Yesterday, we noted the Torah’s command in Parashat Kedoshim (19:15), “be-tzedek tishpot amitekha” (“you shall just your fellow justly”), which the Gemara in Masekhet Shevuot (30) interprets as referring both to judges and to ordinary people. It requires judges to judge litigants fairly and impartially, and it requires all of us to give others the benefit of the doubt.
The question arises as to how the word “be-tzedek” (“justly,” or “fairly”) accommodates the second interpretation of this verse. Seemingly, giving people the benefit of the doubt and judging them favorably even when they appear to act improperly is an act of special kindness and generosity. If we were to judge others “justly,” with strict objectivity, then we would reach the most logical conclusions when we observe outwardly negative behavior. How does the ideal of “hevei dan et kol adam le-khaf zekhut” – judging people favorably and giving them the benefit of the doubt – fulfill the command to judge “be-tzedek”?
Rav Avraham Pam (in an article in Am Ha-Torah, vol. 14, p. 213) answers this question based on a discussion among the poskim concerning eulogies. The Shulchan Arukh (Y.D. 344:1) rules that although it is forbidden to exaggerate the deceased’s positive qualities in a eulogy, nevertheless, “one mentions his fine qualities, and adds to them somewhat.” According to the Shulchan Arukh, one may magnify “somewhat” the deceased’s admirable qualities, though outright exaggeration is forbidden. Already the Taz raises the question of how the Shulchan Arukh can permit dishonesty, even “somewhat.” The Chida, in Birkei Yosef, offers an insightful and important answer: “Presumably, people did not know the full extent of his qualities, and since he had positive qualities, there is no doubt that a few of them were not known.” All generally good people, the Chida here teaches, have more goodness to their credit than that of which people are aware. Nobody truly knows the full extent of a person’s fine qualities, and for this reason the Shulchan Arukh permits some slight degree of exaggeration when delivering a eulogy. This is not a license to lie, but rather a reflection of Halakha’s firm belief that all people have more goodness than what they outwardly display.
On this basis, Rav Pam explains, we can understand the command of “be-tzedek tishpot amitekha.” Favorable judgment is, in fact, fair and just, because we need to recognize that all people have more goodness than that which is outwardly shown. We are to give the benefit of the doubt because there is so much we do not see and do not know about other people. When viewed from this perspective, this requirement indeed represents the fairest possible judgment – one which takes into account the inherent limits of our knowledge of other people, their lives and their visible actions. There is nothing more just or fair than acknowledging how little we truly understand about what people do and why, and thus judging our fellow favorably is indeed a fulfillment of the command “be-tzedek tishpot amitekha.”