Judging A Stranger

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by R. Gil Student

I. Judging Wrongly

Last motza’ei Shabbos, Jewish social media got excited over a Facebook post by a famous comedian. He shared a selfie with some young, frum-looking people and commented that they are Jewish students visiting New York who do not have cameras because of the Sabbath. I assumed that the picture was taken on Shabbos and proceeded to write about whether posing for the picture was permitted and, if not, whether sharing the picture is permitted (I concluded no to both questions – the revised essay is here).

However, late Sunday night I was informed that the picture was actually taken after Shabbos was over. I had misunderstood the comment and mistakenly attributed to the people an act that I consider forbidden. I had assumed that, like most people, they were not aware that posing for a picture is forbidden. This assumption turned out to be wrong. While I did not include any names or details, which I could not have known anyway, their friends and family could have identified them from the picture if they saw it. Should I have done something differently?

II. Judging Favorably

The Gemara (Shabbos 127b) offers a number of stories in which a person deals with someone who appears to have transgressed judges them favorably and turns out to be correct. For example:

A story is told of a certain man who descended from Upper Galilee and was engaged by an individual in the South for three years. On the eve of Yom Kippur he asked, ‘Give me my wages that I may go and support my wife and children.’ ‘I have no money,’ answered he. ‘Give me produce,’ he demanded; ‘I have none,’ he replied. ‘Give me land.’ — ‘I have none.’ ‘Give me cattle.’ — ‘I have none. ‘Give me pillows and bedding.’ — ‘I have none.’ [So] he slung his things behind him and went home with a sorrowful heart.

After the festival, his employer took his wages in his hand together with three donkeys, one bearing food, another drink, and the third various sweets, and went to his house. After they ate and drank, he gave him his wages. He said to him, ‘When you asked me, “Give me my wages,” and I answered you, “I have no money,” of what did you suspect me?’ ‘I thought, Perhaps you came across cheap merchandise and had purchased it therewith.’ ‘And when you asked me, “Give me cattle,” and I answered, “I have no cattle,” of what did you suspect me?’ ‘I thought, they may be hired to others.’ ‘When you asked me, “Give me land,’ and I told you, “I have no land,” of what did you suspect me?’ ‘I thought, perhaps it is leased to others.’ ‘And when I told you, “I have no produce,” of what did you suspect me?’ ‘I thought, Perhaps they are not tithed.’ ‘And when I told you, “I have no pillows or bedding,” of what did you suspect me?’ ‘I thought, perhaps he has sanctified all his property to Heaven.’ ‘By the [Temple] service!’ he exclaimed, ‘it was so; I vowed away all my property because of my son Hyrcanus, who would not occupy himself with the Torah, but when I went to my companions in the South they absolved me of all my vows. And as for you, just as you judged me favorably, so may God judge you favorably.’ (Adapted from Soncino translation)

III. Judge Who Favorably?

The Gemara prefaces these stories with the saying that someone who judges his friend favorably will be judged favorably himself. It seems from this language that you need to judge your friend favorably but not a stranger. The Mishnah (Avos 1:6) encourages more inclusive behavior, saying that you should judge everyone favorably. Is favorable judgment — assuming no wrongdoing — appropriate for everyone or just people you know and in whom you have confidence? Put differently, is favorable judgment about using past experience to evaluate current behavior or about maintaining a positive attitude?

Medieval commentators tend to divide people into groups. Most agree that we should judge righteous people favorably but that we do not need to do so for wicked people. This is just common sense, allowing experience to serve as our guide. However, the world consists of more than just these two poles. How do we view average people or strangers, whose behavior we do not know? Should we judge them favorably, as well?

Rambam (Commentary to Mishnah, Avos, ad loc.) explains that if someone righteous does something, you should interpret it as positive if there is even a remote possibility it is good. If some wicked does something, you should interpret it negatively as a precaution. The Mishnah speaks only of someone you don’t know. If he does something that seems equally plausible is good or bad, it is proper (a midas chassidus) to judge him favorably. It seems that Rambam takes the more general language of “everyone” in the Mishnah to refer to a stranger, but considers it proper behavior and not obligatory.

Similarly, Rambam writes in Mishneh Torah (Hilkhos Dei’os 5:7) that a Torah scholar should not scream like an animal or raise his voice, and should judge everyone favorably. This sounds like proper behavior for the pious, not a general obligation. However, in Sefer Ha-Mitzvos (imperative 177), Rambam writes that we are obligated to judge a friend favorably. Judging a friend favorably is a requirement; judging a stranger favorably is a pious behavior.

IV. Judging the Unknown

Rabbeinu Yonah takes a similar approach. In Sha’arei Teshuvah (3:218), Rabbeinu Yonah says that we must judge a righteous person favorably as a matter of truth, common sense. We must judge a wicked person negatively. The mitzvah applies to an average person — if he does something that could be either good or bad, we should assume it is good.

In his commentary to Avos (ad loc.), Rabbeinu Yonah says that the Mishnah about judging everyone favorably refers to someone you don’t know. You don’t know whether he righteous, wicked or average. Therefore, the mitzvah cannot apply. Even still, as a pious practice, you should judge him favorably.

The Chafetz Chaim (imperative 3, n. 3) explicitly says that there is only a pious practice to judge favorably someone whom you do not know.

V. Superficiality

Obviously, I cannot be objective about my own behavior. Based on what I wrote above, it seems that on seeing a picture of people I don’t know in a situation that could be interpreted positively (taken after Shabbos) or negatively (taken on Shabbos), I was not obligated to judge favorably. However, as a pious or proper practice, I should have judged favorably anyway. While I am neither a Torah scholar nor a pious man, in these types of matters we should all act strictly. The world needs stringencies on interpersonal commandments.

In truth, it never occurred to me that there was a positive way to judge this case. I jumped to the negative conclusion without considering alternatives. I say this not as a justification but as a confession. Whenever we see something, we need to think carefully before we react. Superficiality is the great sin of our TL;DR world, a trait that blinds us to our own faults. Like mockery, superficiality prevents us from hearing others and therefore from accepting rebuke.

To the people in the picture, I apologize for incorrectly judging you negatively. To my readers, I apologize for misleading you. To the people who reached out to correct me, I thank you for pointing out my errors.

About Gil Student

Rabbi Gil Student is the Editor of TorahMusings.com, a leading website on Orthodox Jewish scholarly subjects, and the Book Editor of the Orthodox Union’s Jewish Action magazine. He writes a popular column on issues of Jewish law and thought featured in newspapers and magazines, including The Jewish Link, The Jewish Echo and The Vues. In the past, he has served as the President of the small Jewish publisher Yashar Books and as the Managing Editor of OU Press. Rabbi Student currently is serving his third term on the Executive Committee of the Rabbinical Council of America and also serves as the Director of the Halacha Commission of the Rabbinical Alliance of America. He serves on the Editorial Boards of Jewish Action magazine, the Journal of Halacha and Contemporary Society and the Achieve Journal of Behavioral Health, Religion & Community, as well as the Board of OU Press. He has published five English books, the most recent titled Search Engine volume 2: Finding Meaning in Jewish Texts -- Jewish Leadership, and served as the American editor for Morasha Kehillat Yaakov: Essays in Honour of Chief Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks.

One comment

  1. Well said. In Kahnemann-Tversky terms we are way too slow in engaging type 2 thinking in our reactions to others. Or it may be the Fundamental Attribution Error of psychology at work.

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