The Rabbis teach that he who judges others favorably should himself be judged favorably by God (Shabbos 127b). Perhaps this opportunity should compel us to consider the ways that we judge others in anticipation of “Judgement Day”.
The judgement of other people is an inherently divine activity that we are loathe to engage in as humans. The Torah describes the judges in Beis Din as “elohim” many times (for example Shmos 22:7-8) because we are to see judgement as something emanating from God through the mouths of the judges (see Ramban on Shmos 21:6). Sefer Devarim (1:17) sums it up and says “the judgement is for Elokim” (God). Similarly, Pirkei Avos (2:4) warns us never to judge another person unless we are in their exact position, which is, implicitly, never. And if, for whatever reason, we are to ever to judge another person, we are to judge favorably (Avos 1:6).
Despite this, it seems that there are times when we must judge others, and not always favorably. Pirkei Avos (1:7) teaches us to distance ourselves from an “evil” neighbor and warns judges to assume the worst in all of the litigants (1:8) and witnesses (1:9). The midrash elaborates on this theme in Kala Rabasi (9) through an anecdote:
All people should always be considered in your eyes as thieves, yet you should honor all people as if they were Rabbi Gamliel.
There was a story about Rabbi Joshua who invited a man into his house, he gave him a meal, and a place to sleep on the upper floor of the house. Rabbi Joshua took the ladder away. What did the man do? He got up in the middle of the night, took all of the (owner’s) items, and packed them up, and as he tried to leave, he fell and broke his neck. In the morning Rabbi Joshua said “empty one! Is this what people like you do? The man responded: “I didn’t know you took away the ladder”. R. Joshua said: “didn’t you see we were being careful around you?”
This midrash points to this dichotomy but how are we to reconcile these two contradictory outlooks? The continuation of this midrash poses this question and suggests that it depends on the person in question. If it is a righteous person who is known to us, we are to judge favorably. If not, we are to be more suspicious. Rabenu Yona suggests a similar approach in his commentary to Pirkei Avos (1:6). I would like to suggest another approach based on the halachos of Lashon Hara.
The Chafetz Chaim (introduction, ase 3) says that one who believes lashon hara has committed the sin of not judging others favorably, among other sins. Nevertheless, he cites (klal 6 seif 10-11) the exception that we should suspect that it is true in order to protect ourselves. How is this reconciled? He suggests a sort of “palginan neemanus” that would instruct us to believe lashon hara in respect to creating protection for ourselves, but at the same time, in our hearts we should think about it as completely false. Therefore, we should treat the person with the same absolute respect and honor as before; there should be no change in our interactions with the person or in our thoughts of the person. Nevertheless, we should protect ourselves from the possibility that the lashon hara is true. Thus, we are to respect every single person like Raban Gamliel, the nasi but to take precautions lest they are the worst.
Pirkei Avos instructs us to distance ourselves from evil neighbors in case we anticipate a negative influence, but we are not to diminish our respect for those neighbors. We are to be suspicious of the integrity of the witnesses and litigants in court in case our judgement will be tainted, but we are to see all litigants as righteous when the case is completed. This dichotomy is profoundly difficult to balance, just as the Achronim struggle with the possibility of palginan neemanus which parces testimony and attempts to believe it only in one respect and not in another. However, if we are charged to accomplish in the case of lashon hara, then perhaps we are required to do the same for all instances of judgement. Rashi (Shabbos 127b) tells us that if we will judge others more positively, peace will be promulgated in our communities. As we have seen, this can be profoundly complex and challenging to accomplish, but perhaps a less judgmental environment may truly elevate our communities and potentially ensure a better judgement for us all this year.
Rabbi Kenny Schiowitz is the rabbi of congregation Shaare Tefillah and is Chair of the Talmud Department and Director of Judaic Studies at the Ramaz Upper School. He has published a number of volumes of educational resources and halachik essays here: https://oupress.org/product-category/halacha-aggadah-sifrei-kodesh/