JUDGING FAIRLY Part 1
“Judge the members of your people fairly.1 ”
Most of the commandments that we have thus far discussed involve speech or
actions towards other people but they do not necessarily instruct us about
our thoughts. The commandment to judge others fairly breaks this trend -
the Torah requires us to develop certain attitudes towards the behavior of
our fellow man.
There are four basic categories of people towards which we are commanded
to have different attitudes (two if which will be discussed today and the
other two, next week.):
1. The person described as a ‘Tzadik’, (a righteous man): He is someone
who consistently behaves in a highly moral fashion. If we see a tzadik
seemingly commit an uncharacteristic negative action then we are commanded
to give him the benefit of the doubt and search for some justification for
his actions. For example, John sees his Orthodox Rabbi enter into a non-
kosher restaurant. John knows that his Rabbi is strict about observing
the Torah laws. John must presume that his Rabbi had a valid reason for
entering the restaurant, for example, he may have needed to relieve
himself and this was the nearest location for him to do so. However, the
requirement to judge fairly goes even further. Even if John were to see
his Rabbi actually place non-kosher food into his mouth he must still
attempt to find justification for his Rabbi’s actions. In this case the
most common explanation is that his Rabbi has some kind of health issue
and at times must eat the nearest food available to him or face the
possibility of threat to his life2 .
2. The person described as a ‘Beinoni’ (a normal person); He is someone
who strives to be a good person and generally succeeds but falters on
occasion. If he behaves in a way that could equally be construed as
permitted or forbidden then we are commanded to presume that he acted in
the permissible fashion. For example, if we know a person who is
generally careful not to speak negatively (lashon hara) about others but
sometimes fails. If we see that person whispering to his friend in such a
fashion that could involve forbidden speech but equally could consist of
permissible speech, then we are commanded to give him the benefit of the
doubt and presume that he had spoken permissibly. However, if this person
committed an action that strongly leans towards a negative interpretation,
then the onlooker is not commanded to judge him favorably, however it is
considered praiseworthy to do so nonetheless.
The underlying concept behind this commandment is to view people from a
fair, logical and balanced perspective. The righteous person who always
acts positively deserves to be judged favorably even if he appears to be
committing a sin; this is because it is logical to believe that he has not
totally strayed from his regular behavior. Similarly, a person who
generally acts positively but sometimes strays, deserves to be judged
favorably when he commits an action that leans equally to the good and
bad. This is because more often he does act righteously, therefore it is
logical and fair to presume that he acted this way on this occasion.
However, if he does something that strongly leans to a disapproving
interpretation then one is allowed to presume that he did act negatively,
because it is in fact more likely that he did indeed do so.
1 Kedoshim, 19:15.
2 In a situation in which a person’s life is in danger, the
Torah requires him to break all but three of the 613 Commandments - those
three being murder, idol worship and forbidden relations.
Text Copyright © 2008 by Rabbi Yehonasan Gefen and Torah.org