The Psychological and Ethical Teaching to Judge Favorably

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I want to discuss here one of the most important Talmudic sources, in my view – a source that reflects a very profound understanding of psychology.  The source in the Talmud (Pirkei Avot 1, 6) is actually only one sentence, and according to a literal translation says – “judge the entire person favorably”.  But the usual translation is “judge every person favorably” (and it is usually understood this way even by Hebrew speakers).  This Talmudic teaching is based upon a commandment in the Torah – “judge your neighbor in righteousness (or justice)” (Leviticus 19, 15).  I want to make clear three things in relation to this Talmudic teaching to judge favorably.

 

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First, I want to explain the meaning of the teaching in its literal sense and the way it is actually formulated.  What does it mean to “judge the entire person favorably”?  I will give an analogy to make clear the literal meaning – suppose there is a wall that is white with a small stain in one corner of the wall.  Our tendency as human beings is to focus upon the stain, to generalize and conclude (by way of value judgment) that the wall is dirty – rather than to be factually accurate and to say that the wall is white with a small stain in the corner.  This tendency to focus upon the stain (rather than seeing the entire wall) and to generalize on the basis of the stain leads us to perceive and describe the wall in a negative and unfavorable light as dirty – and this characterizes our thinking, perception and communication as human beings.

For example, my wife used to say out of anger and upset, that I am lazy in not helping her enough (in her view) with cleaning up around the house.  I would respond by saying two things.  First, I would say that I understand that she is angry and upset that I am lazy in her eyes, but I am actually quite proud to be lazy because I fulfill an important function in life in being lazy – as we can only know hard workers in life (like my wife) in comparison with lazy people (like myself).  Of course, she would then become even more upset.  Second, in a more serious way, I would point out that the word lazy is a generalization that portrays me in a negative and unfavorable light, and the necessary result is that my wife will become angry and upset.  If she perceives me as lazy, she can only feel anger and upset.  If she describes my behavior factually without generalization, then she will need to say not that I am lazy but that I am acting lazily in relation to the specific issue of cleaning up around the house.  Now, the question becomes why I act lazily in relation to cleaning up – a question to which there may be any number of explanations besides her interpretation and generalization that I am lazy.  It may be that I am not interested in cleaning up (and from my point of view this is indeed the reason) – to me cleaning up around the house is a waste of time, and immediately after cleaning up there is a mess again.  All of us act lazily in relation to things that we are not interested in and see no use for – and, my wife knows that I do not act lazily when I am interested in something, such as in studying psychology, philosophy and Judaism.

In the Talmudic teaching “judge the entire person favorably“, the Hebrew expression favorably implies an image of scales of justice that we are to tip in favor of the person rather than against the person.  That is, in viewing the entire person we will see in our eyes both positive and negative qualities and actions, and the teaching requires of us to focus not on the negative but on the positive in tipping the scales of justice in favor rather than against the person.  The teaching requires of us to portray our fellow human being in a positive and favorable light.  I repeat that if my wife judges me in a negative and unfavorable light as lazy she will necessarily feel anger and upset.  If she sees me as an entire person with good and bad qualities who at times acts lazily and at times does not, and she focuses on the good in judging favorably, then she will not feel anger and upset but will feel appreciation for me as a person in spite of those negative qualities or actions that she does not like.  Furthermore, the very same quality that we perceive as negative often may be seen as positive or have a positive side to it – such as stubborn may be viewed as persistent or lazy may often have a positive aspect of being easygoing and tolerant.  Most importantly, judging favorably relates to intentions, as viewing the entire person will take into account intentions as well as behavior (and as a matter of faith and trust we are to judge intentions in a favorable light).  If my wife judges favorably that in acting lazily in relation to the issue of cleaning up around the house I do not intend in any way to hurt her or to cause her anger and upset, then she will significantly minimize, if not eliminate, her anger and upset.

By the way, I really do think that cleaning up around the house is a waste of time not just for me but for my wife as well (and I am indeed easygoing in this regard, and will not complain at all if my wife doesn’t clean up around the house).  I ask my wife – why should a little dust and dirt bother her?  I point out that in the medieval period people lived in houses in which the floors were of dirt or mud.  In my eyes, excessive cleaning up around the house from a religious point of view borders on idolatry as the house is after all just wood and stone – and, my wife will agree with me in this regard when she is not angry and upset.  I am truly willing to be considerate of my wife and to compromise – to clean up, say, once a week, but not more than that as my wife would like.  Once a week is a compromise for me because if it depended only upon me I would clean up around the house no more than perhaps once a month.  All of us have expectations, and just as my wife has an expectation that I will help her more cleaning up around the house, I too have an expectation that she will be preoccupied with cleaning up much less – I would prefer to see her reading a book and developing herself morally, spiritually and intellectually than mopping up a stupid floor.  If we want good relations together in spite of differing expectations, then we must not only compromise and reach understanding, but most importantly we must judge each other in a positive and favorable light so that we will not become angry and upset with each other – and if we do not judge favorably this will make it much more difficult for us to reach compromise and understanding.  Therefore, the first thing that I emphasize in relation to the Talmudic teaching to “judge the entire person favorably” is that we are to view the entire person (good and bad qualities) focusing upon the positive in judging the person in a favorable light, and especially to take into account intentions that we are to view as a matter of faith and trust in a favorable light.

 

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Second, the direct result of judging unfavorably is what is called in the Jewish tradition “the evil tongue”.  The laws of the evil tongue relate to words (what comes out of our mouths), and are a moral issue concerning our relationship with our fellow human beings – far more important according to Jewish law than dietary laws that are a ritual matter (concerning what goes into our mouths).  If a Jew violates the dietary laws that are of a ritual nature, no harm has been caused to anyone else; but, a violation of the laws of the evil tongue is a form of moral and spiritual murder of a fellow human being.  The Talmudic rabbis compared the evil tongue to murder – just as a murderer cannot bring back to life the victim; so too one who speaks with an evil tongue cannot return the hurtful words that have been spoken and cannot repair the damage.

Two things are characteristic of the evil tongue in Judaism.  First, the evil tongue is saying something disparaging that portrays another person in a negative and unfavorable light.  Second, the evil tongue is disparaging speech that is true.  There are those who speak disparagingly, and when questioned about the disparaging nature of their speech, say that this is the truth – as if this is a justification.  But, this is the very definition of the evil tongue – we say something disparaging of another and this is true.  If what we say is disparaging and a lie, this is even worse than the evil tongue and is termed in the Jewish tradition “the giving of a bad name”.

When my wife says that I am lazy this is her truth as she perceives it (and she is not lying); and, yet, this is considered the evil tongue in portraying me in a negative and unfavorable light.  Implied in the laws of the evil tongue in the Jewish tradition is that peace between people takes precedence over our personal conception of truth.  Truth is not a value without limits, and truth can cause great damage to a fellow human being and to our relationship with that person if we express our truth in a way that portrays the person in a negative and unfavorable light.  Judaism then demands that we be sensitive and considerate in the way we speak about others, and careful in our choice of words in expressing our truth.

 

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Third, the teaching “judge the entire person favorably” does indeed apply regarding every human being, as according to the usual understanding “judge every person favorably”.  This may be difficult to hear, but the teaching applies even in the most severe cases – such as regarding Adolf Hitler or terrorists.  I taught a class in Bible and Judaism for several years to Holocaust survivors and second generation Holocaust survivors.  We spoke about this issue a number of times, and although I tried very hard to present my position in a sensitive way there were invariably a few who found it difficult to hear my position.  I would emphasize that as a teacher of Jewish studies I am interpreting sources in the Bible and Jewish tradition, and there is no obligation to agree with my subjective interpretations.  However, I would point out that I do have a responsibility as a teacher of Jewish studies to present the sources as I understand them – the essence of Torah (Judaism) is guidance (the literal meaning of the term Torah), and the Torah (Judaism) certainly guides us how to deal with difficulties in life and with our suffering as Jews (especially our suffering in the Holocaust and from terrorism).

The position that I would present to the Holocaust survivors is, in my opinion, the same position as that of Rabbi Abraham Kook (who lived in the early 20th century), and there are two fundamental things that he argued.  First, Rabbi Kook based himself on a distinction between a person and the actions of the person – a distinction that is found in the Talmud (Brachot 10a) in a story of Rabbi Meir and his wife Bruria (and Bruria is the one great example of a female scholar in the Talmud).  Rabbi Meir is attacked by thugs, and he prays that they should die in reading a verse in the Book of Psalms (104, 35) as – “sinners will cease from the earth, and wicked ones will be no more”.  Bruria corrects him, and tells him that he is not reading the verse correctly – the word sinners can also be read as sins, and Bruria says that the verse should be read “sins will cease from the earth, and wicked ones will be no more” (which became the accepted reading of the Jewish tradition).  Bruria suggests that Rabbi Meir should pray not that the thugs will die but that they should repent, and if they repent and change their behavior then the continuation of the verse will be fulfilled that they will no longer be wicked.  Thus, Rabbi Meir’s prayer and reading of the verse was directed toward the thugs as people and sinners leading him to feel anger and upset; while Bruria corrected him that his prayer and the verse were to be directed toward their actions and sins that will allow him to minimize, if not eliminate, his anger and upset (and feel compassion and understanding).  In light of this source, Rabbi Kook argued that we are obligated to love an evil doer as a person, and hatred is only permissible that is directed to the actions of the evil doer.

Second, Rabbi Kook pointed out that all human beings, including evil doers, are according to the Bible created “in the image of God” (Genesis 1, 27).  Rabbi Kook wrote the following about love:

 

Love of humanity needs to be living in the heart and soul, the love of every person especially, and the love of all peoples (nations)…and hatred needs to be only regarding the wickedness…but it is upon us to know that the essence of life, light and holiness, never leaves the Divine image that is given to the human being in general, and that every nation and tongue is endowed with.

 

Obviously, I do not intend to justify the horrible actions and atrocities of Hitler or terrorists.  Their actions are unjustifiable and unforgivable.  However, as human beings Hitler and terrorists are created, according to the Bible, “in the image of God” – and it is not written with the exception of evil doers.  Hitler and terrorists are to be viewed as evil doers, and not as evil people in their essence, because from a religious point of view it cannot possibly be that God, as the source of goodness (and not a source of evil), could create an evil creature or thing.  Hitler and terrorists are not evil – their actions are evil.  I will give an analogy – I do not hate a poisonous snake; I only hate that the snake is poisonous.  A poisonous snake is a creature of God from a religious point of view; thus, as a creature of God the poisonous snake is beautiful and I appreciate its beauty.  Yet, the poisonous snake is dangerous to me, and I may need to kill it out of self-defense – but, I do not kill the snake out of hatred of the snake but only out of self-defense in spite of my appreciation of its beauty as a creature of God.

In the Book of Deuteronomy (23, 8) there is a remarkable law that it is forbidden to hate an Egyptian – and the Egyptians in the Biblical period were to the Israelites like Nazis.  The reason given (Deuteronomy 23, 8) that it is forbidden to hate an Egyptian is likewise remarkable – that the Israelites were strangers in Egypt.  That is, in spite of all the evil that the Egyptians did to our ancestors, we are commanded as Jews by the Bible not to hate them and, in my view, to judge them favorably in appreciating all that they did for us when we lived as strangers in their land.  In my view, this law applies today regarding Germans following the Holocaust.  In the Book of Deuteronomy (21, 22-23) there is another remarkable law – “and when a person has sinned in a capital case and has been put to death and he has been hung on a tree his body shall not hang on the tree but you shall surely bury him that day because hanging (or the hanged) is a curse of God”.  In the case here the person who has been hanged is an evil doer; yet nevertheless the evil doer is not to be left hanging but is to be promptly buried.  In my view, the Bible is concerned here with the respect due even to an evil doer who is created “in the image of God”.

It is possible to object that the atrocities of Hitler and terrorists are so horrible that such evil doers have lost their Divine image, and degenerated to the level of beasts.  I already indicated that even in the case of a beast like a poisonous snake I will distinguish between the snake itself, which I love and appreciate as a creature of God, and the poisonous nature of the snake, which I do hate.  But, I ask a pragmatic question – what is gained by adopting such a view that evil doers are beasts?  By adopting such a view we will only fill ourselves with anger and hatred.  Such evil doers as Hitler and terrorists are filled with rage and hatred, and for me it is a religious assumption that beneath the surface level of their rage and hatred lies a Divine image that is eternal just as God is conceived of as eternal.  In the case of such evil doers as Hitler and terrorists, it may be difficult to perceive the light of that Divine image beneath the surface level because it is so covered with the filth of rage and hatred; yet, maintaining our faith that the light of the Divine image of such evil doers is still there deep beneath the surface allows us to at least minimize our own anger and pain in response to evil – and hopefully eliminate hatred on our part.

The reason, in general, for judging favorably is for our own sake.  If we do not distinguish between a person and the actions of the person, and we judge another unfavorably in portraying the person in a negative and unfavorable light, we will necessarily feel anger and upset, and even perhaps fill ourselves with hatred.  Such negative feelings are likely to consume us from within leading perhaps to various physiological illnesses, and we may also be likely to vent such negative feelings upon those closest to us as well as upon others unintentionally.  Thus, judging favorably allows us to control our feelings – to at least minimize negative feelings (such as anger, upset, hatred, as well as sadness, worry, anxiety and stress) and to experience instead positive feelings (such as compassion, understanding and forgiveness).

The Talmud teaches (Mishnah Sanhedrin 4, 5) that Adam, the first human being according to the Biblical account, was created alone “for the sake of peace between people so that a person will not say to a fellow human being my father is greater than your father”.  From the story of Adam, the Talmud learns human brotherhood – we are all brothers (righteous and evil doers) in being descended from the same father.  In the Biblical conception, Hitler and terrorists are our brothers, and here is another analogy – if my brother has become insane, and is dangerous threatening to kill me, I may need to kill him out of self-defense; but, I do not kill him out of hatred.  I do not hate my brother who has become insane.  I love him and feel a great deal of compassion for him (in spite of his violence) in understanding that he has become insane.  I do not justify his violent behavior, which is unjustifiable, but I judge favorably that he does not truly intend to hurt me (in spite of his declaration that he intends to hurt me), and I judge favorably that his violence and declared intention to harm is only the result of his insanity.  There is a Talmudic teaching that “a person does not commit a transgression unless a spirit of insanity has entered him” (Sota 3a).  I forgive my brother who has become insane then not for his violent behavior but for his humanity and weakness of character.

I want to add that judging favorably will also take into account circumstances and external factors.  In the case of Hitler, his childhood and youth were evidently characterized by intense conflict with his father.  In the case of Arab Moslem terrorists, they are from an early age indoctrinated with hatred.  If we grew up in the same family background as Hitler or the same social background as Arab Moslem terrorists, would we be different?  It is true that there are those who rise above circumstances and display great strength of character; but, what of those who are unable to do so – would we be different?  I ask this not to justify their violent behavior but in order to understand and ultimately forgive them not for what they do but for who they are (human beings of weak character who grew up in difficult circumstances) – and, such forgiveness is for our own sake so that we may minimize our own anger and hurt in response to evil.  I have spoken here of judging favorably regarding even the most severe cases, such as Hitler and terrorists – if we can judge favorably and bring ourselves to be compassionate and forgiving in such severe cases, then surely regarding our loved ones and those closest to us we should be able to portray them in a positive light, and be compassionate and forgiving of them.

One last thing – there is a Talmudic teaching that “one who is compassionate upon the cruel, in the end will be cruel to the compassionate”, which seemingly contradicts the position that I have presented here.  But, in my opinion, there is no contradiction and this teaching likewise must be understood in light of the distinction between the person and the actions of the person.  This means that we are not to be compassionate upon the cruel only regarding behavior, and we may even need to kill the cruel in self-defense; however, we are nevertheless obligated to judge favorably all human beings including the cruel – and we must then relate to the cruel with compassion and love as a person created “in the image of God”.  I return to my analogy of the poisonous snake – although we will not be compassionate upon it in terms of its being poisonous, and we may need to kill it in self-defense, we are nevertheless obligated from a religious point of view to appreciate the beauty of the snake and to love it (and feel compassionate toward it) as a creature of God.

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Jeffrey Radon

Author of orthopraxjudaism.com

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