The basic character trait of Bilam was ayin hara, an evil eye. It was his negative way of perceiving others that gave his curse potency. The Mishnah thus teaches that disciples of Bilam possess an “evil eye,” while disciples of Avraham Avinu possess an ayin tova, a “good eye.”
Perhaps the first and most relevant consequence of possessing a “good eye” rather than an “evil eye” is the way in which one judges others. Those possessing a “good eye” will see the good in others, and give them the benefit of the doubt, while those with an “evil eye” will highlight the negative and be inclined to judge people unfavorably.
This idea brings us this week to the halachic discussion of judging others favorably. Is there a Torah obligation to judge favorably? To whom does this imperative apply? Must we make intellectual stretches to justify actions that seem negative? Must somebody who judges unfavorably ask forgiveness? These questions, and others, are discussed below.
A Torah Obligation
The primary source for the mitzvah of judging others favorably, dan lekaf zechus, is from the Torah instruction: “With righteousness shall you judge your fellow” (Vayikra 19:15).
The simple interpretation of the passage, as the Sifra (on the Pasuk) writes, refers to a court tribunal, which must adjudicate fairly and in accordance with Torah law. Yet, alongside several laws related to a judicial setting, the Gemara (Shevuot 30a) notes that we also derive an obligation to judge others positively: the word tzedek, righteousness, is interpreted in this sense to mean with favor: one must judge his fellow favorably.
After mentioning the Sifra, the Rambam in his Sefer Hamitzvos adds: “It also includes that one should judge one’s fellow favorably and only interpret his actions and words positively and benevolently” (Positive Mitzvah 177).
Some Rishonim limit the scope of the Torah instruction to a Beis Din setting, apparently understanding that the general obligation to judge favorably is rabbinic in nature. The Meiri, for instance, writes that judging favorably is only “slightly alluded” to in the Pasuk.
However, others agree with the Rambam in explaining that the instruction includes the obligation to judge another favorably. This is noted by the Chinuch (Mitzvah 235) and Rabbeinu Yona (Shaarei Teshuva 3:218). The latter writes, “If you see a man who says something or performs an action, and one must judge his words and actions positively and favorably. […] And this is a positive mitzvah from the Torah, as it says, ‘With righteousness shall you judge your fellow.’”
According to these opinions, judging others favorably is not merely good advice or a manifestation of positive character traits; it is rather a full Torah obligation.
An Ethical Imperative
Alongside the obligation to judge people favorably, Chazal write at length concerning the ethical imperative to do so.
The Mishna in Avos (1:6) cites Yehoshua ben Perachya: “Ben Perachya says, `You must make for yourself a teacher, acquire for yourself a friend and judge everyone favorably.’” The wording clearly implies that judging others favorably, just like acquiring friends, is just a worthy attribute urged as good advice in developing relationships with others.
Elsewhere, the Gemara teaches that by judging others favorably, one merits, in turn, being judged favorably in Heaven: “One who judges his friend favorably will be judged favorably by Hashem” (Shabbos 127b). The Gemara also relates incidents in which the Sages were careful to judge others favorably, and not to incorrectly suspect them of wrongdoing. After Rabbi Akiva went to great lengths to judge his employer favorably, the employer ultimately exclaimed: “As for you, may Hashem judge you favorably, just as you have judged me favorably.”
Alongside the virtue of judging favorably, Chazal also note that, “People should always be in your eyes as thieves, yet honor them like Rabban Gamliel” (Derekh Eretz, Pirkei Ben Azzai 3:3; cited by Rashi, Taanis 23b). The passage tells the tale of Rabbi Yehoshua, whose well-placed suspicion led him to take cautionary measures after allowing a traveler into his home. The traveler ultimately tried to steal Rabbi Yehoshua’s possessions, yet his malicious intent was thwarted by Rabbi Yehoshua’s precautions (of removing the ladder to the attic where he slept).
Thus, we find that judging others favorably is an ethical imperative, which the need for caution sometimes overrides. Indeed, the Rambam includes the requirement to judge favorably in his Hilkhos De’os (Chapter 5, no. 7), explaining that one of the defining characteristics of a Torah scholar is that he “judges every person favorably.”
So, is judging favorably a full obligation, perhaps even a Torah obligation, or is it an ethical imperative that the Sages strongly recommend?
Who Are We Judging?
The Chafetz Chaim raises this question in his introduction to Sefer Chafetz Chaim. After listing the positive mitzvah of judging favorably as one of the mitzvos that a person is liable to transgress when speaking lashon hara (Positive Commandment 3) he notes: “The reader should not attempt to refute my argument, namely that all major authorities concur that the obligation to judge others favorably is biblical in nature, by means of the Rambam’s words, which seem to indicate that it is a worthy practice of Torah scholars, but not a full obligation.”
Concerning this apparent contradiction, the Chafetz Chaim responds: “This is an incorrect understanding of the Rambam, for as he indicated, the Rambam is explicitly dealing with individuals of unknown character. It is specifically with regard to these individuals, concerning whom there is no obligation to judge favorably, that it is only a worthy act.” However, when it comes to somebody who is known as a righteous individual (see further below), there will be a full obligation to judge him favorably.
As he notes, this solution resolves the contradiction in the Rambam himself, who notes (as cited above) that judging favorably is a full Torah obligation, while also including it as an ethical imperative worthy of Torah scholars.
Likewise, the Mishnah in Pirkei Avos notes a recommendation to judge every person favorably, “kol ha’adam.” This is an ethical recommendation, which falls short of a full obligation. Moreover, one must also be prudently suspicious of people with whom one is not acquainted; there is no obligation to be naïve. However, when it comes to people who we know to be righteous—somebody who is categorized as amitecha—there is a full obligation to judge favorably.
In fact, the Rambam (in his commentary to the Mishnah in Avos) and Rabbeinu Yona (ibid) explain that when it comes to those with whom we are familiar, there are three categories of people, and each of them commands a different approach in how we judge their actions.
Concerning somebody who is known to be righteous and God-fearing, there is an obligation to judge favorably even when this requires some intellectual effort. In the words of the Rambam, we must judge favorably even when the only way to justify the action is “by stretching things to an extreme and assuming a very remote possibility.”
We thus learn in the Gemara (Berachos 19a) that when a Torah scholar does something that seems sinful, one must still assume that what he did was permitted, even when this is a stretch. Moreover, if one sees a Torah scholar commit a blatant transgression, one must assume that the individual repented immediately afterwards: his sin was a temporary lapse, and he quickly returned to his righteous ways.
Concerning those who are not Torah scholars, yet remain upright individuals, Rabbeinu Yona writes that the mitzvah of judging favorably applies, though one does not need to stretch logical limits to give them the benefit of the doubt: “And if he is of the bienonim (average individuals), who refrain from sin but occasionally stumble, you must eliminate the doubt and declare for a favorable judgment. […] If the matter tends towards the inauspicious, the matter should be for you as a doubt, and do not judge him unfavorably.”
The Chafetz Chaim adds (3:7) that even if it is more likely that the negative interpretation is correct, it is still proper middos to leave the doubt unresolved in one’s mind and not judge the other negatively.
The third category is somebody who is a known as a ba’al aveiros – one who sins regularly. For such a person there is no obligation to judge favorably and, on the contrary, he should be judged unfavorably. To cite Rabbeinu Yona, “But if most of the person’s actions are wicked or it was shown that he has no fear of God in his heart, then his actions and words should be judged unfavorably.” The Rambam goes a step further, writing that, “even if you see him do an action which seems unequivocally good […] one must be wary of him and not believe that it is good, based on that possibility that it is bad.”
A fourth category refers to somebody who is unknown. As we have seen, there is an ethical imperative to judge him favorably, while the full obligation does not apply. As the Rambam writes, “If he does an act or says something that can be interpreted as either positive or negative, judge him favorably, and do not consider him as having done wrong.”
It is noteworthy that the Rambam mentions all the categories (he does not discuss beinonim) in his commentary to the Mishnah in Avos. Rabbi Asher Weiss shlita (Minchas Asher, Vayikra) infers from here that even the Torah mitzvah of judging favorably is based on an ethical imperative, and that there is no contradiction between the two. Like speaking lashon hara, which is a mitzvah that centers on an ethical failing, so too judging favorably is a Torah mitzvah that centers on a character trait.
It is important to note that the above rules are decisive in deciding whether speech constitutes lashon hora. The Chafetz Chaim writes (3, 7) that if one spoke negatively about someone he should have judged favorably, his speech constitutes lashon hora. He proves his point from Miriam who was punished because she didn’t judge Moshe properly according to the above rules. This is what Hashem reprieved her: “Why weren’t you afraid to speak negatively about Moshe, my servant?”
The Pasuk states that when she beseeched Hashem for a child, “Chana spoke unto her heart.” The Gemara (Berachos 31) teaches that her mode of prayer seemed bizarre in the eyes of Eli HaKohen, and this led him to assume that she was intoxicated. He thus told her, “Until when shall you be drunk? Remove your wine from within you!”
Chana replied, “No, my master, for I am a women of hardened spirit, but I have drunk no wine nor any other intoxicating beverage.” According to the Gemara’s interpretation, she meant to tell him that “the holy spirit of Hashem does not rest on you, for you have judged me unfavorably.” When Eli realized that he had erred, he begged her forgiveness.
The Gemara (Berachos 31a) derives from here that one who suspects his friend wrongfully must appease him. One must even bless the wronged party, as the verse states, “And Eli replied by saying, ‘Go with peace and may the God of Israel fulfill your request which you have requested from him.’”
The mitzvah of judging favorably does not mean that one must be naïve. We know that people are sometimes at fault, and we must be wary lest those faults cause us or others harm. However, the Torah urges us to judge people—those people who deserve it—with a “good eye.” This requires character refinement: sometimes we project our weaknesses upon others, and sometimes we are inclined to judge others harshly. The Torah expects us to develop a positive outlook toward our fellows, and to judge them favorably; only thus can we expect them, and, indeed, even Hashem, to judge us favorably in return.