Consider and Converse: A Guide to Din/Judgment

Artwork by David Wander
Artwork by David Wander

Consider and Converse: A Guide to “Din” — Judgment


Sh’ma Now curates conversations on a single theme rooted in Jewish tradition and the contemporary moment. At the heart of this issue of Sh’ma Now is the Jewish sensibility of din” — “judgment.” Key to this issue is the question of how we balance judgment and compassion — din and rachamim, and how we understand God calibrating and balancing these values during the Days of Awe, the High Holidays. At a time when few liberal Jews consider God sitting on a throne, the imagery of such harsh judgment is difficult to conjure, and less powerful. But as we suspend our rational thinking momentarily, the imagery might be helpful as we enter a period of self-reflection during the month of Elul, the lead-up to the High Holydays. And more to the point, is how we think about ourselves judging others. What criteria do we establish? What system of justice do we employ? How do we both hold onto our faculties of critical thinking and also let go of our reactive judgments?

Sh’ma Now has never viewed learning or “meaning-making” as solely an individual activity. That’s why we have included this guide, which is specifically designed to help you to consider the idea of going forth independently or with others, formally and informally.

#How to Begin

This guide offers a variety of suggestions, including activities and prompts for individual contemplation and informal or structured conversations. We suggest that you use this guide to share reflections and thoughts over a Shabbat meal, or, for those who are more adventurous, to lead a planned, structured conversation, inviting a small group of friends and family to your home or to a coffee shop. If you would like more information about ways in which this journal can be used, please contact Susan Berrin, Sh’ma Now editor-in-chief, at You can also print out a PDF file of the entire issue at

#Guidelines for Discussion

If you wish to hold a structured conversation, the following guidelines may help you to create a space that allows for honest personal exploration through sharing:

  • Create a sense of shared purpose that can foster the kind of internal reflection that happens through group conversation.
  • Remind participants of simple ground rules for conversations. For example: Avoid commenting on and critiquing each other’s comments. Make room for everyone to speak. Step into or away from the conversation appropriately. No one participant should dominate the conversation. Let silence sit, allowing participants to gather their thoughts.
  • For each of the questions below, we recommend that you print out the article in question, or provide the link to it, and we ask that you take a moment to read it in print or on screen, before the conversation begins.
  • Allow people a few minutes to absorb the article, perhaps even to read it a second time, before moving into the discussion.

Interpretive Questionscan focus the reader on the ideas in the articles.

  • Rabbi Ed Feinstein introduces readers to Judaism’s notion of judgment and how we might understand God’s role of judging us during the High Holidays. He writes: “On these holidays, we pray God might move from the throne of din, judgment, to the throne of rachamim, merciful love. We pray not to dismiss judgment but to temper its aftermath.” What is the purpose, during the High Holidays, of the courtroom drama with God atop a throne wielding the power of judgment? Abraham Joshua Heschel writes that it is better to be judged by God than ignored and abandoned. Do you agree? How does that sense of being judged inform your approach to Rosh HaShanah and Yom Kippur? Ed writes that judgment is the beginning of teshuvah, repentance and return. He writes that if we are stuck in self-deception, we can’t find the truth and make personal change. How do you best confront your own challenges and what inspires you to work toward change?
  • The human rights activist and attorney Hadar Harris writes about her awakening to the notion that multiple truths can exist. She writes, “As we contemplate this High Holiday season, as we ruminate on the ultimate judgment that God makes — who shall live and who shall die — I’m struck by the impact of different versions of truth on judgment.” She wants to consider “God as a civil law judge (investigating as well as adjudicating) rather than a common law judge (sitting on high and determining truth after hearing adversarial arguments twisting facts).” In that scenario, God judges “while considering the complicated, multifaceted lens of multiple truths, while narratives are deconstructed and reexamined, facts are explored and rebuilt, and changes in behavior are taken into account.” How do yu understand these two constructions of God as judge? How do you weigh stories of moral ambiguity that require thoughtful judgment? What happens when a judgment goes wrong? Is truth always constructed? How are facts related to truth? And if truth is constructed, how does that impact justice?
  • Judith Rosenbaum, executive director of Jewish Women’s Archive, writes about the “call-out” culture / the #MeToo movement, a system of “vigilante justice.” She notes the recent “call-out culture — born out of warring impulses of anger and fear, impatience and a commitment to justice, urgency, impotence, and a belief that accountability and judgment ultimately lie in our own hands.” And she asks readers to consider whether this phenomenon might be the ultimate judgment, where it “is rendered in the accusation itself, with no trial, no jury, no process for assessment of deserved punishment.” But with a broken justice system, do individuals have a responsibility “to step up and render judgment? … How do we navigate the rocky terrain between judgment and justice?” And, with such forceful din, does a path toward teshuva exist? What role does social media play in rendering judgment without any form of trial? Who has the responsibility to call out injustice?

Reflective Questionscan help one to integrate the ideas in these articles with one’s own sense of self.

  • Rabbi Steven Exler writes n the balance of din and rachamim/ how we are to understand God balancing scales between din and rachamim /judgment and compassion. He notes that on Rosh HaShanah, we call upon God to overlook our iniquities, to treat us with rachamim/ mercy. Exler writes: “What is it, in fact, that we want from God — and for ourselves? Do we want to be reassured that God is fair and unbiased, even if it means the outcome for us might be less rosy? Or, do we want to be reassured that God will shine mercy and compassion on us, looking away from our wrongdoings, even if it means that the world is then bereft of a Divine paradigm of justice and fairness?” He goes on to explain the historic and essential interplay between din and rachamim, betweenjudgment and mercy. How do you understand this interplay between judgment and mercy? Do you prefer God to be unbiased in assessing the evidence of your behavior or more merciful? Where do you fall on the spectrum of judgment of others?
  • In NiSh’ma, our simulated Talmud page, three commentators — all of whom are attorneys — explicate a line from Pirkei Avot: Rabban Shimon ben Gamliel says, “On three things the world stands: on judgment, on truth, and on peace, as it is said ‘Judge truth and the justice of peace in your gates.’” (1:18) Our commentators reflect on the relationship of judgment, truth, and peace. How do you understand that relationship of core Jewish values? Rebecca Sendor-Israel writes: “Din, emet, and shalom operate like a system of checks and balances within each of us. Getting the correct calibration is the work of a lifetime and is a challenge we’d be wise to prioritize during this time of reflection and returning.” How do these three values operate in your life? Are they ever at odds with each other? How so? Which of the values do you privilege most?

Your Comments

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Consider and Converse: A Guide to Din/Judgment

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