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Passing Judgment

“How can I not judge someone when I know they're doing wrong?” Discussing some angles of judging


A reader reflected what many of us feel:
There’s tons of confusion about judgment. Are you never supposed to judge others? What about being discerning, is that judging? Hashem judges, so it can’t be all bad. We make a din v’cheshbon, a judgment of ourselves. We’re dan l’chaf zechus. And isn’t recognizing the bad (a judgment) an important safety precaution?
It’s a perplexing topic interwoven with this time of year. From the zodiac sign to preparing for our Day in Court, the energy jumping off our calendar is saturated with din. Let’s catch those sparks by teasing out these various strands and discussing some angles of judging.


Poor Kid, She’s Always Misjudged
My 15-year-old daughter gets in trouble, not because she does anything wrong, but because she looks like she does. A few examples: Although she wears the uniform, she gets called out because her personality makes anything she wears look a bit brash. She isn’t chutzpahdig, but is a bit cheeky (and cute), and when she asks the teacher or principal to tell her what she said wrong, they can’t ever come up with a quote. How can I help her?

It’s terrific that your daughter knows you have her back. A kid who’s consistently read wrong, perhaps over-endowed with spirit, needs her parents’ confidence. Stay chummy and communicative with her teachers and principals so that you can advocate for her.

Here’s another angle: You may want to help your daughter learn to make a stronger impression. Testing the furthest boundaries of school rules won’t serve her well. She’s a good kid, and ensuring others get that is also a Torah value.

“Be innocent before G-d and before Israel” (Bamidbar 32:22) tells us to stay far away from anything that gives any sort of incorrect picture and causes someone to judge us wrongly, and it goes beyond not ordering seltzer at McDonalds. The Avtinas family made the incense for the Mikdash. Even their brides didn’t wear perfume to avoid the scantest notion that they may have dipped into the fragrances (Yoma 38a). Rabi Yosi warns not to enter an abandoned building as it may look like you’re planning on doing something unsavory there (Berachos 3a).

Sometimes a person is blamed despite all of this, which is painful and, in some events, tragic. Rabi Yosi (while teaching us to stay away from attracting suspicion) prayed that his portion be with those who are wrongly suspected (Shabbos 118b) because the unjustified shame is a huge kapparah.

While this may be some small comfort to the wrongly accused, it doesn’t pardon the accuser, whether an educator in your daughter’s school, or anyone else, and we hope to never be that person.

Rav Hirsch warned, “Better a hundred should be judged too favorably than one should be wronged in judgment. You may never be able to forgive yourself” (Chorev, Toros 20).

If you misjudge, you should apologize (if the offended party knows about it; if not, it may not be advisable) and bless the person (Berachos 31b). Accusations can activate Middas Hadin, an exacting attribute of justice, and when Jews bless each other, that’s deflected.


Judgy, Judgy
The high school we chose decided that we’re not a strong enough family for them, based on my dress. I was disgusted! It’s superficial to judge based on externals, and judging in general is flat out wrong.

Hopefully, those administrators accept you as a person and would honor you as a friend.

Nonetheless, expecting them to be unaware that your style is different from the bar they set for their parent body would be ludicrous and unfair.

The way you present yourself to others is like holding up a sign. The sign may be lying or it may be incomplete, yet if someone reads the sign and believes it, they aren’t to blame.

The Cambridge definition of “judging” is “to form, give, or have as an opinion, or to decide about something or someone, especially after thinking carefully.” Normative members of society do that; they have a viewpoint, hopefully arrived at after thoughtful consideration. It’s strange when otherwise reasonable people think judgment is always wrong. “You can’t judge, y’know?”

The word “judging” has become politically incorrect. Strong value statements, even when warranted or kept to ourselves, can tingle our conscience. However, not only is it often fine to judge, it’s a big chunk of what we were put on Earth to do. Carefully assessing and finely rating right and wrong — judgment — is called daas, and it’s by far our most important faculty. “With daas you have everything, without it, you have nothing” (Nedarim 41a). Our first morning blessing thanks G-d for this faculty, and it’s the opening request in Shemoneh Esreh.

Havdalah distinguishes between “holy and unholy, light and darkness, what is Jewish and of the nations, between the seventh day and the six days of creation.” Chazal say that havdalah, distinctions, must be accompanied by daas, practical appraisal (Eiruvin 19a). Leaving it theoretical is half the job and intellectually soft.

Mishlei features a fool called an eveel, formed by the Hebrew letters alef-vav-lamed. This word is related to the Hebrew word ulai — maybe. The eveel isn’t a dimwit, he’s a brilliant philosopher, always over-exploring the other side of ethical discussions, preferring words like “perhaps,” “interesting,” “possibly”… and never extending the intellectual force to push through to clear moral principles (Malbim). High IQ and not too bright.

Jews tend to be proud of being smart, yet this pride is misplaced. Brains only rate if they’re used to advance staunch objective values. History would be a lot less bloody had bad guys only been dumber. We hope their moms weren’t proud of how smart they were.


Quit Judging Me
My friend’s daughter is in seminary this year. When I invited her for Shabbos she was surprisingly hesitant and then croaked that she’d love to come but that she only eats certain hechsherim. I felt very judged. I guess we’re not virtuous enough for her.

When someone holds themselves to a higher standard than we do, we may feel disapproved of, and it’s a bad feeling.

Sometimes we realize intellectually that they love us and don’t mean it personally. We know that there’s equal opportunity at the grocery, and if we so desire, we can buy ultra-right-wing chickens, too. We may be surprised at our defensiveness and ponder why we can live and let live when someone is more lenient and not when they’re stricter. We may happily replace vanilla ice cream with chocolate or cook vegetarian to make a guest comfortable, yet when it comes to more stringent hechsherim for a day or two, we bristle.

The umbrage is real. Despite that, we can’t expect to buffer our feelings by insisting that our chosen lifestyle be the glass ceiling of halachic standards (“No one do better, please, it makes me feel criticized”), so what to do?

First, consider if this insecurity is coming from a niggling feeling that your kitchen isn’t quite up to snuff. If so, you know what to do. Then, assuming that your kashrus is still plenty good, stop feeling inadequate. We can all learn from each other. Next, consider that your ire may be aggravated by some other trigger. Everyone’s lugging around Stuff. Finally, know that after the first visit, once you’re used to the setup, the crisis will probably pass, and you’ll hopefully be able to enjoy each other’s company.

I’m sensing that some of you want me to go after the guest in the question, but here’s my hesitation: It’s unclear if you preferred that she decline the invitation without explanation or come and feign a stomachache or tell the truth. It’s not fair to expect her to guess, on the spot, what your response or choice would be.

On the other hand, if you’re the guest inviting yourself over and second guessing the kashrus, know that playing with your host’s feelings isn’t worth the chavayah.


You Never Know
Recently, at a tuition hearing I attended as committee head, one family claimed to have hit hard times. They had convincing reasons why the usual documentation — tax returns, etc. — were unavailable, and, not wanting to put them through more anguish, we took them at their word. I was shocked to see them at the Pesach program we attended! They seemed pretty shocked to see me, too. We avoided each other like one of the Ten Plagues all Yom Tov.

You tag someone as a snob or stingy, and chances are that they’re shy or financially tight. Imagining a backstory isn’t extra. When there are obvious question marks, judging charitably is imperative.

Dan l’chaf zechus keeps society friendly and is the greatest kindness you can do for another Jew (Yaavetz, Avos 1:6). Imagine how pleasant Yom Tov would have been had you realized they were hardworking administrative staff rather than bandits.

This mitzvah benefits us in another way. We’re swayed by the society we keep. You won’t be the same if you think you live among cheats rather than paragons of honesty (Maharil Diskin 1:54a).

The best of us have misjudged. Chanah prayed in an unusual way, and Eli HaKohein thought she was intoxicated. The priestly Urim V’Tumim apparently confirmed this by showing Eli the letters for shikur, “drunk.” Eli missed a piece: The same letters can spell out kasher, “fitting,” and k’Sarah, “like Sarah” (Vilna Gaon, Shmuel 1:1). When there’s an alternate narrative, it’s often the factual one.

Case in point: Years ago, a 3,000-dollar sheitel was mistakenly left in a bag that landed at the cleaners. In an admittedly imprudent move, the sheitel owner went on a national TV reality court show to try and recoup damages. Televised live, the Hispanic judge brought evidence that the wig company had no record of this purchase and threw out the suit. It was painful when many heimish people who heard about this jumped the gun, decrying this couple’s “fraud.” One rav who cared enough to investigate found that there were two sheitel companies with almost identical names, and the judge had reached out to the wrong one. The owner of the correct one stepped forward to defend the couple and back up their account. If you were following this story and reserved judgment, a gold star for you.


Can I Try Out Your Shoes?
At my cousin’s wedding, the chassan came into the women’s section and sat down there in the middle next to his kallah. The women kept on dancing, super not okay. There’s nothing to reevaluate — it wasn’t right.

Look, in this case, the facts are in front of you. You saw it happen, and it’s not appropriate. Where does favorable judgment come in, if at all?

“Hillel once saw a skull floating in the water and said to it, ‘You drowned because you drowned others. And those who drowned you will also be drowned’” (Avos 2:6). That sounds like pretty harsh judgment. Yet that same Hillel said, “Don’t judge others until you reach their place” (Avos 2:4).

Having strong values and seeing wrong as wrong doesn’t contradict knowing that if you had this couple’s life cards you wouldn’t have done any better. Where is this young couple coming from? What is their background and education? What is the norm in their society? This is meant to understand, not excuse (Avos ibid., mefarshim).

The Talmudic Sage Rav Ashi mentioned King Menashe of Yehudah — an infamous idol worshipper — disrespectfully. That night, Menashe informed Rav Ashi in a dream that he was wrong; had he lived in Menashe’s time, with the intense drive for idol worship that existed, he’d have succumbed, too. Menashe then proceeded to teach Rav Ashi a Torah law. The next day, Rav Ashi referred to Menashe as his teacher (Sanhedrin 102b). Rav Ashi certainly wasn’t condoning idolatry. He was teaching us a lesson about appreciating context before condemning an individual for his failings.

The story of the Ishah Sotah, an unfaithful wife, is followed by that of the Nazir because “Whoever sees the disgrace of the unfaithful wife should separate from wine” (Nazir 2a). The Torah tells us that being disturbed by something is fine, as long as we direct that back to our own growth.

Guilty Until Proven Innocent
Unfortunately, we all know of terrible stories where trusted individuals acted in an awful way. How should I react? Can dan l’chaf zechus possibly apply when we need to expose perpetrators and fight against abuse? Victims need protection.

Times are scary, and cover-ups make them scarier.

There is a mitzvah to publicize spiritual charlatans and abusers. Hiding them causes more suffering and results in a bigger chillul Hashem (Yoma 86b). Verification by a beis din who hears testimony or a similar counsel of rabbanim — not private vigilantes — allows one to believe the incident. The same applies if you personally observed an (unequivocal) incident.

Without beis din’s confirmation, if someone is giving you firsthand information, you should be concerned, take precautions, and privately tip off others — provided you tell them the information is secondhand, says the Chofetz Chaim. He warns to check for exaggeration or agendas, and to consider if it’s really wrong. Sometimes a situation looks murky, but the issue is with our glasses. It is therefore critical to be in touch with a halachic authority on how to proceed.

A parent claimed to smell trouble after seeing a (male) teacher relaxing on a bench talking to a (female) student. Turns out that the site was chosen because of how open it was, thus avoiding any hint of impropriety. The relaxing part was the parent’s commentary. Rumors have taken wing and lives ruined on less.

Caution is always in place, but opinions aren’t. If the buzz is a lone claim on a reputable, truly exemplary member of society, it’s nothing but empty gossip and insinuation. That stands until other incidents come to light or the case is properly corroborated. That’s not naivete, but savviness.

On the other hand, if you know someone is unprincipled, or not guided by yiras Shamayim, judging kindly doesn’t apply. Pull up as much skepticism as you’d like. But if your reaction is, “Him?! I can’t believe it!” then maybe you should think hard before you do believe it.

What if he’s not quite a tzaddik, but we’d all consider him a decent person? That’s where dan l’chaf zechus comes in. If the evidence could head either way, halachah says, go positive. If it’s a bit stacked against him, or you’re not sure who he is, you can decide to be kind (while keeping your eyes, ears, and brain on full alert). That results in the Heavenly Court seeing you favorably (Shabbos 127b), and in pulling down a special love from Hashem (Shelah, Shaar Haosios 20), so go for it.

We never want to fall into the Gedaliah ben Achikam trap, neglecting the safety of ourselves and those we love. Conversely, the terrible cases of true allegations make it easier to freak us out with non-credible reports.

Trying to protect ourselves responsibly while not risking ruining someone’s good name is complicated. We can and should make sure to convey to our kids that it’s always safe to share concerns, fears, and even potentially embarrassing information with us. If something is worrying them, they should speak up. In all cases, it is critical to consult with a posek with expertise and experience in these areas. (See Sefer Chofetz Chaim for more on this topic.)


Preparing My Defense
The concept of a “Day of Judgment” is hard for me to relate to. For me, celebrating what I do right rather than zoning in on what I do wrong is much more my vibe. How can I frame this positively?

The action these days is din, being exact and precise, and includes seeing our liabilities as well as assets.

While positive reinforcement is good, without balance, that can backfire and lead to complacency, unrealistic overconfidence in one’s abilities, inability to face flaws, hypersensitivity to failure, and lack of awareness that lapses have consequences.

A business that only logs what’s currently in stock won’t be able to place an order. Honestly facing mistakes isn’t about beating ourselves to the ground, rather diagnosing ourselves, pinpointing flaws, so that we can move forward.

Hang in there. From Rosh Hashanah through Yom Kippur there’s more emphasis on what we’ve done wrong, and then comes Succos, when we fill that foundation in by showing that we know how to do right.

The Yamim Noraim have me in a panic. I know these should be days of reveling in Hashem’s presence, but I get so overwhelmed.

Rosh Hashanah is the day that Adam stood on his feet and accepted G-d’s sovereignty, and we do the same. It’s also when the world reboots and everything in it is evaluated, including ourselves. That awe-inspiring reality should move us into a loftier, more connected place, and add to the reverent joy unique to Rosh Hashanah.

Justice isn’t our usual flavor, and Rosh Hashanah flexes muscles that are typically ignored. For most, it’s healthy to exercise weak muscles, and, to quote Rabbi Meir Kahane, noted mechanech and dean of Chedvas Bais Yaakov Seminary, “We only get stronger by pushing where it hurts.”


Overdoing it, or not letting ourselves heal before putting pressure on our limbs, can knock us out of the game indefinitely. When you describe panic and overwhelm, or you get shut down, something’s wrong. This is especially relevant if it’s harder for you to deal with pressure and stress, or you tend toward perfectionism.

This is where a mentor or rebbetzin who knows you well can help figure out what’s going awry. She can guide you toward what you should and shouldn’t be doing, like spending less time in shul, or shifting focus, so that you can take full advantage of this season in a healthy and wonderful way.


Teshuvah is important, but I can’t wrap my head around the concept of judging myself. I’m never quite sure what to do or what it means and freeze up. How can I break out of this?

Here’s a (somewhat) hypothetical conversation.

Sem Morah: What do you hope to get out of seminary?

Sem Girl: I want to be inspired.

(Being inspired isn’t a measurable goal. It’s not Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Relevant, or Time-bound, roshei teivos SMART).

Sem Morah: What do you want to be inspired to do?

Sem Girl: I want to be inspired to grow.

(Still not SMART enough, my friend.)

Sem Morah: Do you mind explaining in what way you’d like to grow?

Sem Girl: When I finish a year of seminary, I want to be more sensitive to my friends/daven Minchah/be careful with my skirts/appreciate living in Israel/know hilchos Shabbos.

(Getting somewhere.)

Sem Morah: Do you mean that you regret that you aren’t as strong in these areas as you wish you were, and you’d like to change that?

Sem Girl: Exactly.

(Oh. So you came to seminary to do teshuvah.)

Spiritual growth — admitting we haven’t behaved as we were supposed to, not being happy about that, and committing to upgrade — are actually the steps of teshuvah.

“Repentance” sounds like some heavy duty, incomprehensible concept that we can’t wrap our heads around. Let’s replace it. Really, teshuvah means, “to grow.”

So find an area of your life that you feel regretful about and want to enhance. Admit (out loud) that you haven’t been doing this properly, and don’t just say it, but try to feel it, too. Now mentally undertake to put this into practice. The smaller the commitment you make the better, because it will be doable, honest, gratifying, lasting, and motivating.

Mazel tov, you’ve grown. You’ve done teshuvah.

Kesivah v’chasimah tovah to you and yours.


(Originally featured in Family First, Issue 860)

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