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.
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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