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14 Tishrei 5765 - September 22, 2004 | Mordecai Plaut, director Published Weekly









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Opinion & Comment
Judging Favorably: A Middos Workshop

Based on the shiurim of Rav Dovid Siegel

Part I

Through the window of a non-kosher restaurant, someone once saw a scene that would have floored many of us. A prominent communal leader was sitting inside, eating lobster! What would you think? So . . . he's not really as sincere a Jew as everyone believes. People consider him a respectable, Orthodox Jew, but when no one is looking, he eats treif food! Or maybe you would judge him somewhat favorably and assume that he must have been overcome by a craving and gave in to it.

However, the person who viewed this scenario was HaRav Shimon Schwab zt"l and he looked at this man in a more positive light. He considered everything involved and concluded that it must have been a life-or-death situation. The prominent leader must have developed an urgent medical condition, such as a bleeding ulcer, that forced him to immediately eat whatever food was available to him. Since he was passing by this seafood restaurant at the time of his attack, he had no choice but to eat lobster. After Rav Schwab decided that this was the case, he did not give it a second thought and told no one about this incident.

Is this a logical response? No. Realistic? NO! In fact, the communal leader had been perfectly healthy the day before and never had an ulcer in his lifetime. What had actually led Rav Schwab to his deduction? He explained that he was faced with two choices: to denounce a prominent leader whom he greatly respected, or to create a highly improbable scenario. Rav Schwab decided that it was more sensible to explain the situation with a medical emergency than to cast disdain on a highly respected person.

Sure enough, a few days later, Rav Schwab was visiting a friend in the hospital and ran into whom? That's right, lying in a nearby hospital bed was none other than the community leader, who explained that he had suddenly developed a bleeding ulcer and was being treated for it.

Now, as we sit here reading this article about acquiring good character traits, this story does not shock us. We know we're going to discover a good explanation for things.

But how many stories of this sort do we experience day in and day out? How many times do our friends, family and acquaintances shock or anger us with their outlandish behavior or piercing words? We're not always privy to the nice ending of their story. Yet, the Torah obligates us to judge our acquaintances favorably at all times. Let's examine how we can develop this admirable trait.

Fair Judgment

In outlining the mitzvah of judging favorably, the Torah states, "Betzedek tishpot amisecho" -- judge your colleague with tzedek, righteousness (Vayikra 19:15). Why tzedek? Perhaps piety or altruism, but why is it right or fair to judge favorably?

To understand this, let us examine three types of people and our obligations in judging them. The first category comprises those who usually do the right thing, the tzaddikim- righteous ones. While they may stumble on rare occasions, they generally choose the path of good. The second category is the beinonim, ordinary people who sometimes act properly and sometimes do not. The final category consists of reshoim, people who generally choose the path of evil.

The Rambam tells us that when we see tzaddikim err, even if they do something that seems blatantly wrong, we must judge them favorably. After all, their actions are so out of character that there must be an explanation for them. Chazal guide us on how to respond even when we actually witness a Torah scholar committing an outright sin. "If you saw a talmid chochom committing a sin at night, do not suspect him in the day because he surely repented by then."

If we see an ordinary person do something suspicious, something that may be wrong or right, we must dan lekaf zechus--judge favorably. In addition, we are taught that even if it seems more likely that his actions are wrong, it is still commendable to judge him favorably.

But when it comes to reshoim--evil people, we are actually obligated to judge them unfavorably. If we were to view these evildoers in a positive light, we would be putting ourselves at risk, because one never knows what harm can come from their ill intentions.

The Chofetz Chaim builds our obligations in judgment on the halachic concept of chazokoh, loosely translated as the status quo. The righteous Torah scholar can be assumed to always be doing only what is right. It is therefore only fair to judge him that way. Even if he did something that appears to be blatantly wrong, he deserves to retain his status quo of piety. In fact, his commitment to Torah observance is so strong that we can be sure that he immediately rectified any wrong he had done.

The ordinary individual does not operate on that high plane and can at times fall into sinful practice. Yet, his general interest is to fulfill Hashem's will, and he therefore deserves the status quo of trying to do what is right. However, since he does fail at times, one is not obligated to ignore the apparent wrongdoing and may doubt its appropriateness. Nonetheless, he also retains a status quo of basic good behavior and may not be judged unfavorably.

The wicked person's status quo is to do evil acts and he is therefore fairly judged in an unfavorable manner.


Here we have elucidated the commandment of "betzedek tishpot, to judge fairly." Fairness dictates that one deserves to retain the reputation he has created for himself, and it also determines how others must view and behave towards him.

We can now understand HaRav Schwab zt"l's admirable act. Because the communal leader occupied a prominent position, he deserved to retain his status quo, and Rav Schwab resolved to preserve it. Although this meant creating a highly improbable scenario, the principle of status quo remained in place and demanded that extreme circumstances be developed. Therefore, Rav Schwab merely applied the halachic precedent of status quo as he had consistently done in all his halachic rulings. Looking at people in this halachic framework can help us dismiss many of our nagging suspicions about others.

Who is a Judge?

There is a more basic way to deal with most of our judgment problems, namely, by asking myself who made me a judge? Most often, what others do is really none of my business. True, once I begin judging the situation it may be difficult to judge favorably -- but who asked for my opinion?

In addition, I should always remember that if I knew the person's entire situation, then perhaps I would understand his actions. The Mishna tells us, "Do not judge one on your own for only one Being (Hashem) is capable of judging by Himself" (Ovos 4:8).

One reason for this is that we are undoubtedly subjective in our daily interactions with those around us. Our biases prevent us from truly understanding another person's actions. The Chofetz Chaim teaches us that it is so difficult to tell an unbiased story that nowadays no one qualifies as a "ne'eman kebei trei." This halachic title is reserved for someone so trustworthy that his account of an event is absolutely accurate, tantamount to the testimony of two witnesses. Nowadays almost everyone tosses in some "opinionated facts."

HaRav Gifter zt'l often quoted the Mishna in Pirkei Ovos (1:6) that says, "Hevei dan es kol ho'Odom lekaf zechus," literally translated as, "judge all the man favorably."

He questioned the wording of the Mishna. The Mishna should have said "judge all men" rather than "all of the man." He explained that the Mishna is alluding to a fundamental principle in judging people. Chazal teach us that we must judge the entire person. When judging someone, we must look far beyond his actions. We must take into account his background, nature and circumstances. Since we can never fully place a person's situation in total perspective, we should never be comfortable passing an unfavorable judgment upon him.

This leads us to another helpful point in judging people. A second Mishna in Ovos (2:4) tells us, "Al todin es chavercho ad shetagi'a lemekomo." Do not judge another until you have reached his place. If we wish to judge someone, we must crawl into his shoes. It is easy to judge someone on the basis of myself, but I must ask myself what I would do if I were that person. In order to answer that question, I must thoroughly know all of his ins and outs, strengths and weaknesses, likes and dislikes, etc. This makes our task of judging close to impossible.

Levels of Judgment

Pulling ourselves out of our self-appointed judgeship eliminates 50-75 percent of cases. No one asked us to judge, and the task is so difficult that it is really not worth becoming involved. But what about the 25-50 percent left, the cases of those close to me, whose lives are interwoven with mine? What about situations where I must deliver a judgment? We will delineate several ways of judging others. All of them render a favorable judgment, but some are more positive than others.

We will begin with what we will call the "black outlook." With this view, one sees others as doing wrong, but he attempts to understand why they did it. He may explain that the person did not act out of malice. The offender knew that his action was wrong, but he was forced to do it.

Or he may explain that the person simply could not resist. His action was wrong, but he lacked self-control. In this case one does not fault the wrongdoer, because he has never been in that person's place.

Another possible defense is that the transgressor acted out of habit. As wrong as he was, he was accustomed to doing it that way. One may also consider that the person believed that the ends justified his means. Most people, including myself, sometimes rationalize their actions, so this time he did the same.

The next level is the "gray outlook." We often use this tool to explain our own behavior. Maybe it is right, maybe it is wrong, but I believe it is probably right. For example, I once saw someone use that hechsher, so it is probably fine. The trick is to use this tool to understand how others fool themselves into wrong actions.

The "white outlook" consists of two levels. One level of this is that we consider that the offender is acting wrong, but has no idea that he is wrong. He is simply lacking information. If this is the case, however, we are required to rebuke him, prefacing our words with, "I'm sure you don't realize, but . . . "

The second level of the "white outlook" is when I know the person is doing something wrong, but may be partially right. I still view his actions as wrong, but there is some proper behavior or motive mixed in.

All of the above outlooks view the object of our judgment as having committed an offense. They explain that his intentions were good, but his actions were nonetheless wrong.

The highest level, taught to us by HaRav Schwab zt"l is to view others as behaving 100 percent correctly. If it seems that someone is misbehaving, I must be wrong. I must be missing some information and don't know the whole story. There must be an explanation. I know that if I were really interested in viewing him/her in a positive light, I could find some explanation. Admitting one's limitations is not easy, but this level is worth aspiring towards.

To appreciate this level, we should place ourselves in the suspected person's shoes. Wouldn't we want more than a simple, "Oh, he must have woken up on the wrong side of the bed"? Most likely, we would want an all-out vindication of our actions.

A handy rule of thumb in viewing others in the most positive light is that whenever something seems so wrong that we just cannot believe it -- don't believe it! There's always something we are not seeing.

End of Part I

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