Judging Favorably Leads To Favorable Judgment

Will Gotkin
Judging Favorably Leads To Favorable Judgment
August 31, 2010

We all make judgments in our lives. For example: “If I make a left turn, will I get hit by on-coming traffic?” But we also judge ourselves and our fellow human beings on whether or not we or they are doing the right thing. When it comes to judging others, we have to take extreme precaution so as not to transgress the mitzvah of “With righteousness shall you judge your fellow” (Vayikra 19:15). [1] The Sages drove this message home stating: “Judge every person meritoriously (Avos 1:6).”[2] We are now in the month of Elul – an auspicious time in which we devote a special amount of time and energy to teshuva (repentance), and we increase our tzedeka (charity) and ahavas Yisrael (love of fellow Jews). During Rosh Hashanah and the Days of Awe between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur our Creator judges us based on our behavior in the past year and determines what our fate will be for the next year. It is especially crucial as this time of judgment draws near that we work on judging others favorably if we wish a favorable judgment for ourselves to be rendered in Heaven.

Hashem’s treatment of us is always kind whether we realize it or not. However, our perception of His presence is determined by our actions as we are rewarded and punished midda kinegged midda or measure-for-measure. He also judges us by the same standards with we which we judge others. Rabbi Joseph Telushkin points out that

“there is something hypocritical about coming to synagogue on the High Holidays and beseeching G-d to look upon us favorably and treat us with mercy and forgiveness, if we are unwilling to act that way toward others. The Talmud teaches that G-d forgives the sins of those who don’t hold grudges and who forgive offenses committed against them (Rosh Hashana 17a). Only if we act in a forgiving manner toward others do we make ourselves worthy of G-d’s forgiveness.”[3]

Obviously judging favorably does not mean we willfully blind ourselves from reality. In order to achieve ahavas Yisrael we must be willing to see past the faults of others and give people the benefit of the doubt. Of course there are situations in which we cannot ignore that an evil deed has been done. However, in those cases, Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi, popularly known as the Alter Rebbe, suggests that we take into account the person’s circumstances that lead the person to sin.[4] The Lubavitcher Rebbe takes this even further by explaining that we can more than excuse others’ sins. We can even see them as merits when we consider that one is only faced by temptations that they have the ability to overcome.[5]

This past Shabbos marked the birthday of the Baal Shem Tov (the founder of Hasidism). Therefore I’ll close with one of his lessons. The Friedeker Rebbe recorded that the Baal Shem Tov taught the following: “When someone issues a ‘verdict’ on another, he is actually pronouncing his own verdict. For example, if one asserts that because of a certain misdeed another committed he is deserving of such-and-such punishment, he is actually issuing that verdict on himself. And conversely, if one says that because of a good deed or word that another has done he is deserving that G?d should help him in the areas where he is needing, that blessing, too, is fulfilled on him himself.”[6]

Will Gotkin is a frequent contributor to Gather The Jews.

[1] Artscroll Chumash, 661

[2] Kehot Publication Society, 29

[3] A Code of Jewish Ethics Volume 1, 189

[4] Pirkei Avot. Kehot Publication Society, 29

[5] Ibid, 29

[6] http://www.chabad.org/library/article_cdo/aid/1215054/jewish/Advice-for-Life-from-Rabbi-Israel-Baal-Shem-Tov.htm

3 replies
  1. Stephen
    Stephen says:

    Hi Will!

    Thanks for the piece. It reminds me of a couple of other biblical sayings:

    “Judge not, lest you be judged.”
    “He who lives in a glass house should not cast stones.”

    The only thing I don’t like is this:
    “Alter Rebbe, suggests that we take into account the person’s circumstances that lead the person to sin.”

    Seems to open the door to moral relativity. I feel a lot of people make this argument on behalf of suicide bombers — “If you were born a Palestinian under the oppressive Israeli yoke, then you would not be so quick to judge — you might think it right.”

  2. Will
    Will says:


    Glad you liked it!

    You make a fair point. Even a superficial reading of the Torah provides sufficient evidence that moral relativism has no place in Judaism.

    It is therefore, safe to conclude that the Alter Rebbe, a learned and pious scholar as well as the founder of Chabad Chassidus, was not making the case for moral relativism. Nor was he saying we should foolishly assume that people’s actions are only a product of their circumstances. I sincerely apologize for not adequately putting his teaching in a proper context.

    He was not saying we should write off people’s faults as nothing more than pruducts of circumstance. If we see or hear about a Jew doing something questionable we are to give him or her the benefit of the doubt.Obviously there are times when it is not meritorious or even dangerous and sinful to try to interpret another’s actions as good. However, this is mostly in extreme cases e.g. We witnessed a murder.

    The Alter Rebbe was saying that in cases in which we know for sure a Jew did something wrong and it is not a case in which it is prohibited to give the person the benefit of the doubt e.g. Somebody was rude towards us in the supermarket today, then it is proper to try to still give the person the benefit of the doubt by reminding ourselves about how difficult that person’s circumstances may be. This will not only help us with our own peace of mind by keeping us from holding grudges and getting upset, but it will help us love our fellow Jew despite their faults.

    After all, we all have faults and we could all make the case that while our circumstances do not excuse our faults, they certainly can make it hard for us to improve. Wouldn’t we love it if someone else tried to understand that and cut us a break? I’ll admit the Alter Rebbe is certainly encouraging us to reach for a higher level when it comes to judging others favorably. Hope this is a better explanation!

    • Will
      Will says:

      In other words he is not saying we should pretend another doesn’t have faults. We should simply try to love them despite their faults. One strategy we can employ to help us do that is to remind ourselves of the other’s circumstances.


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