Why It's So Important for You to Judge Others Favorably
If we judge others favorably, God will judge us favorably.
One of the most important Jewish principles in interpersonal relations is the obligation to judge people favorably and to give others the benefit of the doubt (Ethics of the Fathers 1:6). This principle is relevant as we get closer to the High Holidays – to the “Days of Judgment” – because if we judge others favorably, God will judge us favorably (Shabbat 127b).
Normally, the principle of judging favorably applies when there is incomplete information. We don’t know if the person is acting appropriately or not, and the situation can be interpreted favorably or unfavorably. We don’t know the underlying facts of the situation, only the surface-level appearance, and we don’t have a full picture. In such cases, we are taught to fill in the missing pieces with a positive assumption.
If God knows everything – if He knows why the person went into McDonald’s – what does it mean that He will judge us favorably?
For example, if we know someone keeps kosher, but we observe them entering a McDonald’s. In that situation, giving the person the benefit of the doubt would mean making the assumption that the person entered the restaurant for some reason other than to eat – perhaps to use the restrooms.
But how does this work with God? We are taught that if we give others the benefit of the doubt, God will do the same for us. But how can this be? After all, God is omniscient! He knows everything, so there’s no data missing. If God knows everything – if He knows why the person went into McDonald’s – what does it mean that He will judge us favorably? Doesn’t God know if we acted properly or not?
Rabbi Chaim Shmuelevitz answers that in every human activity there is some good and bad. Even when we do the right thing, there’s usually some aspect that is done for personal gain. No action is a hundred percent motivated by pure altruism.
Conversely, when we do something wrong, there is inevitably some good to those actions as well. The question is where we put our focus – on the positive or the negative? Since both good and bad exist within every action, we have a choice as to where we will direct our attention. Do we choose to see the good in people or the bad in people? Do we focus on the positive aspects of their character or areas where they fall short?
Rabbi Shmuelevitz answers that whatever we choose to focus on in other people’s lives is what God will focus on in ours.
If we choose to direct our attention towards the good in others, even when we don’t have the whole picture, God will focus on the good in us – even though He knows the whole situation.
If we choose to direct our attention towards the good in others, even when we don’t have the whole picture, God will focus on the good in us – even though He knows the whole situation. Conversely, if we focus on the bad in others, God will focus on that part of us as well. After all, how can we expect God to judge us more favorably than we judge others?
When we choose to actively overlook the negative aspects of other people’s behavior, we’re not being naive. It’s making a choice to focus on the positive that also exists within our friend’s conduct and character.
Suppose a child wants to be helpful to his parents and starts cleaning the dishes, but because he is careless, a plate slips and shatters on the floor. The parent may be upset with the child for not being careful, but they could instead choose to focus on how eager the child was to help out around the house. Both the child’s desire to help and his carelessness are true. It becomes the parent’s choice whether to focus on the positive or the negative, and it’s a choice we all have to make as to where we should direct our attention.
If we get into the habit of routinely trying to find the good in others, over time we will train ourselves to always choose the good. By focusing on the best in others we become more positive people.
Judging others favorably can be challenging, especially when we feel wronged or offended in some way. One suggestion I have found helpful in judging others when feeling mistreated, is found in the very words of the Sages of the Mishnah: havei dan et kol ha’adam l’kaf zechut, “judge all people favorably” (Ethics of the Fathers 1:6). The Hebrew word kol or “all” would seem to suggest that we should judge “all” people favorably, and not just some people. However, there is another way to understand this phrase.
The Hebrew term kol ha’adam can also be translated as “all of the person.” We don’t have to focus on the one wrong thing that person did and let that person be defined by that one action. We should not simply look at what the person did that offended us. Rather we can choose to look at kol ha’adam, at the whole person. Looking at the total person will not erase the wrong, but it will allow us to see the person’s misdeed within the context of the entire person, including all their positive character traits and the good deeds they have performed. It helps us refrain from hyperfocusing on the one offense, and instead allows us to zoom the lens out and look at the entire person – a powerful technique to judge others favorably.
The more we choose to see the best in others, the more we will become the positive people we want to be. Imagine what a different world it would be if we could latch on to whatever good we see in other people. And as our Sages teach, the more we do this for other people, the more God will do this for us.
Question: Reflect on a situation where you felt wronged by another person. Can you consider that there were circumstances in that person’s life that can help you better understand why they behaved that way?