Stop Judging Me

Words to live By: Rabbi YY Jacobson


By Rabbi YY Jacobson


JUDGE FAVORABLY                         
The second Torah portion, Kedoshim, contains a commandment which we often do not think about as such, “With Justice you shall judge your fellow man.” The Talmud gives two different interpretations of the verse. 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, “You should judge every person to the side of merit.” But what does this mean?

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 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.

Judge every human being

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 that 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, 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,’ and he said, ‘Shlomo, I love your niggunim [melodies.]’ He gave me back my soul.”

Words to live By: Rabbi YY Jacobson
Challenging Our Instinct To Condemn

In summation, it’s 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 being moral or immoral, give him or her the benefit of the doubt, as in the story of Shlomo Carlebach, where his perception 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.

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.” 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.