Whose Opinion Is It Really?
In capital cases, we do not hear the words of the senior [judge] until after everyone else, as if the senior [judge] were to start, the others would be forbidden to disagree, as [the Rabbis understand the Torah to say] “Do not speak against the greatest [judge]” (Exod. 23:2). (Moses Maimonides, Commentary on the Mishnah to M. Sanhedrin 4:2)
And the reason for this is that we are concerned that the junior [judges] will be too abashed to contradict the words of the senior [judges]. (Israel Lifschitz, Tiferet Yisrael, Yakhin to M. Sanhedrin 4:2)
Who influences your thinking and decision-making? These two commentaries flesh out the Mishnah’s rule that in capital cases, the judges who sit “at the side” are the first to express their opinions. If the head of the court were to speak first, they explain, the perspective of the junior judges may never be heard—whether on account of legal reasons (Maimonides) or self-consciousness (Tiferet Yisrael)—which could lead to a wrongful conviction and execution.
Much of the media we consume, especially, though not only, social media, is infused with opinions. It is a challenge to pick out the facts of a news story and make up our own minds before being bombarded by hot takes from pundits, reactions from friends, and spin from public figures. How can we, like the junior judges, not be influenced by all these opinions? And even if we form our own views, will we voice them when they contradict those of people we respect?
Though most of us aren’t making life and death decisions like the judges in this mishnah, our choices can make an impact when we express ourselves in the voting booth, to an elected representative, or even when called by a pollster. We must therefore attempt to resist undue influence when making decisions. And for those of us who are “senior judges”—even if only to our Facebook friends—who do we listen to before we broadcast our own stance?