The Talmud teaches, “Judge everyone favorably…” In other words, when we observe behavior that appears to be objectionable, we should pause and contemplate the possibility that there may be facts or circumstances that we are unaware of. What we see may not be exactly as it appears. Unless one knows otherwise for sure, one should assume that other people’s actions are good. Our obligation is to give others the benefit of the doubt and judge them favorably.
We are all guilty of passing judgment and jumping to critical conclusions rather than favorable ones. Why should we give others the benefit of the doubt as our sages instruct? One good reason is that we are often mistaken! We may not have an understanding of the complete picture. In addition, we ho
pe others will grant us this same consideration, giving us the benefit of the doubt.
Imagine yourself at the store and you hear the cries of a child who has thrown himself onto the floor kicking and screaming. Customers turn to stare and comment on the parenting skills of the exasperated and frustrated mother. Is it your inclination to judge her harshly? Are you shaking your head and thinking, “That mother needs some better parenting skills.” Would you decide, “She really needs to restrain her child and stop that inexcusable behavior.” Or, in contrast, is it your inclination to judge favorably by asking yourself, “What difficult factors may be contributing to this situation? I wonder if the child has been up all night with an illness? Does the child have some special needs that contribute to outbursts and tantrums? Could something difficult have occurred recently in the family’s life, possibly a great loss?”
The habit of judging others harshly tends to be ingrained in us. We may need intentional practice to overcome it. If we see someone doing something of a questionable nature, we should not assume the person is doing something wrong, but rather we should interpret their actions in a balanced and favorable manner. If we look for and consider unknown factors that could be involved, we are likely to be kinder in our judgment. If we assume that another’s behavior involves circumstances that we are unaware of, it can release us from negative energy in our relationships. If negative judgment to a certain degree is part of human nature, then we need to train ourselves and our children to judge others generously.
As with all Mussar traits, the goal is to strive for balance. This means that we should strive to judge others with a generous spirit, but not blindly. We hope that with guidance and modeling from adults, our children will also judge others favorably with balance and compassion. The most significant contribution we can make to help children judge others favorably, is to model and inspire the behaviors that we want to impress upon them.
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Pirkei Avot 2:5
Rashi on Pirkei Avot 1:6