s teachings will be embracing of people as they are.  In this context, minor suggestions for self-improvement or “spiritual enhancement” are acceptable, but judging the essentials of peoples’ lives crosses a line.  Today, we want to be engaged and affirmed by those who seek to offer moral insights; we do not want to hear their judgments.

Hence, the widespread joy at “who am I to judge?”  After all, such an open-minded statement must, according to contemporary reasoning, indicate a practical intention to implement non-judgmental diversity.  And that, it is assumed, is all for the good.

Perhaps, though, we should beware of what we wish for.

Consider:  Do we really want to live in a society that offers scant public judgments about right and wrong behaviors?  Do we really want to silence the teachings of the ages because they make judgments about us – particularly when there is no requirement of us to do anything more than allow these judgments to be heard?  Do we want our ideas about conducive and non-conducive conduct to be shaped only by what parents might have conveyed or by what we glean from social and conventional media?  Do we really want to shield ourselves from judging and being judged and thereby being called to account?

There is a little-noted commandment in Leviticus that illustrates the classic Jewish response to these questions.  “You shall surely reprove your neighbor (for improper behavior)” reads the verse (Lev. 19:17).  Naturally, the rabbis explain that in trying to nudge one’s neighbor toward a more worthy path one should do so in a way that will not cause embarrassment and that is most likely to lead to genuine improvement.

Nevertheless, in the 21st century, the mere prospect of engaging in such a process is likely to evoke shudders of discomfort, if not flat-out rejection:  “I should tell somebody else what to do?”  “I should tell others how to live and comport themselves?”  “Who am I to judge, let alone intervene?”

Yet, Jewish tradition conveys that we best improve ourselves and our societies when we actually make some of the judgments that we now so assiduously seek to avoid.  Are there conceivable pitfalls in following this strategy?  Sure.  Our judgments might be wrong, or we might take them too far.

But not making judgments also has consequences.  If we know that nobody else notices or cares about what we do – if judgment about behavior is rare – then conduct is apt to become more coarse, less responsive to others and no longer attuned to the more elevated levels to which we might otherwise aspire.  Just as there is danger in zealous judging, so there is danger in not judging at all.

Judaism, for its part, has made a choice: it prefers to take the risk of a society that makes too many judgments about behavior as opposed to one that makes too few.  It prefers, in other words, a reasoned, reasonable and robust conversation about appropriate conduct rather than eschewing the discussion altogether.

It is, after all, hard to miss the fact that the Torah and rabbinic tradition are packed full with judgments about right and wrong behavior.  Many of these judgments, though demanding, were pivotal in shaping the critical core of Western moral conduct.  Others were pushed to the margins.  But there can be little doubt that judging human behavior in the name of a higher ideal helped refine civilization.  That task is hardly complete.  

Let’s stipulate: All institutions are comprised of flawed human beings.  And yes, there are times when those who seek to speak about moral issues have themselves behaved in immoral and abusive ways.  And no tradition, and no individual, possesses a mortgage on the truth.  And religious leaders have made wrong calls and have had to reverse course … sometimes at great cost.

But to suggest that, as a consequence, it would be best to close down judgment-making altogether would be a mistake for society as a whole.  In an age that features anonymous sex, voyeuristic reality shows, targeted abortion of female fetuses, exaggerated wealth disparities, abusive online speech and increasing adultery – to name but a few challenges – there is a greater threat from too little lucid, thoughtful judgment, than from too much.  Beyond television “debates” and academic deliberations, humble but declarative judgments on moral issues provide clear-cut standards with which to wrestle.  Since we are at liberty to ignore judgments sourced from the wisdom of the ages, it would be shortsighted to foreclose the possibility that providing such assessments might indeed help more than it hurts.

While “who am I to judge?” currently resonates broadly, perhaps we should not dismiss the potential societal significance of doing a little judging.

Rabbi Dr. Danny Schiff is a teacher and researcher in Jewish ethics. He served as the Agency for Jewish Learning community scholar in Pittsburgh and the rabbi of B’nai Israel in White Oak, Pa., for 16 years. He lives in Jerusalem and is working on a new Jewish museum concept.