You Will Not Respect Persons ...
2011 S.H. Parker

I clearly remember seeing Rev. King's "I have a dream speech" on the evening news. I remember him describing a world in which persons are judged not by the color of their skin but by the content of their character. To this day this seems to me to be an apt description of the "kingdom to come," the days of the Messiah.

I have always mentally translated this into a distinction between what can be observed at a distance ("appearances") and that which is true (the kind of person you are). And, because I was young at the time, because I had no experience in the world of business and commerce (or shul politics), Rev. King's remark about "the content of their character" did not impress me with quite the force it impressed others.

For I have been raised to dismiss the incidental observables of a person and to pay attention to the meaning of their words and the qualities of their actions. Many years later, I found the source of this philosophy in the Torah:

"You will not respect persons," לֹא-תַכִּירוּ פָנִים  

(lit. "faces"); Rev. King seems to have been familiar with the Bible....

"You will not respect persons" is spoken not once, not twice but three times in Torah (counting only in the Pentateuch).

  לֹא-תַכִּירוּ פָנִים בַּמִּשְׁפָּט, כַּקָּטֹן כַּגָּדֹל תִּשְׁמָעוּן--לֹא תָגוּרוּ מִפְּנֵי-אִישׁ, כִּי הַמִּשְׁפָּט לֵאלֹהִים הוּא; וְהַדָּבָר אֲשֶׁר יִקְשֶׁה מִכֶּם, תַּקְרִבוּן אֵלַי וּשְׁמַעְתִּיו. Ye shall not respect persons in judgment; ye shall hear the small and the great alike; ye shall not be afraid of the face of any man; for the judgment is God's; and the cause that is too hard for you ye shall bring unto me, and I will hear it.
Devarim 1:17

You shall not recognize a face in judgement: you shall hear the same for small and for big. Don't be fearful in front of a man ...
Richard Elliot Friedman, The Bible with Sources Revealed


  לֹא-תַטֶּה מִשְׁפָּט, לֹא תַכִּיר פָּנִים; וְלֹא-תִקַּח שֹׁחַד--כִּי הַשֹּׁחַד יְעַוֵּר עֵינֵי חֲכָמִים, וִיסַלֵּף דִּבְרֵי צַדִּיקִם. Thou shalt not wrest judgment; thou shalt not respect persons; neither shalt thou take a gift; for a gift doth blind the eyes of the wise, and pervert the words of the righteous.
Devarim 16:19


לֹא-תַעֲשׂוּ עָוֶל, בַּמִּשְׁפָּט--לֹא-תִשָּׂא פְנֵי-דָל, וְלֹא תֶהְדַּר פְּנֵי גָדוֹל:  בְּצֶדֶק,תִּשְׁפֹּט עֲמִיתֶךָ Ye shall do no unrighteousness in judgment; thou shalt not respect the person of the poor, nor favour the person of the mighty; but in righteousness shalt thou judge thy neighbour.
Vayikra 19:15

Three times! The 10 Commandments are only spoken twice. 

I was taught that when Torah repeats something, it is something important. Kal l'chomer when it repeats yet again! "You will not respect persons" must be really important. 

Indeed it is. No political statement in all Torah is more important.

Torah is telling us that a person's "station" is not a factor in judgment. It forbids ruling on a matter based on whether a person is rich or poor, "high born" or commoner, well known in the community or not, etc. Torah is telling us that where a person is in the socio-economic "scheme of things" not only is unimportant but may not be considered in judgment. 

In our modern world, it seems that "respecting persons," if anything, is worse. How many of us believe that our justice system serves "justice?" Or do we believe that money buys "justice?", that deep pockets buy better lawyers and more favorable verdicts for the rich?

How many of us believe that our principles guide our nations' policies? Or do we believe that evil is overlooked "because [pick another nation] is an ally" or "because [pick a nation] is a vital trading partner" or "because they have oil or other natural resources that we need?"

How many of us defend a particular politician because we agree with that politician's positions or denigrate another person, attacking the person and not the ideas, when we don't? (Admit it, there is an entire political movement in the United States that does little else. Ad hominem argument -- go negative early -- replaces actually talking about issues.)

The Psalmist, too, must have lived in such a world:

 עַד-מָתַי תִּשְׁפְּטוּ-עָוֶל; וּפְנֵי רְשָׁעִים, תִּשְׂאוּ-סֶלָה. How long will ye judge unjustly, and respect the persons of the wicked? Selah
Tehillim (Psalms) 82:2

But, the pasukim cited surely talk about the courts. Specifically, Torah seems to be setting the standard for those who sit in ("legal") judgment.

Have I "add[ed] to the word thereof?" Have I gone beyond the word of Torah?

Malachi certainly doesn't think so:

וְגַם-אֲנִי נָתַתִּי אֶתְכֶם, נִבְזִים וּשְׁפָלִים--לְכָל-הָעָם:  כְּפִי, אֲשֶׁר אֵינְכֶם שֹׁמְרִים אֶת-דְּרָכַי, וְנֹשְׂאִים פָּנִים, בַּתּוֹרָה. Therefore have I also made you contemptible and base before all the people, according as ye have not kept My ways, but have had respect of persons in [Torah]
Malachi 2:9

Nor does the Historian:

 וְעַתָּה, יְהִי פַחַד-יְהוָה עֲלֵיכֶם:  שִׁמְרוּ וַעֲשׂוּ--כִּי-אֵין עִם-יְהוָה אֱלֹהֵינוּ עַוְלָה וּמַשֹּׂא פָנִים, וּמִקַּח-שֹׁחַד. Now therefore let the fear of the LORD be upon you; take heed and do it; for there is no iniquity with the LORD our God, nor respect of persons, nor taking of bribes.'
2 Chronicles 19:7

God does not respect persons. God looks at our deeds, not our "status." Can't argue with that

The Psalmist, too, explicitly expands the principle from "court judgment" to a general principle:

גַּם-אֵלֶּה לַחֲכָמִים: הַכֵּר-פָּנִים בְּמִשְׁפָּט בַּל-טוֹב. These also are sayings of the wise. To have respect of persons in judgment is not good.
אֹמֵר, לְרָשָׁע--צַדִּיק אָתָּה:    יִקְּבֻהוּ עַמִּים; יִזְעָמוּהוּ לְאֻמִּים. He that saith unto the wicked: 'Thou art righteous', peoples shall curse him, nations shall execrate him;
Proverbs 24:23-24

Trying to limit the principle to courts because of the use of the word "judgement" (מִּשְׁפָּט) ignores what מִּשְׁפָּט means. As I have argued elsewhere, מִשְׁפָּטִים are מִצְווֹת for which a reason is given in Torah. Not simply that there is a reason discernable but the reason is given. The text tells us why. The מִּצְוָה not to eat blood is a perfect example: don't eat the blood because it is the life of the animal. We are told why we should do the מִּצְוָה

So, our text could equally be: "you will not respect persons in doing mitzvot." Do the mitzvah regardless of who the person is, the person is not the point, the mitzvah is the point. (Do I hear a big "duh!" out there?)

No, "you will not respect persons" is not a principle to be confined to courts. It is not a standard for judges only. It is a standard for evaluation ("judgment"), for how we think about -- and, therefore, respond to -- others. Just because I agree with you does not mean that all your behaviors are unexceptional. Because I disagree with you does not mean that you are an evil human being. A vile person can take rational positions and a good person can take immoral positions.

You may be good or vile, giving voice to wisdom or idiocy. But you are not good or evil because I (dis-)agree with you or your allies or the people you are seen with. You are not good or evil because of your bank account or your clothes or your job title or because of the organizations or movements you belong to or who your parents are/were or where you went to school or even that you went to school. You are good or evil because your actions are good or evil (and words are, as we all know, the least of actions). Torah understands that social status, club membership (and I include political party affiliation in "club" membership), the restaurants you go to, all of these things mean precisely ... nothing. And, "the content of your character" is on display for all to see ... all the time.

Is it not written1:

שמעון הצדיק היה משיירי אנשי כנסת הגדולה.  הוא היה אומר, על שלושה דברים העולם עומד -- על התורה, ועל העבודה, ועל גמילות החסדים.

ועל גמילות החסדים


1 Pirkei Avot 1:2:

Shimon the Righteous was one of the last survivors of the Great Assembly.  He used to say: On three things the world is sustained: on the Torah, on the (Temple) service, and on deeds of loving kindness.