Raising the Bar
How Judging Others Favourably Creates a Just Society
By Braha Bender
When the Torah commands us to judge others favourably, it doesn’t just say that it’s a nice thing to do. The Torah tells us that judging others favourably is just: “With justice shall you judge your fellow.” (Leviticus 19:15)
Of course, there are caveats. If the particular individual in question is known to be a consistently destructive, evil person, the Torah does not consider him “your fellow” and does not obligate you to judge him favourably. We are commanded to be compassionate, not foolish.
But when it comes to a regular Joe, even when you see him doing something that looks patently wrong you are still obligated to try to judge him favourably. You see Rachel walking out of a store with a shirt in her hand when the theft alarm starts to blare. It looks like she was trying to shoplift, but you are obligated to try to figure out how her action might have been justified. Why not call a spade a spade and assume that Rachel was shoplifting? Judging Rachel favourably might be a nice thing to do, but why is it considered “justice”?
To understand how judging others favourably is an expression of justice, picture the alternative. Imagine someone who doesn’t judge others favourably at all. Let’s call him Mr. Geezer. To Mr. Geezer, what you see is what you get, and when what you see looks rotten, the person doing it looks pretty rotten too. Of course Rachel was stealing! “Kids these days,” he mutters to himself as he leaves the store.
Mr. Geezer goes about his life seeing bad people doing bad things and stupid people doing stupid things. Someone cut him off on the freeway? “Jerk,” he says to himself. A mother with a child accidentally pushes him in line? “Inconsiderate idiot,” he thinks. Mr. Geezer arrives at the supermarket to discover that they just ran out of his favourite breakfast cereal? “Can’t this place do anything right?,” he explodes at the manager.
Since life is full of minor accidents, oversights, and disappointments, Mr. Geezer is weighed down by more and more cynicism and bitterness every day. Soon even good things start to look bleak. Why try to be a giving, upstanding person when nobody else seems to bother? If everybody is such a jerk and an idiot, why take the trouble to be considerate of them?
Soon our chronic grump is cutting off others on the freeway, pushing people in line, and even committing small crimes like shoplifting without feeling any remorse at all. After all, why bother being considerate of jerks and idiots? Sometimes Mr. Geezer even feels a secret rush of satisfaction as his obnoxious behaviour wreaks small vengeance against all the slights and slurs he perceives as being directed against him.
Now I ask you: is this okay? Is this just? Judging others unfavourably lowers your standard of acceptable moral behaviour. It makes your world a dark place where going against the grain as a good, decent person takes herculean effort.
In contrast, judging others favourably raises the bar. Rachel wasn’t shoplifting. If Mr. Geezer had stayed in the store for a few more moments, he would have seen the cashier running up to Rachel shouting apologies. The cashier forgot to remove the electronic tag. The mother didn’t mean to bump into him. With children pulling her every which way, she simply tripped. The person cutting Mr. Geezer off on the freeway was rushing to the hospital because his wife was giving birth. Another rushed driver’s child had just suffered a serious accident.
Even when a circumstantial explanation really doesn’t seem to fit the situation, we can still judge others favourably by realizing that people are people. There are all sorts of motivations for behaviours, and most of the time people don’t mean any harm. Jews usually have their hearts in the right place, even if they happen to be distracted, misinformed, confused, or otherwise thrown off track.
So exercise your Jewish heart. Judging others favourably isn’t just a nice thing to do. The way we perceive our lives, especially other people, is the beginning of justice. Let’s choose to live in a world where it is worth behaving justly. We might just bring out the best in everyone around us – including ourselves.