Judging Favorably (הוי דן לכף זכות)

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A common occurrence of human life is evaluating that which is around us, whether it be things that happen, people doing things, or other matters.  This, amongst other purposes, helps us situate ourselves vis-á-vis the larger world and help us orient ourselves within society, etc.  For the early rabbis, a common approach to considering evaluating the world around us was to give people the benefit of the doubt.  Surely, we could see a situation and interpret it according to how it seems, but, our Sages urge us, we should try to hope that perhaps something else is going on and it is not bad.  This sentiment appears multiple times amongst tannaitic sources.scalesjusticezekhuthovah

The most famous articulation of this approach is found recorded in mAvot 1:6

יהושוע בן פרחיה אומר, עשה לך רב, וקנה לך חבר; והוי דן את כל האדם לכף זכות

Yehoshu’a, son of Perahia, says: “Make for yourself a master, acquire for yourself a friend, and judge every person to the side of merit.”

Using the image of the scales of justice, upon which sits merit on the one side and obligation/guilt on the other, Yehoshua, son of Perahia, urges us to tilt our considerations of people’s actions on the meritorious side.*  This idea is also used in a beraita in explaining Leviticus 19:15 (bShevu’ot 30a):

דבר אחר: ‘בצדק תשפוט עמיתך’ – הוי דן את חבירך לכף זכות

Another interpretation: “In righteousness you shall judge your fellow” – judge your fellow on the scale of merit.

Thus far, the two texts I’ve presented could be interpreted to be taking place solely in a courtroom situation and not in an everyday, on-the-street sense.  However, three stories included within three separate beraitot (recorded on bShabbat 127b) demonstrate to us that the tannaim do not restrict this sentiment to exclusively juridical procedures.  The opening statement to the first beraita is a bit unclear as to what the context is:

הדן חבירו לכף זכות, דנין אותו לזכות

He who judges his neighbor in the scale of merit is himself judged favorably.

However, the stories all show that this is not to be restricted to the courtroom and is meant to be in effect in general life.  All three finish with wonderful exclamatory statements by the person under consideration:

אמר לו העבודה כך היה! הדרתי כל נכסי בשביל הורקנוס בני שלא עסק בתורה וכשבאתי אצל חבירי בדרום התירו לי כל נדרי ואתה כשם שדנתני לזכות המקום ידין אותך לזכות

He said to him: “By the [Temple] service, it was so! I vowed away all my property because of my son Hyrcanus, who would not occupy himself with the Torah, but when I went to my companions in the South, they absolved me of all my vows. And, as for you, just as you judged me favorably, so may the Omnipresent judge you favorably.”

אמר להם העבודה! כך היה, ואתם כשם שדנתוני לכף זכות, המקום ידין אתכם לכף זכות

He said to them: “By the [Temple] Service! it was so. And just as you judged me favorably, so may the Omnipresent judge you favorably.”

אמר להם העבודה כך היה! ואתם כשם שדנתוני לזכות המקום ידין אתכם לזכות

He said to them: “By the [Temple] Service! It was so; and just as you judged me favorably, so may the Omnipresent judge you favorably.”

What emerges particularly from these last three beraitot is not only the person being judged, but the one doing the judged.  It’s fascinating that the personal consequence of judging favorably is, in turn, to be judged favorably!  Not only is this a great result for the person, it seems to be felicitously affecting society.

What strikes me as strange is how much these texts are going in a totally opposite direction from that of the New Testament!  The most famous amongst these anti-judging statements are those from the Gospels: “Μὴ κρίνετε, ἵνα μὴ κριθῆτε – Do not judge, or you too will be judged” (Matthew 7:1) and “Καὶ μὴ κρίνετε, καὶ οὐ μὴ κριθῆτε –  Do not judge, and you will not be judged” (Luke 6:37).

Not only does Jesus proscribe judging in these texts, but provides the reason of being judged!  Somehow, the act of being judged is bad enough to discourage one from judging!  In Matthew 7:2, for instance, he continues “ἐν ᾧ γὰρ κρίματι κρίνετε κριθήσεσθε, καὶ ἐν ᾧ μέτρῳ μετρεῖτε μετρηθήσεται ὑμῖν – For in the same way you judge others, you will be judged, and with the measure you use, it will be measured to you”.  For the Rabbis, this is not an issue, as can be seen from the following (mSotah 7:1):

במידה שאדם מודד, בה מודדין לו

With the measure that a person measures, they measure it of him.

While there is more to discuss concerning the aforementioned texts,** one sees the anti-judging attitude all the more so in the book of John (particularly 5:22, 7:24, and 8:15-16).

One wonders what the differences that emerge between the vastly different practices of those who try to withhold from judging and those that, when they judge, do so favorably.  It is hard to entirely refrain from not assessing situations and people’s actions, as Jesus advocates, which is probably why the Rabbis advocated for being favorable in one’s assessments of those around us.

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* Related to this statement concerning the importance of judgment is the one found later in the same chapter of Rabban Shim’on, son of Gamaliel (1.17):

רבן שמעון בן גמליאל אומר, על שלושה
דברים העולם קיים:
על הדין,
ועל האמת,
ועל השלום.
Rabban Shim’on, son of Gamli’el, says: “Upon three things is the world sustained:
upon judgment,
and upon truth
and upon peace.”

** Although I could go on about the remainder of these excerpts (Matthew 7:3-5 and Luke 6:38-42), perhaps I shall deal with them on another occasion, especially since they are parallel with a statement of Rabbi Tarfon (bArakhin 16b).

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