In creating the universe one of the first acts of the Divine Creator is to make distinctions: light and darkness, day and night, heaven and earth, dry land and seas, plants, birds, fishes and animals after their kinds, Shabbat and the rest of the days of the week. On further reflection, it appears that making distinctions is the very essence of claiming to know something. The more you know about a subject, the more capable you are of seeing differences between what’s good and what’s not so good—where others may be oblivious. An expert wine-taster, for example, is so aware of subtle distinctions in the wine that he or she may be able to distinguish thousands of wines one from the other, not only by variety, but by region and vintage. This vast knowledge puts such individuals in a position to rate the quality of these wines. There may well be disagreement between experts when it comes to the finer points, but I would suspect that there is an overall consistency in their judgements.
Obviously, in various degrees, this kind of expertise applies to every discipline: the ability to draw distinctions and set up a scale of values. This is the very nature of judging.
Drawing distinctions isn’t limited to professions and disciplines; whenever we face any kind of decision we are called to make judgements. As we have seen, the validity of any judgment is proportional to amount of information and the familiarity with that information—call it experience—that one has.
At the same time there’s always the subjective side of judging, too.
A woman is speaking to her friend, “I heard both your children got married last year. How are they doing?”
Her friend,“I’m afraid only one of them really did well. Stephen’s wife is so needy. He’s constantly having to cater to her. She expects to eat out three times a week, she sleeps until 10 o’clock in the morning and then spends the rest of the day shopping. She’s always buying clothes and jewelry.”
“So how’s your daughter?”
“Oh! She married such a wonderful man. He takes her out for dinner three times a week and she gets to stay in bed until late morning. She spends her afternoons at the mall, meeting her friends and keeping her wardrobe in style. Can you imagine a more thoughtful husband?”
Truth is, it’s so easy to overlook our own subjectivity—regardless of the knowledge we (think) we have.
Am I looking at all or both sides of the situation?
How would I like it if that judgement were made about me?
Do I have different relationships with each of the two (or more) sides?
How do I react if someone disagrees with me?
As I’ve said so often,“I’m an expert when it comes to everyone else!”
May your summer be safe and enjoyable!
–Rabbi Mordecai Miller