“Don’t judge others until you’re in their shoes” (Ethics of the Fathers 2:5). This admonition of Hillel is without a doubt among the most challenging instructions of our faith. We discover someone has done wrong. We are filled with indignation. We want to point the finger and yell. But judging others, we are told, is wrong.
Indeed, it is wrong – but it is also very natural. Humans instinctively draw conclusions based on the information available to us. We have a need to make sense of things in our minds so when we see something that doesn’t look right, we tend automatically pigeon-hole it. We instinctively judge others so we can pacify our own moral compass. It helps us make sense of what’s right and wrong with this world so we can continue living our lives as “good” people by contrasting ourselves to the “bad” ones.
But the Torah commands us to go against the grain. We are warned against this most natural and impulsive tendency, and for two reasons.
Firstly, we may be wrong in our assessment. One painful example I recall occurred just over 10 years ago when two boys were found dead in their home in Northern Victoria. Both police and the media turned their attention to the boys’ mother, Vanessa Robinson, as the prime suspect. Social media went into overdrive and this woman was handed an immediate guilty verdict in the court of public opinion. As it turned out, they were wrong.
The boys died tragically due to a leaking gas heater. As soon as police learned of this they immediately issued a statement to “quell the court of public opinion”.
And there have been many such examples throughout history, including posthumous exonerations of people tragically killed by way of capital punishment.
Secondly, and perhaps more importantly, even if our assumptions about others are correct it is still wrong to judge them because we haven’t got a clue what drove that person to do what he or she did. God, and only God, who reads the thoughts of people, can be the judge of that.
That’s certainly not to say justice shouldn’t be carried out through the judicial process – of course it should. Justice must be pursued and a failure to serve justice is an indictment on society. But when justice is carried out it is not society’s role to judge people for their actions, but rather to punish them for the consequences of their actions. There is a difference.
And what greater a Jewish leader to teach us this critical lesson than the foremost commentator on the Torah – Rashi. In his observations of the apparently licentious actions of Potifar’s wife who attempted to seduce Joseph into an illicit sexual relationship, Rashi tells us not to judge her. Notwithstanding the severe consequences of her actions (Joseph was jailed and his reputation ruined), we are told in hindsight that her intentions were pure for she saw through astrological signs that she was destined to be the ancestor of Joseph’s children. (Subsequent to this incident, the Torah, Bereshit 41:45, records that Joseph’s wife was Asnath, daughter of Potifera.) She genuinely believed she was fulfilling God’s will by trying to seduce Joseph and bear a child.
Indeed, the actions of Potifar’s wife seemed very wrong and they had terrible consequences for Joseph who fought against her seduction – and indeed she was punished accordingly.
But the judgement call on that, Rashi teaches us, does not lie within our ambit. Judging lies solely in the hands of God.
And whether it’s Potifar’s wife 4000 years ago, Vanessa Robinson 10 years ago or our friends and neighbours today, the principle remains exactly the same: Don’t judge others – full stop.
Yaakov Glasman is Senior Rabbi of St Kilda Hebrew Congregation.