Like so many other professional codes of ethics, the Code of Conduct for United States Judges is clear: judges have an obligation to avoid not just improper behavior, but even the “appearance of impropriety in all activities.” It’s not enough just for them to act in an upstanding and honorable way; how others view them has a substantial impact on how the public perceives the entire justice system, and they should therefore “act at all times in a manner that promotes public confidence in the integrity and impartiality of the judiciary.”
These approaches are similar to the Jewish principle of marit ayin, under which a person should take into account how their completely acceptable actions may be interpreted (however incorrectly) by those watching as a violation of Jewish law and refrain from such conduct. An example that’s often given is using the washroom in a non-kosher restaurant: even if you’re not eating the food, people could see you coming out and get the wrong idea.
Today’s page brings us a related question. We’re in the midst of a discussion about how to dispose of leavened products before the start of Passover and the possibility of selling those products to a non-Jew to be rid of them. The text presents a dilemma: if a Jew is acting as an agent to sell someone else’s leavened goods, couldn’t the agent eat or otherwise get rid of the goods themselves and pay the equivalent value to the original owner? After all, what difference does it make to the goods’ owner where the money is coming from, so long as it’s a fair deal?
While Abaye says yes, the Gemara disagrees:
Eating it himself is not an option due to the potential of suspicion. As it was taught with regard to a similar situation: Collectors of charity who have no poor people to whom they can distribute the money, change the money with other people and do not change it themselves, i.e., with their own coins.
Likewise, collectors of food for the charity plate, who would collect food in large vessels for the poor to eat, who do not have poor people to whom to distribute the food, sell the food to others and do not sell it to themselves, as it is stated: “And you shall be clear before God and before Israel” (Numbers 32:22).
Before God and before Israel. In other words, the conclusions others reach based on what they see you do matters, even if what you’re doing is totally fine in the eyes of God and even if those observers are totally wrong in their conclusions. So you change the money for poor people through others so that you don’t appear to pocket it or offer too little in exchange. You sell the hametz you’re tasked with disposing of to someone else instead of selling it to yourself (for consumption or re-sale) so that you don’t appear to be engaging in self-dealing and violating your obligations as the owner’s sales agent.
It’s good to have the self-confidence not to care what other people think of us. But sometimes, whether you’re a judge or a layperson, how others perceive us has a broader impact, and their perceptions and opinions are worth taking into consideration.