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‘Thou Shalt Not Be Judgmental’

A Torah scroll. Photo:

JNS.orgSome years ago, I heard Rabbi Manis Friedman tell a story about a man who overheard his friend telling his wife on the phone, “Drop dead!”

“How can you speak that way to your wife?!” he demanded. The friend smiled and said, “She just asked me if her new dress was gorgeous, and I answered, ‘Yes, drop-dead.’”

Hearing only half a conversation and drawing conclusions can be dangerous. I’ve lost count of how many times I’ve heard stories about others that I didn’t want to believe; and indeed, upon investigation, they turned out to be either significant distortions or complete fabrications. I’m sure we’ve all had similar experiences.

In the portion of Kedoshim, we read the words, Betzedek tishpot amitecha, “You shall judge your fellow with righteousness.”

Rashi, the foremost Biblical commentator, provides the simple analysis: Judges must rule righteously, without being swayed by any other considerations. In fact, the full title of a beth din, a Jewish court, is not only beth din, a “house of law,” but beth din tzedek, a “house of just law.” The law must be just, fair and objective; otherwise, the court itself is not doing justice.

But then Rashi adds a second interpretation, relevant not only for the judiciary but for all of us: “Another explanation is: Judge your fellow favorably”—i.e., give the benefit of the doubt.

The moral imperative to judge people favorably by giving them the benefit of the doubt is discussed in the Talmud, Ethics of the Fathers and many other Jewish sources.

I wondered what the connection might be to Kedoshim, a Torah portion dealing with the overall directive to be holy. It occurred to me that perhaps it might be because all of us are holy; but too often, people are misjudged and condemned before we have all the facts at our disposal. There are so many stories expressing this theme that we could go on forever, but let me share a few.

My friend and colleague Rabbi Mendel Lipskar tells the story of his early days in Johannesburg in the 1970s. He was a young, new rabbi in a synagogue frequented mainly by older people who were rather set in their ways.

At some point during his first Yom Kippur there, a young man walked into the shul looking very out of place. He was wearing jeans and sandals, sporting long, frizzy hair—the consummate hippie.

Rabbi Lipskar asked the gabbai to give the unexpected visitor the honor of opening the Holy Ark during the service. The gabbai was horrified. Who was this young man who was dressed so inappropriately? To give him such an honor was, to his mind, unthinkable.

But the rabbi insisted and the gabbai acceded, albeit most reluctantly. To make a long story short, that experience on Yom Kippur was the beginning of a spiritual journey for the young visitor. Today, the former hippie is a respected sofer (ritual scribe) in a large American city.

My son Michoel is the Chabad shaliach in Kauai, the lushest of the Hawaiian Islands. Not infrequently, sunbathers come into the shul straight off the beach and need to be given not only a tallit but robes or clothes as well. But the important thing is that they are always welcome.

I recently came across a letter from someone who complained to the Rebbe about a fellow who had been called into shul as the 10th man to help make the minyan. The complainant was outraged that the man sat in the back of the sanctuary reading the newspaper throughout the service.

The Rebbe suggested that he should appreciate how special it is that even a Jew who obviously cannot read Hebrew or participate in the service still comes in and gives up his time to help make the minyan.

It’s all about perspective and giving people the benefit of the doubt.

More than 200 years ago, Rabbi Levi Yitzchak of Berditchev became famous for the lengths that he went to consider others favorably. Of the many stories that highlight his benevolent, non-judgmental attitude, one of my favorites is of his encounter with a young man outside shul on the holiest day of Yom Kippur. This strapping young man was eating publicly, in brazen violation of the fast.

Rabbi Levi Yitzchak said, “I’m sorry to see that you’re obviously not feeling well and you had to break your fast. I wish you better.”

“I’m fine, rabbi. I couldn’t be healthier,” replied the young man.

“Well then, perhaps you forgot that today is Yom Kippur?”

“Who doesn’t know that today is Yom Kippur, rabbi?”

“And are you also aware that Yom Kippur is a fast day, and we are not permitted to eat today?”

“Of course, I know! Which Jew doesn’t know that, rabbi?”

Hearing this, Rabbi Levi Yitzchak looked heavenward and exclaimed, “Master of the Universe, see how righteous are your people, Israel. I have given this young man so many opportunities, but he absolutely refuses to tell a lie!”

All are innately holy, but how we judge them may make all the difference. I know it’s not easy, but if we look at others favorably, then we ourselves will be behaving in a holy way, and this will bring out that innate holiness inside them.

Moreover, our rabbis taught: One who judges his friend favorably will himself be judged by God favorably.

With acknowledgment to

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