Parashat Kedoshim: Who is the judge and what is justice?

If we look closely, the demand is not only that we act righteously, but that we also give others the benefit of the doubt.

By SHMUEL RABINOWITZ
May 2, 2019 11:10
3 minute read.
Parashat Kedoshim: Who is the judge and what is justice?

‘IT CAN be off-putting and cumbersome to be asked for money in various social settings, even if it is for an objectively good cause.’. (photo credit: PIXABAY)

The list of commandments with which this week’s Torah portion, Kedoshim, begins includes those that fall under the category of “between man and God” and those that are “between one person and another” – all under the title “You shall be holy, for I, the Lord, your God, am holy.”

Some of these commandments are meant for judges: “You shall commit no injustice in judgment; you shall not favor a poor person or respect a great man; you shall judge your fellow with righteousness” (Leviticus 19:15).

Simply understood, this verse is not written for the common person, but for the person who sits in judgment, the judge, who has the power to determine the fate of those who stand before him. The judge can choose between a just and an unjust trial. This verse gives two examples of injustice: favoring a poor person, meaning, stealing from the rich to provide financial benefit to the poor; and the reverse – favoring a great man, giving financial benefit to someone of greater social status at the expense of the person he faces in court.

The sages of the Talmud add to this and say: “You should judge your fellow with righteousness – give them the benefit of the doubt” (Shavuot 30).

It seems that the sages shift the verse from the court to any person, at home, in business, or anywhere there is a social encounter. But there is more to this addition. If we look closely, the demand is not only that we act righteously, but that we also give others the benefit of the doubt. When we see someone doing something that could be interpreted either positively or negatively, we should give them the benefit of the doubt and judge their actions positively.

The sages wish to teach us two important principles with this commentary. The first principle is that a judge is not just the person in court. Actually, each and every one of us acts as a judge of our fellow man. Without noticing, we judge others and their actions, sometimes negatively and at other times positively. We ascribe intentions, sometimes good and sometimes not, and act toward others on the basis of our hidden judgments.

It is easy and popular to talk about refraining from judging others. Our sages did not take this route. They acknowledge that it is in our nature to judge others and saw no point in fighting human nature. Instead, they wanted the verses of the Torah to teach us how to cope with this human trait.

Now we come to the second principle. “Justice” is usually interpreted as doing the right and moral thing, based on accepted laws and rules. Therefore, we might wonder why the sages of the Talmud explained this verse as a command to give others the benefit of the doubt. Can it be that a decision made in advance to judge someone favorably is “just”?

Actually, it is. This is exactly what the sages tried to teach us. We must recognize that man naturally wants to be good and do good deeds. It is rare to find a person who wants to do bad things for the sake of being evil. Man is essentially good, and therefore it is just to give others the benefit of the doubt and assume that their intent and actions are positive and worthy.

This is not to say that there aren’t people who do things that are not positive or worthy. We are very capable of discerning positive actions from negative ones, and we must not ever lose our ability to judge and distinguish between good and bad. But despite this, when we come to judge another person, and not their actions, we must assume their intent was positive, their objective was worthy, and only a character weakness, getting carried away, or an emotional difficulty led the person to do something unworthy.

The writer is rabbi of the Western Wall and holy sites.


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