Stop Judging Me

 Rabbi YY Jacobson 

Challenging Our Instinct To Condemn

Judge Favorably 

This week's Torah portion, Kedoshim, contains a commandment, which we often do not think about as such:[1] “With Justice you shall judge your fellow man.”

The Talmud gives two different interpretations for this verse.[2] According to one opinion, this verse is giving direction to Judges. When a person comes to a Judgment in a civil case according to Torah law the judge must treat the litigants equally. He is not allowed to have one litigant stand and the other one sit, one speak at length and the other urged to speak briefly, and so forth. However, according to a second interpretation in the Talmud, the injunction in this verse is directed at every Jew. Its intent is that we must “judge our fellow with justice,” as the Talmud puts it, “Judge your fellow man to the side of merit.”

A similar expression we find in the Ethics of the Fathers:[3] “You should judge every person to the side of merit.”

But what does this mean?

Changing the Instinct to Condemn

On the most basic level, it cautions us to give people the benefit of the doubt. If we see a person doing something that apparently seems to be an act that he or she should not be doing, there is a full-fledged Biblical command to give him the benefit of the doubt.

Upon observing another person doing or saying something we perceive as undesirable or destructive, many of us instinctively assume that negative motives are compelling these acts and words. We naturally believe that the person is aware of the damage he is creating, and despite this he is doing it for his own benefit or some agenda. This attitude has plagued us for millennia and has caused untold harm and divisiveness in communities. Learn to judge people favorably, to attribute positive, or at least neutral, motives to people’s acts and words. Say to yourself, "His (or her) behavior might appear wrong; but in his own mind and heart he really thinks he is doing the right thing."

This approach of condemning the behavior, but not the person is counterintuitive, but it is tremendously beneficial for two reasons:

A) When you are able to alter your attitude, you will not become resentful. When you attribute evil motives to a person performing a negative act, your brain instinctively swells with negative energy. On the other hand, if you train yourself to view the person, unlike his behavior, in a positive light, you save your heart from being consumed by ire.

B) You will be in a much better position to communicate your feelings to this person without compelling him to construct defense mechanisms and reciprocate your rebuke with stubbornness and anger. When he feels that inside your heart you don't view him as a "bad guy" who craves destruction, only as a "good guy" who made an error, your criticism will most likely be more effective.

Think about yourself. If someone approaches you and criticizes your behavior, when is he more likely to be successful? When he attributes negative motives to you, or positive ones to you? The answer is more than obvious. This means that if you are truly bothered by what this person did, the best way to eliminate such behavior in the future is to judge him or her favorably.

The Blind Chazzan

The composer and story-teller Reb Shlomeleh Carlebach told a story of a Shabbat spent in a community in post-war Europe.  When he came to shul on Shabbat, he was disappointed with the cantor. The man was skipping words, had a feeble, timorous voice. Worse still, his pronunciation of the Hebrew text was dreadful.  Carlebach thought to himself that the horrible cantor must have paid off the synagogue to let him pray… he was so disgusted, he decided to go to a side room and pray alone. He would only come to the main shul to listen to the Torah reading.

When he returned for the Torah reading, he noticed that the cantor holding the Torah and leading it to the bimah was being supported by two people. As he looked closer, he realized that the chazzan was blind.

Shlomoleh asked the person near him who this chazzan was. The man explained: Before the war, he was the chief cantor of the grand Jewish community of Lemberg (Levuv), in Poland. When he conducted services there, his voice was as powerful as a lion's roar: it shook the very pillars of the synagogue and penetrated the heart of every worshiper. From all over Europe Jews came to listen to his heart-stirring prayers.

Then the Nazis came. The chazzan was sent to Auschwitz, where he endured unspeakable torture. He became blind. He survived the death camp, but has lost his vision, his voice and his diction.

“We always beg him to pray for us,” the man continues the story, “but he always refuses. “Today he agreed.”

Shlomeleh wanted to bury himself from inner shame. “Overwhelmed by my sense of guilt and shame, I waited for the old chazzan to approach. When he did, holding the Torah scroll, I kissed his saintly hands…

“He asked, who just kissed my hands. They told him: Shlomeleh Carlebach. He said: Shlomo, I love your niggunim (melodies.) He gave me back my soul.”

On the Subway

In his “Seven Habits” Steven Covey tells the story of him traveling one Sunday morning on a subway in New York.

People were sitting quietly—some reading newspapers, some lost in thought, some resting with their eyes closed. It was a calm, peaceful scene.

Then, suddenly, a man and his children entered the subway car. The children were so loud and rambunctious that instantly the whole climate changed. The man sat down next to me and closed his eyes, apparently oblivious to the situation. The children were yelling back and forth, throwing things, even grabbing people's papers. It was very disturbing. And yet, the man sitting next to me did nothing.

It was difficult not to feel irritated. I could not believe that he could be so insensitive as to let his children run wild like that and do nothing about it, taking no responsibility at all. (It was easy to see that everyone on the subway felt irritated, too.) So, finally, with what I felt was unusual patience and restraint, I turned to him and said, "Sir, your children are really disturbing a lot of people. I wonder if you couldn't control them a little more?"

The man lifted his gaze as if to come to consciousness of the situation for the first time and said softly, "Oh, you're right. I guess I should do something about it. We just came from the hospital where their mother died about an hour ago. I don't know what to think, and I guess they don't know how to handle it either…"

“Can you imagine what I felt at that moment?” Covey concludes his story.

This is the truth of life: We know nothing of the trials, sorrows and temptations of those around us, of pillows wet with sobs, of the life-tragedy that may be hidden behind a smile, of the secret cares, struggles, and worries that shorten life and leave their mark in hair prematurely whitened, and a character changed and almost recreated in a few days. Let us not dare to add to the burden of another the pain of our judgment, the Torah is telling us. Think before you speak. You never know the “whole story” of that other person’s life.

Penniless Employer?

The Talmud relates this story:[4]

Once a man went from the Upper Galilee (in northern Israel) to work for an employer in the south for three years.

On the eve of Yom Kippur of the third year, he said to his employer, "Give me my wages, and I will go home and support my wife and my children."

The employer said to him, "I do not have any money to pay you."

"Give me fruit instead," said the worker.

"I have no fruit," answered the employer.

"Give me land," said the worker.

"I do not have any land," answered the employer.

"Give me animals," said the worker.

"I do not have any animals," answered the employer.

"Give me quilts and pillows," said the worker.

"I do not have any quilts and pillows," answered the employer.

The worker packed his bags and went home, disappointed.

After the holiday, the employer traveled to the worker's home with the man's wages and with three donkeys. One was laden with food, the second with drinks, and the third with delicacies.

When he arrived, after they had eaten and drunk together, the employer gave the worker his wages and all the other gifts, and said to him, "When you asked me for your wages, and I told you that I did not have any money, did you think that was the truth?"

"I thought," answered the worker, "that you had obtained merchandise at a bargain price, and had spent all your money."

The employer said to him, "When you asked me for animals, and I told you that I did not have any animals, what did you think was the truth?"

"I thought," answered the worker, "that they were rented out to others."

The employer said to him, "When you asked me for land, and I told you that I did not have any land, what did you think was the truth?"

"I thought, “answered the worker, "that the land also was rented out to others."

The employer said to him, "When you asked me for fruit, and I told you that I did not have any fruit, what did you think was the truth?"

"I thought," answered the worker, "that the fruit had not yet been tithed."

The employer said to him, "And after you asked me for quilts and Pillows, and I told you that I did not have any, what did you think was the truth?"

"I thought," answered the worker, "that you had given away all Your Possessions to the Beis Hamikdash (Holy Temple) by making a vow of hekdesh [pledge to the Temple]."

The employer said, "I swear to you that that is exactly what happened. I had promised away all of my possessions to the Holy Temple because of Hurkanos, my son, who did not wish to learn Torah [and I did not want him to be my heir]. And when I came to my friends in the south, they annulled my vows.

“Just as You Judged me favorably, so may G-d judge you favorably."[5]

In Summation

So this, in summation, is the conventional understanding of this Torah injunction to “judge every human being meritoriously.” It consists of three points:

A) If you hear your fellow say something or you see him do something, and you can interpret it as a being moral or immoral, give him or her the benefit of the doubt. As in the Talmudic story above, where the employee did not immediately assume that his employer was lying. Or as in the stories of Shlomo Carlebach and Steven Covey where their perceptions clouded the true story.

B) Even if you know for sure that the person did or said something wrong, attribute to him positive motives. He may think he is doing the right thing.

C) Even if he knows he is doing the wrong thing, be careful before judging him. “Do not judge your fellow until you are in his place,” warns another of the Ethics’ sayings, and his place is one place where you will never be. You have no way of truly appreciating the manner in which his inborn nature, his background and/or the circumstances that hold sway over his life have influenced his character and behavior. His struggles are not mine. Perhaps if I would have the same struggles, I would behave just as bad, or worse. Yes, you may be an addict and I am not. But if I would have had the same sensitivities as you, if I would have endured the same abuse as you, am I so sure I would have not sold my soul to addiction?

This message, too, is implied in the words of our sages in Ethics chapter 1: "Hevei dan et kol ha'adam lechaf zechut" – judge every person favorably. The word kol ha'adam (every person) can be translated as “the whole person.”[6] Before you judge someone, you first have to know “the whole person”—everything about this person, from their background, to the workings of their inner psyche, to the challenges they are facing today.

Learn to live this way and you will live a happier life, besides being far more effective.


[1] Leviticus 19:15
[2] Shavuos 30a
[3] 1:6
[4]Shabbos 127b.
[5] Indeed, Rabbi Achai Gaon quotes in his book Sheltos a tradition that this employee was none other than Rabbi Akiva.
[6] See Sefas Emes.

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