Judging Others

Have you ever been misjudged? Have you ever misjudged another? Leviticus 19:15 adjures us – in only three words – to judge our neighbors with righteousness. Often, translations say, Judge your kinsman fairly, a reasonable translation in context, but not a complete translation. The word is b’tzedek meaning “with justice” or “with righteousness” and this suggested to the Rabbis a whole world of meaning beyond the simple meaning of the verse in context.

On the basis of these three Hebrew words (b’tzedek tishpot amitekha), the Rabbis spun reams of teachings about giving others the benefit of the doubt, reserving negative judgment, showing gratitude, and engaging in introspection. This is valuable advice in a world where jumping to conclusions and making snap judgments is a stock in trade.

Moses Maimonides (1135 – 1204) teaches that when someone is unknown to you, judge him favorably and do not think negatively of him. “If one was well known as a righteous person with good deeds, even if you see him do an act whose every aspect seems to be bad, and the only way of considering it good is through really stretching things and assuming a very remote possibility, it is still obligatory to interpret it as good based on that possibility.”

Shimon ben Zoma (second century C.E.), connects the notion of judgment with gratitude. He illustrates by comparing the attitudes of two guests who experience identical hospitality: “What does a good guest say? ‘How much trouble my host has taken for me! How much meat he has set before me! How much wine he has set before me! How many cakes he has set before me! And all the trouble he has taken was only for my sake!’ But what does a bad guest say? ‘How much after all has my host put himself out? I have eaten one piece of bread, I have eaten one slice of meant, I have drunk one cup of wine! All the trouble which my host has taken was only for the sake of his wife and his children!’”

The Chofetz Chaim (Rabbi Yisrael Meir Kagan, 1838-1933) reminds us that gossip is often a vehicle for violating Leviticus 19:15. “Sometimes [through gossip] one also transgresses the positive commandment to judge your neighbor righteously. For instance, if he sees his friend who said or did something that can be judged either as positive or the opposite. Even if he is a normal person (not especially righteous or evil) we are commanded to judge him favorably.”

Rabbi Israel ben Eliezer (1690 – 1760), the founder of Hasidism, taught that when one sees another do something reprehensible, one should recognize that the person was probably driven by an overwhelming urge, a fault that resides in each of us. Rather than judging another, we should first use the opportunity to engage in self-examination.

When one considers how damaging premature and negative judgments are to reputations and relationships, the advice offered by Maimonides, Ben Zoma, the Chofetz Chaim, and Rabbi Israel sounds especially wise.

Rabbi Scheinerman wrote this article for the Carroll County Times.