Handling Subjectivity With More Care: There Is Right and Wrong

The integrity of any community depends on honesty in business and all interpersonal transactions, teaches the book of Deuteronomy. Fraudulence is an abomination.

We have been taught that knowledge and our perceptions are not objective. Each person’s viewpoint is subjective. We are driven by conscious and unconscious agendas. While this shift in thinking has been so important in breaking down structures and giving increasing voice to a variety of opinions and perspectives, it is also creating a crisis of distrust in society. As we celebrate the complexity and uniqueness of each individual and their opinions, upon what basis do we form communities of trust? How do we forge lasting connections over the chasms of class, gender, race and religion? The era of subjectivity, along with the current political climate, is, I fear, eroding common trust and communal structures that we can all grasp.

Torah provides a possible antidote. Deuteronomy 25:13-16 reads:

You shall not have in your pouch alternate weights, larger and smaller. You shall not have in your house alternate measures, a larger and a smaller. You must have completely honest weights and completely honest measures, if you are to endure long on the soil that the Lord your God is giving you. For everyone who does those things, everyone who deals dishonestly, is abhorrent to the Lord your God.

Let’s begin with a few basic observations that are clear in the English translation: 1) The text seems repetitive, as it emphasizes the importance of honest weights and measures; 2) honest weights and measures are connected to the ability to endure as a community in a specific location; and 3) those who fail to observe this commandment are abhorrent.[fn]A term reserved for only a few things in Tanakh.[/fn]

If we step away from the text for a moment, it seems surprising that the Torah presents a special commandment dealing with honest and fraudulent weights and measures at all. How is such a wrongdoing different from other modes of fraud or theft? Why can’t this commandment be deduced from other broader statements like: “You shall not steal” (Exodus 20:13) or “Do not wrong one another” (Leviticus  25:17)? Leviticus 19:35-36 offers a similar teaching to that in Deuteronomy:

You shall not cheat in measuring length, weight or quantity. You shall have honest balances, honest weights, an honest ephah and an honest hin: I am the LORD your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt.

The text in Deuteronomy, however, is more detailed than that of Leviticus. Deuteronomy prohibits fraudulent weights in one’s pocket and in one’s home. Why might a person carry two stones in their pockets? The larger stone could be used when receiving products while the smaller could be used for selling.

So what happens practically when weights are used in such a manner? A buyer may start to notice that she received a bit less this week for the same price. But it is not necessarily obvious, especially if the product is something like a bag of grain. A relationship of suspicion begins. When the buyer comes to the market the next week, she may go to a different vendor and share her suspicions with others. She may go to the same vendor, but she’ll watch the scales more carefully. The point is that the Torah is describing fraud and theft at a very subtle level. Any dishonest merchant who uses two very differently sized weights would not remain in business very long. The kind of fraud works because it is subtle and insidious; it is not just theft.

The next section of the text is not as clear because it forbids the use of fraudulent weights in the home. I do not think that this refers to business conducted in the home, but rather interactions among members of the same household. In this case, the text may be moving from literal to figurative. If this is so, then the commandment is concerned with any kind of transaction between members of a household where there is some subtle deception. These may be seemingly innocent lies, small broken promises, misleading communications.

The next phrase in the text begins to reveal what is at the center of this commandment. “You must have completely honest weights … .” In the Hebrew, the two words that describe the weight are shalem and tzedek. Usually, these are translated as two adjectives for even, stone; however, only the first word is an adjective (a feminine adjective for the feminine noun). A better translation for this phrase would be “You must have complete weights and justness … .” Tzedek does not describe the weight; it stands alone.

So what does this signify? I believe that the teaching here is that honest weights and measures are a basic prerequisite for a just and righteous society. This interpretation becomes even more compelling when we consider the word that is used to describe those who fail to follow this commandment: abhorrent, or in Hebrew, to’evah. This word appears in just a handful of texts in Tanakh, and it generally indicates some kind of upheaval of the way that things ought to be. In this case, to’evah marks the disintegration of the integrity of a society.

As we examine this law, we discover that dealing in honest weights and measures is different from laws that forbid theft or extorting. Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch writes:

The Torah considers everybody who counts, measures, or weights anything … to have the responsibility of a shofet (judge). He is an officer of justice, he pronounces judgment as to what is right and fair, his word is mishpat, a declaration of what is right. But this places the responsibility for the honesty and legality of things in general in the hands of the conscience of every single person.

This passage of Torah makes two claims that I believe we need to hear with urgency. This text reminds us that there are honest and fraudulent weights; in other words, there are some things that are absolutely right or wrong — not everything is subjective. This may seem too obvious to mention, but I believe that we need greater care in noting where the claim to subjectivity becomes more harmful than helpful. Secondly, this teaching urges every single individual to interact and to communicate with honesty because honesty is the backbone upon which communities are built. Honesty forges trust and trust forges relationships. In today’s world, we have a long way to go before we can all agree on the just weight and measure.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Related Resources

February 27, 2024
Posted in Ethics
Our call for a ceasefire is not a betrayal of Jewish values but an authentic expression of them.
February 27, 2024
Israel's Declaration of Independence envisions a state founded on the values of democracy, pluralism and equal rights for all its citizens, regardless of ethnicity or religion.
July 27, 2022
Posted in Ethics
Honesty about the legacies of those who have caused unrepaired harm is the first step in tending to our communal responsibility to repair the world.
March 2, 2022
Posted in Community, Ethics
Evolve continues to publish essays discussing the practice of brit milah (ritual circumcision. They are gathered here.
February 19, 2022
Posted in Ethics, Justice
Esther moments ask the question: When does one choose to show up and take on the leadership needed, risks included, in order to move forward a critical, sometimes life-and-death conversation, policy or initiative?
November 26, 2021
Posted in Ethics
Jewish ethics demands that we invest in producing and distributing the COVID-19 vaccine to the developing world.

The Reconstructionist Network

Serving as central organization of the Reconstructionist movement

Training the next generation of groundbreaking rabbis

Modeling respectful conversations on pressing Jewish issues

Curating original, Jewish rituals, and convening Jewish creatives

Get the latest from Evolve delivered to your inbox.

The Reconstructionist Network