Judging Others

The theme of the weekly Torah portions we will read this Shabbat morning—Tazria/Metsora—is the cause and cure for spiritual impurity (not to be confused with physical uncleanliness). Causes could include childbirth, skin eruptions or bodily emissions, and cures included rituals we would consider to be anything ranging from intriguing to bizarre, as well as the offering of animal sacrifices. The state of being “tamei” or impure may be unfamiliar and strange to us (there really is no modern equivalent for it, aside from the mostly Orthodox practice of immersing in the Mikveh following a woman’s monthly cycle or washing our hands after visiting a cemetery), but it was a palpable reality to ancient Israelites. There is a great deal of material in the Torah about spiritual impurity, and a great deal more written about it in the Talmud (there is an entire order of the Mishna devoted to such matters). So it’s not surprising that most of the commentaries who write about these passages in the Torah steer their comments toward the deeper, hidden meaning they may contain. One such interpretation has to do with the importance of judging others charitably whenever possible.

In chapter 14, verse 3 we read: “The priest shall go outside the camp (to visit someone afflicted with a condition that resulted in him being impure). If the priest sees that the person has been healed of his scaly affection, then the priest (shall conduct the purification ritual).” Rather than focus on the scaly affection or the purification ritual, the commentator instead chooses to focus on the part of the verse that says “the priest shall go outside the camp.” Rabbi Eliezer ben Shmuel, a 17th century scholar from Germany, writes in his volume Si’ah Ha-Sadeh:

Why does the priest have to go forth out of the camp? Rather, the priest is the righteous one, the leader of the generation, and to him even a small sin appears enormous. But God wants the leaders to give the people the benefit of the doubt, and they should realize that had they needed to earn their living, they, too, might have sinned. Thus the Torah tells us that the priest must go forth out of the camp – he has to put himself in the place of the sinner, outside the priest’s own camp, and in that of people who have to earn their living – and it is then that the priest will see that the leprosy will be healed.

Eliezer ben Shmuel is telling us that rather than stay within the Temple or his home, separated from his people and blind to the reality of their day-to-day lives, he must “go out” and have some quality face time with them. If he remains aloof, he cannot fully appreciate their strengths and weaknesses, what inspires them to be their best and what stumbling blocks cause them to fall ethically and spiritually. Only by engaging his people in a personal encounter can he come to understand them. Interestingly, Rabbi Shmuel suggests that by “going out” the priest will come face-to-face with his own humanity and his own weaknesses. If he remains within the confines of his own space, the priest may be inclined to judge harshly those who are afflicted with the conditions that led to spiritual impurity. If he meets them in person and understands what motivates them, it’s more likely that he will be inclined to judge them charitably.

Judging others is inevitable and part of the normal patterns of interacting with others. Like it or not, we all make spontaneous judgements about the people we meet. Even so, it’s important to be aware that we do so and to make efforts to refrain from judging people harshly. If we see a person who is shabbily dressed, we might be inclined to judge them as having insufficient funds to acquire proper or clean clothing. We might begin to speculate about why it is that they cannot “get their act together.” But making those types of judgements isn’t fair or reasonable.

Rabbi Zelig Pliskin, a scholar and therapist who lives in Jerusalem, holds a regular discussion group devoted to finding practical ways to judge people favorably. He writes:

“A member of the group gives true-to-life situations, and everyone else offers explanations that would present the person involved in a favorable light. Someone you know is getting married and you didn’t receive an invitation to the wedding. Perhaps the person was under the impression that he had already sent you an invitation. Perhaps he sent you an invitation and it was lost in the mail. Perhaps he can’t afford to invite many people. It’s important to open your mind to all the possibilities and choose the one that’s most favorable to the person in question. By judging someone favorably, even if your assumption is wrong, you still fulfill a Torah commandment.”

Joshua ben Perachyah, an ancient sage whose words are recorded in Pirkei Avot (chapter 1:6), taught that when you assess people, tip the balance in their favor. His words are relevant today as they were when he said them 1,800 years ago, and we should keep them in mind.

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