Judging Others Wisely

The following sermon was given by Rabbi Miriam Margles on Rosh Hashanah Day, 5779.

Ha’dan chavero le’kaf zechut/הדן חבירו לכף זכות – Anyone who judges others favourably, danin oto le’zechut/דנין אותו לזכות – that person is themselves, judged favourably.” These are the words of the Talmud (Shabbat 127b). Le’kaf zechut is a phrase that implies leaning on the side of merit. So, says the Talmud, anyone who judges others by deliberately extending to them the benefit of the doubt, assuming their goodness and emphasizing it, that merit-leaning judge will be seen and judged with the same generosity. That sounds great, but we have a problem.

The problem is that our judgements of other people are so often unfavourable and ungenerous. Our judgements can be so quick, riddled with bias, sparked by fear and hurt and such gripped self-protection. And the problem is that so often we act on our judgments without even realizing that we’ve closed our hearts, shielded our minds and have passed a verdict. On this Yom Ha’Din, this Day of Judgement, let’s to explore ways of becoming more aware of our distorted judgments and instead, to judge more wisely.

Luckily for us, Judaism has some insights on the matter. Rava, the 4th century Talmudic scholar said that there are 6 questions we will be asked when we are led in for Ultimate Judgment after we die. I have no idea who let him in on the big reveal of these after-death questions, but for Rava, these 6 questions are the most revealing and valuable ways of examining and assessing our lives. I spoke about 3 of these questions last night, as guiding us to strengthen the muscles we use to judge ourselves, and I’ll speak about the other 3 today, guiding our judgments of others, waking up our awareness, refining and enlivening our commitments, and motivating our actions.

Here are all 6 questions:

1) Did you establish regular times for Torah?

2) Did you understand one thing from within another?

3) Did you engage in [the mitzvah of] “be fruitful and multiply”?

4) Did you conduct business honestly?

5) Did you grapple with wisdom?

6)  Did you anticipate Liberation?

What a fantastic and surprising list. Let’s start with number נשאת ונתת באמונה )4/Nasata ve’natata be’emunah? Did you conduct business honestly?

This may be a particularly surprising question to be asked the moment you step off the after-death soul-elevator, but as we explore it, we’ll see that how we conduct business, speaks volumes about how we judge other people. Jewish thinkers have produced a vast body of literature on business ethics. Extending far beyond outright crimes like stealing, Jewish business ethics enter a much more subtle set of commitments to decency and fairness. When your entire life is laid out before you, you will be asked, says Rava, “Did you conduct business be’emunah – in good faith?”

In truth, even if you are not a business person, you engage in masa u’matan with people all the time. Masa u’matan includes all our negotiations with each other about resources and labour, lending, borrowing, purchasing, navigating how you take and how you give.

Using this question to wake up our sensitivity and awareness, we want to ask ourselves – what are the honest and good faith practices for negotiating a divorce settlement or an accident claim, selling your car, what you report or omit on your tax return, or how you carry your fair share of responsibilities in a shared household or a in community like this one?What are the good faith practices in a global economy, when drug companies set the prices for their medications, or companies move production to places without labour laws or environmental restrictions?

In each of these cases, any time I am operating in ways that are not rooted in decency, fairness and honesty, I am judging the worth of the other person as less than my own – a judgement with deep repercussions. And Judaism holds the firm and fierce assertion that no human being is worth more or worth less than another. This is where Judaism challenges us to probe and discern where we don’t believe the other person’s worth is equal to our own, or what concerns It might be subtle, but we want to notice when we manipulate a situation or take advantage of another person’s vulnerability to get the upper hand. Do you represent yourself and your work honestly or do you ever lie to sound more impressive?Do you take into account the larger impact and common good alongside your own gain?Do you keep your word?

These are high standards and it’s true that the wider world does not regularly operate with these values. Jewish values are directly at odds with a broader culture that elevates the financial bottom line above the common good. Jewish obligations to people who are vulnerable are at odds with a culture of winners and losers. Jewish imperatives of collective responsibility are at odds with a wider culture that celebrates greed and limitless wealth for a small few.

We are constantly in situations where we could take advantage of others. Our moral obligations in the realm of masa u’matan have nothing to do with whether or not we like the other person. Even more challenging is the fact that our moral obligations do not depend on how the other person treats us. Did you conduct business in good faith?Even though the question is framed for a yes or no answer, it is usefully challenging us to keep asking it in each interaction, to keep refining the principled integrity of our actions. And each time we ask it, we practice awakening and refining the principled judgments of people that motivate our actions.

5) Question 5 for strengthening our wise judgment muscles  – פלפלת בחכמה/pilpalta be’chochmah? Did you grapple with wisdom?

While business ethics deal with concrete actions, it’s chochmah, wisdom, that guides our actions with insight. It’s chochmah that figures out how to apply the right principles in different situations. It’s chochmah that discerns both what is worthy to strive for and how to navigate life’s rugged terrain with our principles in tact. So how do we gain such valuable chochmah, such wisdom?

Pirkei Avot, the 2nd century rabbinic collection, says it simply – “Ayzehu chacham? Who is wise? Ha’lomed mi’kol adam. One who learns from every person.”  Now we can all nod our heads and say yes, of course it’s important to learn from everyone we encounter. But in practice, this is genuinely hard to do.

This is where Judaism urges us to notice all the assumptions and harsh criticisms that surface in the course of our interactions, leading us to conclude that there are certain people, or certain types of people we think we have nothing to learn from.

Where does your curiosity-valve close?What shapes who you think is smart and worthy and who you dismiss?Where are those assumptions connected to class or gender, level of education or the person’s age?We want to be keen observers here not in order to feel terrible about ourselves, but because we all have these judgements and we all lose out because of them. They make us smaller and tighter as they diminish others.

The call of Pirkei Avot, to learn from everyone, is a call to recognize that chochmah is, by definition, collective and collaborative wisdom. Who is wise? A person who knows that they don’t own the whole truth. Did you struggle with the limits of your worldview to understand someone else’s life and struggles and yearnings, not as a stereotype you judge but as the complex human being that they are, just like the complex human being that you are?

Have you grappled with the possibility that you might be wrong, or at the very least, not totally right, that you are fallible like everyone else?Have you been willing to change your mind as you take seriously the needs of people who are different from you?When is the next time you might change your mind, and what might you discover that you just couldn’t see before?

It requires regular practice to observe what our protective, defensive minds do. It takes practice to challenge the veracity of those judgments and to notice how they distance us from essential connection with one another.

Pilpalta be’chochma – did you wrestle with wisdom?Learning from everyone does not require agreement or making nice and avoiding conflict. It’s important to be clear that the wrestling also requires discerning and truthful judgement so that we speak up against arrogance, interrupt harm and interrupt hate. We need astute and honest judgement to guide what we stand for and to question, challenge and offer alternatives to the ideas we disagree with. But the hyper-critical and self-righteous judgement that leads to the certainty that another person has no values and therefore has no value, works against the aims of wisdom.

Friends, we are living in the most addicted, medicated, overweight and in-debt society that has ever existed. We need wisdom to lessen suffering and isolation and to increase human connection, kindness, real joy and peace. The problems we need to solve in this society have to work for everyone, and we need everyone’s minds, perspectives and experiences to collect the insights that wisdom requires.  This is the tussle of chochmah, wrestling our way out of narrow judgment on the road to shared accountability, responsibility and wisdom.

6) And the last question for our training in judging others wisely is צפית לישועה/ Tzi’pita li’yeshua? Did you anticipate liberation, redemption?

That is a hefty religious term – redemption. At its core is the commitment that no matter what the world appears to be right now, anticipating yeshu’a grabs hold of a vision of what ought to be, banking on our best image of humanity and our deepest values. And it is fiercely hopeful. Did you live with hope in your heart and a vision of liberation planted firmly in your mind?

Anticipating liberation is a choice, a decision to lean our weight against the tidal pull of apathy and resignation that things just are as they are, that this is as good as it gets, that at least we have it better than some folks and that there is nothing to do about it. Did you strive for what is right and take part in building what is good?

So how does this question help us judge others with more wisdom?In Judaism redemption is not an individual experience. Yeshu’a is liberation on a collective scale, aiming for a redeemed world that leaves no one behind. If that is the case, then we will have to grow a sincere desire for others, all others, to be part of the liberation party. That means wishing others to be free from suffering and wanting them to have a good life. It means that instead of simply judging the negative traits we see in another person, we’ll need to figure out how to reach for them, without hate or anger or bitterness in our hearts, and hold up a mirror of their best selves.

When we make havdalah marking the end of Shabbat, we say – hinei el yeshuatiHinei – right here is the transcendent Source of my yeshu’a – my redemption, my liberation – evtach velo efchad – I will trust and not be afraid. Yeshu’a needs both a deep wellspring of trust and the fortitude of fearlessness. Both of these transcend the borders of our individual selves or our likeminded groups, to embrace something immensely bigger and more whole. It begins right here with each other and extends outward widely.

We get so stuck in feeling judged and judging other people. As we practice judging others favourably, trusting in our collective human potential and calling each other forward in this work with courage and compassion, we may just learn to see ourselves, and allow others to see us, with favourable and wise eyes. This is the time to dismantles the heart-armour of harsh judgement and self-protection. With decency and fairness, with growing sensitivity and wise discernment, let’s dare to lean heartily on the side of merit this year and see what might be possible.

Shana tova!