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Dan Le-khaf Zekhut - Judging Others Favorably

Rav Binyamin Zimmerman
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Bein Adam Le-chavero: Ethics of Interpersonal Conduct

By Rav Binyamin Zimmerman



Hakarat Hatov L’Hakadosh Baruch Hu

For all the Chessed He Has Bestowed Upon Us

Ma Ashiv L’Hashem Kol Tagmilohi Alai

Mishpachat Katlowitz



Shiur #04: Dan Le-khaf Zekhut – Judging Others Favorably



The Obligation to Judge Others Favorably


In our second lesson, we examined the verse in Parashat Kedoshim (Vayikra 19:15) that seems to address the judges, commanding them to be diligent in executing their duties.


Do not perform iniquity in justice.  Do not give special consideration to the poor, and do not show preferential honor to the great.  Judge your comrade righteously.


Nevertheless, as we saw, the verse in its entirety (especially its final clause, “Be-tzedek tishpot amitekha”) is significant for all sectors of society.  Its impact is not restricted to the judicial system. 


The Talmud (Shevuot 30a) records four laws derived from the conclusion of this verse, the second of which is the obligation to judge others positively.


“Judge your comrade righteously” — you must judge your fellow favorably.


The other laws learned from the verse relate to proper and honest court proceedings, but this law seems to be quite clearly universal.  One should not be overly hasty to judge another negatively; instead, one should give another the benefit of the doubt.  Colloquially, we may say that the Talmud mandates judging others not only with strict tzedek, righteousness, but rather with tzedaka, charity.


The Nature of the Obligation


While the above-stated passage would seem to indicate that there is a biblical obligation to judge other’s favorably, the Mishna in Avot (1:6) seems to record an almost identical statement as an eitza tova, good advice attributed to Yehoshua ben Perachya.


Yehoshua ben Perachya says, “You must make for yourself a teacher, acquire for yourself a friend and judge everyone favorably.”


Yehoshua ben Perachya seems to be advising one to develop relationships with others — a teacher, a friend — and to view human actions in a favorable way.  Evidently judging people favorably is essential for developing positive relationships with people, but is only as “obligatory” as acquiring a teacher and a friend.  It is certainly beneficial, but in no way compulsory.


Setting aside the question of whether in fact there is an obligation to judge others favorably or just a suggested practice, the terminology employed in Avot is slightly different than that in Shevuot, and this may prove significant. The former speaks of judging everyone, “et kol ha-adam” (literally: “all of the man”) favorably, while the latter speaks of judging “chaverkha,” “your fellow,” seemingly limiting the obligation of judging favorably to one’s friends or acquaintances.


It is not only this Mishnaic dictum which seems to challenge the understanding that there is in fact a biblical obligation to judge others favorably.  Questions abound, leaving ample room to understand that the status of judging others favorably may not only be postbiblical, but possibly not obligatory at all.


Firstly, the very fact that the verse quoted in the Talmud seems to be dealing with judges and also acts as the source of a number of laws specifically geared towards judges may suggest that the essential application of the verse is limited to the legal system.  Judging others favorably outside of the courtroom would therefore be either meritorious behavior or a rabbinic obligation; it would not really be learnt from the verse.


In fact, the Talmud (Shabbat 127b) records a teaching of the Sages that one who judges others favorably will have others judge him or her favorably as well, seemingly adding weight to the understanding that this is not compulsory but rather suggested behavior.  The Talmud there continues by citing a fascinating story about the extent to which one individual judged his employer le-khaf zekhut and was given the blessing that he too would be judged favorably:


As for you, the same way you judged me favorably, may the Omnipresent judge you favorably.


The simple understanding of the passage indicates that it is a meritorious practice for which one will be compensated, but not an obligation.


Furthermore, a second difficulty with the conviction that there is a full-fledged obligation to judge others favorably is that others sources seem to speak of a specific requirement to give the righteous the benefit of the doubt.  The Talmud (Berakhot 19a) teaches:


In the academy of Rabbi Yishmael, they taught: “If you see a Torah scholar commit a transgression by night, harbor no ill thoughts of him by day…  He has certainly repented.” 


The Talmud then qualifies this teaching:


However, this applies only to personal matters; regarding monetary transgressions, he must first return the object to the original owner.


Thirdly, the whole concept of judging others favorably at all costs and under any circumstances is seemingly not in line with other statements of our Sages.  As they note, it is sometimes dangerous to assume that people are innocent and therefore deserve to be judged favorably.  In the minor tractate Derekh Eretz, (Pirkei Ben Azzai 3:3) we find a startling statement regarding how one should view others (referenced by Rashi, Taanit 23b):


People should always be in your eyes like thieves, but honor them like Rabban Gamliel.


The passage continues to tell the story of Rabbi Yehoshua, who allows a wayfarer into his home, gives him to eat and drink and then shows him his sleeping quarters in the attic.  However, Rabbi Yehoshua secretly removes the ladder to the attic afterwards.  During the night, the guest takes all the valuables from the attic and attempts a quick escape.  Failing to notice that the ladder has been removed, he falls and is injured.  In the morning, Rabbi Yehoshua found him on the ground and berates him: “Fool, you aroused our suspicions last night!”  The passage concludes by reiterating this teaching of Rabbi Yehoshua: though he might have honored the guest as if he were a prince, nevertheless Rabbi Yehoshua was as careful with him as if the guest were a robber, which in fact he was.


This source would seem to indicate that excessive application of “Be-tzedek tishpot amitekha” is dangerous and ill-advised.  This idea is often referred to as “Kabbedehu ve-choshdehu,” “Honor him but suspect him.”  If there is in fact an obligation to judge others favorably, how may one suspect his fellow Jew?  Why is doing so not adverse to the obligation to judge others favorably?


The Rambam’s View


At first glance, the language of the Rambam might be used as a support for the view that the need to judge others favorably is in fact not an obligation at all, but an act of piety. The Rambam (Hilkhot De’ot 5:7) lists judging others favorably as one of the defining characteristics of a Torah scholar, though it is not required.


A Torah scholar… judges every person favorably.


On the face of it, the Rambam seems to give voice to our earlier suggestions.  The fact that he lists judging others favorably as an aspect of the uniquely positive character of a scholar would seem to indicate that doing so is meritorious behavior but not obligatory.


However, a more in-depth look at the Rambam’s language, as pointed out by the Chafetz Chayim, indicates that the Rambam understood otherwise.  He writes (Sefer Chafetz Chayim, Introduction, Positive Commandment 3, Be’er Mayim Chayim):


The reader should not try to refute my argument, namely that all major commentators agree that the obligation to judge others favorably is biblical in nature, by using the words of the Rambam, which seem to indicate that it is a meritorious practice of scholars, but not obligatory… Such an understanding of the Rambam’s view is incorrect, for the Rambam is explicitly dealing with individuals of unknown character, as he himself indicates.  It is specifically these individuals concerning whom there is no obligation of judging favorably; it is merely a meritorious act.


The Chafetz Chayim cites as a proof for his view the statement of the Rambam himself in Sefer Ha-mitzvot (Positive Commandment 177).  There the Rambam discusses “Be-tzedek tishpot amitekha,” and he indicates that the mitzva has three parts, two for judges and one for society at large.


Included in the verse is the obligation to judge one’s fellow favorably. 


Thus, the Rambam clearly states that it is an obligatory part of the mitzva, not merely a recommendation.  However, if so, how is one to understand the Rambam’s ruling in Hilkhot De’ot?


The explanation of the Rambam’s view ties up the loose ends, answering a number of questions we have seen earlier.  A careful reading of the Rambam’s language in the two sources cited above indicates that in Hilkhot De’ot he quotes the language of the Mishna in Avot, “kol ha-adam,” while in Sefer Ha-mitzvot he makes reference to the language of the Talmud in Shevuot, “chaverkha.”


The Chafetz Chayim points out that the Rambam clearly understands that there is no contradiction between Avot and Shevuot, as they are each speaking about different individuals.  When dealing with one’s chaver, known to be an upright Jew, one is obligated to judge him favorably.  For this reason, the Talmud in Shevuot derives this obligation from “Be-tzedek tishpot amitekha,” and the Rambam cites it in Sefer Ha-mitzvot as a biblical obligation.


The Mishna, however, makes reference to “kol ha-adam,” which is more general and refers to any individual one might come into contact with and have reason to suspect of wrongdoing.  Being that one doesn’t know this individual’s character, one is not required to judge him or her favorably.  However, the Mishna quotes Yehoshua ben Perachya’s dictum that it is meritorious to give them the benefit of the doubt as well.  Thus, the Rambam records in Hilkhot De’ot the meritorious practice of scholars to judge kol ha-adam, everyone, beneficially.


By the same logic, recognizing that different sources are speaking of different individuals, the passage in Berakhot, which discusses a scholar who does something suspicious, is referring to a third type of individual altogether.  Someone who is known to be righteous takes the Law of God seriously, and one should be willing to go out on a limb to assume that such an individual would not sin.  Even if it is clear that the righteous individual has indeed transgressed, one should view it as a temporary lapse, an out-of-character aberration; one must assume that the individual repented immediately afterwards.


Different Strokes for Different Folks


Essentially, the need to give others the benefit of the doubt is moderated by a realistic approach which balances the positive trait of being slow to judge with the level-headed need to be cautious.


The same mode of thought would also require us to treat individuals known to be lax in their performance of commandments with a special measure of suspicion.  Just as some individuals have earned the right to be viewed favorably, others who have acquired their negative reputations equally deserve to be deprived of the benefit of the doubt — and even to be presumed guilty.  Imagine the used-car salesman, notorious for cheating people and selling lemons as if they have just rolled off the assembly line, telling the customer that a given car is the best in the world.  Would anyone trust the salesman simply because the car looks great, is being sold at an amazing price and the pitch is convincing? 


Halakha recognizes that certain people display traits which earn them unenviable reputations.  The used-car salesman in fact may be telling the truth, but his previous behavior has convinced us not to believe him in the current situation.  Similarly, certain individuals have earned the presumption of guilt because they have established that they tend to act illicitly whenever they think they can get away with it, and sometimes even if they know they will be caught.


With this in mind, we can understand the language of the verse with which we began.  The verse subscribes one’s amit with tzedek.  Not everyone can rightfully be considered an amit; only one who is a chaver and actively follows the mitzvot is included in the obligation.


In fact, the idea of evaluating individuals along a sliding scale is an idea that already appears in the Rambam’s commentary on the Mishna in Avot.  There he differentiates between various individuals and circumstances.


A person may be unknown to you, so that you do not know whether he is a righteous man or an evil one.  If he does an act or if he says something that could be interpreted as either positive or negative, judge him favorably, and do not think of him as having done wrong.

Another person may be well-known as a righteous man of good deeds.  Therefore, even if you see him do an action which seems to be unequivocally bad, so that the only way to justify it is by stretching things to an extreme and assuming a very remote possibility, it is still obligatory to interpret the act positively, based on that possibility.

Conversely, a person may be evil and his deeds infamous.  Therefore, even if you see him do an action which seems to be unequivocally good, so that the only way to malign it is by assuming a very remote possibility, one must be wary of him and not believe that it is good, based on that possibility that it is bad. This is based on the verse (Mishlei 26:25), “When he supplicates with his voice, do not believe him, for seven are the abominations in his heart.”

If one is unknown and his act may be interpreted in one of two ways, piety obligates that he be judged favorably, whichever way that may be.


The Rambam essentially explicates a four-tiered approach for analyzing the actions of others.  The Chafetz Chayim points out that the opinion of the Rambam is basically accepted by Rabbeinu Yona and other commentators, and he summarizes the laws.  (See Minchat Asher, Parashat Kedoshim for the discussion of a minor difference.)  There are four groups of individuals, and one’s analysis of others’ actions also takes into account the types of actions under consideration.


1.    The righteous must be judged favorably even if the matter seems very likely negative.


2.    Average individuals, who are careful not to sin but sometimes slip up, must be judged favorably if there is an equal chance of good or bad.  The Chafetz Chayim adds (3:7) that even if it is more likely that the negative interpretation is correct, it is still proper to leave the doubt unresolved in one’s mind and not judge the other negatively.


The Chafetz Chayim here adds an important caveat (3:8):


Even where the negative possibility is more likely, and there is therefore no prohibition against judging him negatively, this is restricted to his own perception of what happened. Therefore, he must not go and speak negatively about the person


3.    Wicked individuals have lost their rights to a judging favorably, and they are not to be given the benefit of the doubt.  Even when their actions appear positive, they should be viewed as negative.


4.    Unknown individuals have an intermediate status.  While there is no obligation to judge them favorably, it is a good quality for one to assume that such people have merit and give them the benefit of the doubt (as we learn from the stories in Shabbat 127b).


Defining “Righteous” and “Wicked”


Certain individuals are known to be sincere and pious in all their endeavors, so that one would be obligated to judge them righteously no matter what the situation.  Others might have certain areas of conduct in which they are totally righteous, and one can be completely confident that they will not slip.  However, at the same time, these individuals may be less proficient in other areas and even prone to violating certain required behaviors.  These individuals could be defined as “righteous” in certain areas and “wicked” in others, as they have no trouble doing the right thing regarding certain endeavors, while others they find difficult to accomplish.  In certain areas, they will be presumed innocent, while in others, they will be presumed guilty.


Essentially, judging others favorably requires taking into account each individual’s reputation and analyzing his or her actions accordingly.  One might even view this as an obligation to judge fairly.  There is an added call to give the benefit of the doubt to those who haven’t proven that they don’t deserve it.


The Rationale behind the Obligation to Judge Others Favorably


Clearly giving a second’s thought before jumping to conclusions about others is personally beneficial and creates a more harmonious community.  Giving others the benefit of the doubt is certainly beneficial to society.  By assuming that others are innocent instead of jumping to conclusions about their guilt, people may live together harmoniously.  It emancipates the individual from worrying that others are acting improperly or out to get him or her.  By judging others favorably, one will also fulfill the directive “You shall your fellow as yourself,” (Vayikra 19:18); conversely, judging others unfavorably would constitute a violation of “Do not hate your brother in your heart” (ibid. v. 17).


The Chinnukh (Mitzva 235) explains the composition of this directive:


Judging others favorably is also part of the mitzva, and it is a factor in creating peaceful and friendly relationships between people.  Essentially, the main purpose of all the aspects of this mitzva is to direct communities into establishing fair judicial systems, and to bring it about by removing suspicion from others.


Besides the societal benefits, the commentators note additional benefits to be gained through judging others favorably. The Me’iri (Chibbur Ha-teshuva, 1:4) notes that one who suspects others won’t be able to be influenced positively by them and will look at society without respect.  Rav Yehoshua Leib Diskin points out that judging others favorably leads one to have a positive view of society, a view which will lead one to act properly, as one will desire to be in good standing within the community.


Beyond these benefits for one’s own behavior, the Yismach Moshe on Avot explains that positive judgment of others minimizes the negative effect and the chillul ha-shem that is created through another’s improper behavior.  (An elaborate discussion of these issues may be found in Rav Daniel Feldman’s book, The Right and the Good, pp. 120-121.)


The reasons behind the law are in no way merely academic.  There is a halakhic discussion regarding whether one has the right to waive the responsibility of others to judge him favorably.  If the reasons for doing so benefit the observer more than the one being judged, then understandably it cannot be waived (see Responsa Az Nidberu 12:4).


The Questions which Still Remain


While we have laid out the general guidelines, (for a more expansive and explicit delineation of the relevant laws, please see Sefer Chafetz Chayim, Hilkhot Lashon Ha-Ra, Rule 3 at length), one still might wonder: how far does this obligation go?  Must one really think of every far-out possibility in order to avoid passing negative judgment on another? 


What seems to emerge is the Torah is pushing us to recognize an inner good in everyone, but to be realistic that everyday difficulties, and moments of weakness might interrupt a person’s strive for spiritual success.  Judging others favorably changes our way of thinking; our eyes start to see beneath the dirt that might corrode the exterior and identify the inner beauty.


Dealing with our unanswered question may provide a glimmer of understanding for the whole mitzva.  We have pointed out that the verse which acts as the biblical source for the obligation to judge favorably seems to be directed primarily to the judges.  Though we have explained that it also refers to the individual in society, looking at others from the standpoint of the courtroom of his mind, there remains an unsolved difficulty.  The explication of the end of the verse as a requirement to judge those with upstanding reputations positively seems at first glance to contradict the earlier part of the verse, which obligates the judge to be impartial.  Judging everyone favorably might be good for society, but that is not how a courthouse is supposed to be run; indeed, it would not be effective!


The “Contradiction” Which Explains it All


Rav S.R. Hirsch (Vayikra 19:15) deals with this difficulty by pointing out that the Talmud’s understanding of the verse seems to contain two apparently contradictory laws. 


The statement be-tzedek tishpot amitekha is a source for two seemingly contradictory laws.  On the one hand, this statement obligates a judge to issue his verdict on the basis of absolute justice, in strict accordance with the law.  On the other hand, from this same statement we learn that, outside the court of justice, the rule we are to follow is to judge our fellows favorably, i.e., try to find justifications for their actions.


Rav Hirsch begins with this apparent contradiction and then goes on to explain how, in fact, the beginning of the verse can demand from judges uncompromising impartiality which ignores the character of the litigants while telling observers outside the courthouse to do just the opposite.


In reality, there is no contradiction.  For judgment in a court of justice and judgment of one’s neighbor do not serve the same purpose.  The duty of a judge in a court of justice is to examine only the act itself, whether it is in accordance with the dictates of justice or not.  He should disregard all the individual and personal circumstances and all the motives.  There are actions that — though unjustified — are excusable, and yet in court they must be judged as punishable.  Society, on the other hand, is interested primarily in one’s personality and character.  In society’s view, every action is merely a symptom of the integrity or inadequacy of its members. 


The attribute of justice dictates that the judge must himself disregard the personality of the actor and consider only the act itself.  Yet this same attribute of justice dictates that, in the societal realm, we must take into account all the possible circumstances that may vindicate the person and his character.  Justice says: “Do not be quick to condemn your neighbor; rather judge your neighbor favorably!”  This is the same attribute of justice that says of judging others “Do not judge your fellow until you have been in a similar position” (Avot 2:4).  It differentiates between social and forensic judgment to such an extent that to the judge of the court, it says, “When the parties stand before you, consider them both in the wrong, but once they have accepted your decision and have left you, regard them both as good men” (Avot 1:6).


Essentially, Rav Hirsch teaches us that one must recognize the limits of judgment outside the courtroom.  The same attribute of justice which pushes the judges to clarify the unique circumstances of each case also recognizes the impossibility of doing so outside of the courtroom.  This difference between justice in and outside the court may explain how the directive to judge others favorably constitutes a necessary concession to the limits of societal judgments.


A court must itself hold its judgment until the facts have been elucidated, the witnesses cross-examined and all supporting evidence produced.  The average onlooker does not have that luxury of doing so, and therefore, the ability to condemn another outside of a court is almost impossible.  Just as a judge would not decide to convict without having all the facts before him, the community, which lacks so much information, cannot adequately assess the situation.


In giving people the benefit of the doubt outside the courtroom, we recognize two fundamental principles.  Firstly, we accept the fact that there is doubt outside of the courtroom.  Secondly, when in doubt, “the tie goes to the runner,” and we choose to view others positively.


In the next lesson, we will further analyze the nature of this positive outlook that the Jew is taught to inculcate into his or her personality.  We will seek to understand how doing so not only allows one to judge others favorably, but to change the way one looks at life and the world.

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