One of the more positive and healthy attitudes that have been brought about by the modern day system of values is the ability and value of being able to interact with another person without judging them, their decisions, way they dress, etc. Although this attitude is many times concomitant with contemporary moral relativism and the refusal to recognize that certain values and behaviors are objectively true and binding, a belief that runs contrary the Jewish belief in an absolute set of moors and values, nevertheless, this attitude is one that Judaism has long promoted.
One of the six hundred and thirteen mitzvoth we have is “be’tzedek tishpot et amitecha– you should judge your fellow favorably”(vayikra 19:15) This commandment is understood by the gemara (Shvu’ot 20a) and codified by the Rishonim to be not only an obligation for judges who judge people in a formal context but also as an obligation for each and every person to judge their fellow favorably(Rambam, Sefer Hamitzvot, Esseh 177, and Sefer Hakhinukh 235). What this obligation includes is that if we see someone doing something that can be understood in different ways we should assume that they are doing the right thing rather than try and find guilt in what they do; we are to give them the benefit of the doubt and assume that they are engaged in positive activities even though that is not the immediate implication of what they are doing. If, however, they are doing something that is outright wrong, however, no positive judgment needs to follow as what they are doing is clearly wrong. A wrongdoer is to be judged for what he is and there is no room for positive judgment as there is clearly no place for such judgment.
The mishna in pirkey Avot(2:5), however takes this a step further and tells us “al tadin et chavercha ad shetagia limkomo” do not judge your friend until you reach his place. This mishnah is clearly talking about a situation where the firend has clearly done something that lacks merit that would render it as appositive and worthy action. Nevertheless, the mishnah tells us that we are not to judge them as we do not know what might have neen the circumstances that lead to such an in appropriate behavior and we should therefore not assume that we would have done the same had we been under those same circumstances.
The exceptionally non judgmental theme reflected here seems to run contrary to many other, more judgmental messages that are echoed throughout Jewish sources. Another mishna in pirkay avot(1:7) tells us “al titchaber la’rasha -do not become close with the wicked” and so on many sources that teach us of the different and inferior status a person receives by engaging in actions that are beyond the scope of legitimate and whose morality is questionable. The question thus becomes, why is it that in some cases we find a highly non-judgmental approach in Judaism while at the same time we find that people are constantly being judged, evaluated, and ascertained based on their actions or lack thereof?
The answer to this conundrum may be found in a beautiful explanation of Rabbi Yehudah Leib Diskin(in his commentary on chumash ibid.) to the reason laying behind the Torah imperative to judge others favorably. While the simple and understandable explanation for this commandment is so that people be able to live in peace and harmony as many commentaries do maintain(Sefer Charedim, 12:54, Rabbi Shlomo Luria, shut Maharshal 66), Rabbi Diskin explains another possible rational that lays behind this obligation. One of the benefits society and acommunal lifestyle has to offer is that people’s trust in each other becomes and self fulfilling prophecy; people expect certain standards of behavior and a certain code of ethics from one another and that expectation leads to the same kind of behaviors. The fact that people expect nothing less than decent behavior serves as an impetuous and imperative for ethical and standardized behavior. Once, however, people become suspicious of one another and question their integrity and morality then that too can become a self fulfilling prophecy. As good behavior becomes less expected and less taken for granted then indeed that behavior will slowly but surely fail to show itself. Thus, the Torah obligation to judge people favorably is not only an imperative for fair judgment but is also a way by which we enable and ennoble our society with high standards and norms of behavior. A person who clearly fails to meet these standards of behavior and observance can clearly not be regarded as a right doer; if what this person has done is clearly wrong and inappropriate there is no reason to assume that what that person has done is right. In fact quite to the contrary, such a behavior must be reprimanded and highlighted as a wrong and inappropriate behavior.
While we must regard the behavior as wrong and inappropriate we must also remember that as individuals it is entirely possible that being faced by these same circumstances we may have also stumbled and we do not know the extent of temptation that the person has faced. We must be reprehensive of the person’s behavior while understanding that on a personal level the person may have been faced by a particular set of challenges and temptations and should the person consider a reversal of their behavior we must be open to re embracing them as a part of our community and society.
Giving others the benefit of the doubt is an essential Jewish imperative. Making sure that others have a fair chance to represent themselves without being judged negatively if they have have failed to make the right decision. This, however, does not mean that we change the standards of what is right and wrong. Judaism provides a clear set of right and wrongs that must be followed. At the same time, while not compromising the standards of morality, right, and wrong, we must realize that every individual faces a complex set of challenges and difficulties and that if they have clearly committed a wrong, while that behavior must remain unacceptable, we must be open to the idea of re embracing that individual upon his return as we do not know how we would we reacted had we been faced by the same set of variables.
Published in The YU Lamdan, November 2013