July 5, 2022

Yevamot 114

The Mishna (Yevamot 15:1) in today’s daf (Yevamot 114b) discusses the circumstances where a woman testifying to the death of her husband while they were both overseas is sufficient evidence for a Beit Din to render her a widow: ‘If there was peace between him and her (i.e., the couple were not fighting at the time) and peace in the world (i.e., there was no war at that time) and she came and said: My husband died, she may marry [on the basis of her own testimony]…If there was peace between him and her but war in the world, or if there was a quarrel between him and her and peace in the world, and she came and said: My husband died, she is not deemed credible. Rabbi Yehuda says: She is never deemed credible [when she testifies that her husband died], unless she came crying and her clothing was torn [in which case it is apparent that she is speaking the truth]. They said to him: [This is an incorrect distinction. Rather], both this [woman who cries] and this [woman who does not cry] may marry.’

Of course, there is much to unpack in this Mishna. However, I’d like to focus on the opinion of Rabbi Yehuda who requires that the woman ‘come crying with torn clothing’. And why does he do so? It seems that the answer, as discussed by Malcolm Gladwell in his book ‘Talking to Strangers’, is because Rabbi Yehuda presumes that people are ‘transparent’ and that “the way a stranger looks and acts is a reliable clue to the way they feel.” Yet as Gladwell explains while referencing the case of Amanda Knox (the American exchange student who was wrongly convicted of the 2007 murder of her roommate Meredith Kercher), we make mistakes when we make judgements about people based on how they ‘look’ and ‘act’ because not everyone looks and acts with transparency. In fact, he then proceeds to explain how judges who claim to be able to make better judgements because they can see alleged criminals in their courtrooms often make mistakes precisely because they rely too much on what they are seeing which is often prejudiced by their various biases.

Having explained this, it is of significance that our Mishna ends by telling us that we do not follow Rabbi Yehuda and that ‘both this [woman who cries] and this [woman who does not cry] may marry’ – meaning that we should not measure the merits of a claim based on how someone appears, but rather, based on the merits of what they have claimed.

Yet notwithstanding this as a rule of law, and notwithstanding the teaching of Rebbi in Avot 4:20 of: אל תסתכל בקנקן אלא במה שיש בו – ‘don’t look at the container but at that which is in it’, this is not how our communities operate. In fact, far too often we gauge the religious and spiritual commitment of others or the virtues of any claim that they make based on how they appear. Moreover, while this applies to both men and women, it applies even more to women.
Admittedly, this may well be something that we naturally do. But what we are being taught by Avot 4:20, by Mishna Yevamot 15:1, and in ‘Talking to Strangers’ is that this isn’t a good thing to do and that it can lead to bad mistakes such as the wrongful conviction of Amanda Knox. Given this, one of the things that we should consciously attempt to do is to override our natural inclination to judge on appearance so that when we are called upon to make any form of judgement, it is based on what truly matters.

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