World of the Sages: Judging favorably

Favorably judging others is a well-known and oft-repeated maxim. Countless times we are enjoined by the sages to look upon others sympathetically, always assuming the best and never presuming the worst.

court gavel 88 (photo credit: )
court gavel 88
(photo credit: )
Favorably judging others is a well-known and oft-repeated maxim. Countless times we are enjoined by the sages to look upon others sympathetically, always assuming the best and never presuming the worst (M. Avot 1:6; Derech Eretz 1:31). This guideline is emphasized when we enter a courtroom. Our sages suggest that the biblical directive to judge peers with righteousness (Leviticus 19:15) indicates the order to consider each person favorably (Sifra, Kedoshim 2; B. Shavuot 30a). As if to stress the importance of judging others favorably, the sages speak of the harsh punishment for one who presumes the worst of a good person - in or out of the courtroom. Citing biblical sources, the Talmud tells us that one who suspects the innocent of misdeeds is punished by suffering bodily harm (B. Shabbat 97a). Perhaps because of our tendency to disparage leaders, there is another arena where the importance of positively viewing others is accentuated - when the other is a Torah scholar (B. Berachot 19a): "If you saw a scholar transgressing at night, harbor no ill thoughts of that scholar by day, for perhaps that scholar has repented." Unsatisfied with this favorable assessment, the Talmud goes further: "Perhaps the scholar has repented, rather - surely the scholar has repented!" Not only should misdemeanors committed under the cover of darkness not be considered when the sun rises, but we should even assume that scholars repent their daytime wrongdoings overnight (Eliyahu Rabbah 3). Maimonides (12th century, Cairo) appears to view this positive judgment of Torah scholars as axiomatic. He categorically states that when a sage drinks wine he only drinks to moisten the food in his belly. Thus the Torah scholar is afforded a more than generous favorable assessment. What, however, are the limits of this evaluation? Are we ever permitted to entertain the possibility that a sage has transgressed? Our sages limit the favorable appraisal of scholars to affairs concerning their personal conduct; when it comes to monetary matters, they are given no such license until they return misappropriated funds (B. Berachot 19a). One commentator explains that we are not referring to outright stolen goods, for one who pilfers the property of others can hardly be considered a Torah scholar. Rather we are talking about unbecoming financial behavior that does not reflect the expected benchmark of a sage. In such a case, the scholar is not afforded favorable judgment until all monies are returned (Hatam Sofer, 18th-19th century, Hungary). Another commentator limits the positive judgment to sins conducted away from the public eye: Even though someone spied the misconduct, repentance is a private affair and hence we can assume that the sage has atoned for his sins in private. If, however, the sage visibly transgressed and thus desecrated God's name, his repentance needs to be public; no favorable assessment is required by onlookers in this scenario until they witness his atonement (Rabbi Ya'akov Reisher, 17th-18th centuries, central Europe). Indeed, this extreme favorable judgment is reserved for those with a proven track record of absolute righteousness. A history of constant misconduct, in contrast, carries an opposite default: We suspiciously assume the worst, even when the deed appears at face value to be credible. Most people, however, fall somewhere in between these two categories, and when such people's actions can be construed in multiple ways, we are instructed to judge them favorably (Maimonides). Thus our sages are clear about the importance of looking upon others with sympathetic eyes - whether it be in cases where more than one possibility of interpretation presents itself or for a select group of righteous people, even when this positive view is unlikely. Why is it important to view others so favorably? Our tradition offers a number of explanations. According to one approach, one who imagines the worst of a scholar is akin to assuming the worst of the Holy Presence (Eliyahu Rabbah 3). Thus not judging favorably is equivalent to a defamation of the Almighty. This approach, however, may only apply to sages who shoulder the responsibility of being God's agents in this world. Returning to courtroom language, a second approach suggests that it is unjust to assume the worst. When looking upon others there is a presumption of goodness and innocence. Thus judging favorably is a legal axiom. Perhaps an alternative attitude might suggest that people are essentially good and their conduct should be assessed under this assumption. This approach certainly reflects a positive world outlook, though it may be difficult for some to swallow. A different line offers a utilitarian justification: If we judge others favorably, we can expect to be assessed in a similar vein by others (B. Shabbat 127a-b; Eliyahu Zuta 16). Finally we come to Maimonides, who says that when an action could be viewed positively or negatively and there is no clear indicator to tip the scales, it is bederech hahasidut (in the path of piety) to judge the other favorably. Maimonides does not expand on this appellation, though surely he cannot be suggesting that this course is for select pietists, since rabbinic literature does not advocate such limitation, bidding all to judge favorably. Building on the designation of Maimonides, we can suggest that judging others favorably is valuable to our own spiritual journey. When we frown upon others, not only may we be doing them an injustice that may boomerang back on us one day, but we reflect what is in our own innards. As a face reflects a face in water, thus a person's heart reflects another person (Proverbs 27:19) - what we see in others is a reflection of what is inside ourselves. Only a true artist can grasp the artwork of another; only the palate of a food connoisseur can fully appreciate an exquisite dish. Thus how we assess others mirrors our own innards. A waypoint on the path to piety is being able to recognize the good in other people. Eliminating the dross of assuming the worst in others, stamping out this reflex action, reflects a sincere effort to refine our own behavior and cleanse our souls. The writer is director of Advanced Programs at the Pardes Institute of Jewish Studies, teaches at Midreshet Lindenbaum and is a rabbi in Tzur Hadassah.