I am currently in Israel, where the national debate over judicial reform continues to rage. Both sides have strong arguments and everyone feels passionate about their opinion.
It all reminds me of the old story about the rabbi who was counseling a couple whose marriage was on the rocks. He listened to the wife and very sympathetically said to her, “You’re right.” Then he listened to the husband and, with equal sympathy, responded, “You’re right.” Whereupon the rabbi’s wife demanded to know, “How can they both be right?”
The wise rabbi said to his wife, “You’re right too!”
Some 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, upon investigation, they turned out to be either significant distortions or complete fabrications. I’m sure we’ve all had similar experiences.
In the second of this week’s Torah readings, Kedoshim, we read the words betzedek tishpot amitecha—“You shall judge your fellow with righteousness.”
Rashi, the foremost biblical commentator, first presented a simple analysis of this phrase: Judges must rule righteously, without being swayed by other considerations. In fact, the full name of a beth din (“a house of law”) is beth din tzedek (“a house of just law”). In other words, the law must be just, fair and objective—otherwise the court itself is not doing justice.
But then Rashi presents a second interpretation, which is relevant not only to the judiciary but to all of us: “Another explanation is: Judge your fellow favorably.” That is, give everyone 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 how this concept is related to Kedoshim as a whole. The portion deals with the overall directive to be holy, and it occurred to me that perhaps the passage about judgment might be included because, in fact, all of us are holy. Too often, however, 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 son Michoel is a Chabad shliach in Kauai, the lushest of the Hawaiian Islands. Not infrequently, sunbathers come into the shul straight from 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 by the Lubavitcher Rebbe to someone who complained about a fellow who had been called to shul as the tenth man in a 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 form a minyan.
It’s all about perspective and giving people the benefit of the doubt.
Over 200 years ago, the holy Rabbi Levi Yitzchak of Berditchev became famous for the lengths he would go 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! What 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 of us are innately holy, but how we judge each other 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 the innate holiness inside them too.
Rabbi Yossy Goldman is Life Rabbi Emeritus of Sydenham Shul in Johannesburg and president of the South African Rabbinical Association. He is the author of From Where I Stand, on the weekly Torah readings, available from Ktav.com and Amazon.
Adapted from the original at Chabad.org/parsha.