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July 07, 2005

Rabbi Sandra Day O'Connor?

Ami Eden has a column in the Forward arguing that the best way to look at the judicial career of Sandra Day O'Connor is to think of her as a rabbi. (Via NRO's Bench Memos) Eden's argument is that O'Connor has followed two important rabbinic principles: compromise and seeing how the people are actually practicing.

Of course, this is the most ridiculous thing ever written, at least since Maureen Dowd's last opus. But the wrong way to show this is to write a useless and boring post that no one will read, explaining why the role of judges in the American judicial system is not like the rabbinic role, blah blah blah blah blah.

The right way is to say that this reminds me of two rabbi-as-judge jokes, which may (or possibly may not) help clarify my point.

The first is an old joke, which I understand was adapted in Fiddler on the Roof:

Two litigants appear before the rabbi. The first presents his case, and the rabbi says, "You're right." The second says, "Wait till you've heard from me." He presents his side of the case, and the rabbi says, "You're right." At this point, the rabbi's wife pipes up: "How can they both be right?" The rabbi thinks for a minute and says, "You're right, too."
Justice O'Connor is nothing like that rabbi. If two parties came to her, she'd say to both: "You're wrong!" When someone told her that they couldn't both be wrong, she'd say: "You're wrong, too. I have life tenure."

The second joke is a little longer, but I've always liked it:
A man rides his donkey into a village in Eastern Europe on Friday afternoon, shortly before shabbat begins. He goes to the village shul (synagogue) to find someone to put him up for shabbat. A very nice man offers to be his host. The host draws hot water for a bath and provides the visitor with lovely shabbat meals and a comfortable bed to sleep on. On Sunday morning, when the visitor is ready to resume his travels, the host presents him with a bill. The visitor is astonished. He confronts his host: "You invited me to stay with you over shabbat. How can you give me a bill for the hospitality?" The host responds: "I prepared a hot bath for you; I gave you generous meals; and I gave you a bed with freshly laundered sheets. Do you think that's something you should have for nothing?" The host and the visitor argue for a while, until the host says, "I tell you what. Let's let our rabbi decide the matter. If he says that you don't have to pay, that's good enough for me." The visitor reluctantly agrees to accept the rabbi's ruling.

The two men appear before the rabbi and both present their side of the dispute. The rabbi excuses himself while he thinks about the matter. Five minutes later, he returns to announce his decision: The visitor must pay.

The visitor is astonished. But he's already agreed to accept the decision, so after both men bid farewell to the rabbi, the visitor opens his change purse and starts counting out coins. The host stops him: "No, no, I don't want your money." Now, the visitor is even more astonished. He says, "You don't want my money? Then why did you insist I had to pay, and why did you force me to appear before your rabbi to let him decide our dispute?" The host laughed: "I just wanted to show you what a fool we have for a rabbi."
This rabbi, too, is nothing like Justice O'Connor, who is no fool. In fact, we're now told that every justice should be as wise as she is.