“There can be no doubt that ‘give others the benefit of the doubt’ is a wickedly tricky piece of rabbinic instruction”

“With righteousness shall you judge your fellow.”

So reads a verse in this morning’s parsha (Leviticus 19:15). The rabbis comment, “From here we learn, that we are required to judge others favorably, to give them the benefit of the doubt.”

…the fear of granting someone the benefit of the doubt, and then being exposed as a naïf. There can be no doubt that “give others the benefit of the doubt” is a wickedly tricky piece of rabbinic instruction.

I remember learning this rabbinic passage with the great Rabbi Aharon Lichtenstein, of blessed memory, who passed away April 20 after a lifetime of teaching Torah and wisdom to generations of students. Rabbi Lichtenstein acknowledged how difficult this rabbinic imperative is to fulfill, but he then placed it into a larger context that clarifies why it’s so important to labor to fulfill it nonetheless.

He opened his analysis of the passage by posing the question, “For whose benefit is the imperative to judge favorably intended?” At first the question made little sense, as it seems intuitively obvious that it is intended for the benefit of the person being judged. Yet, as it turned out, there were no fewer than three possible answers, and Rabbi Lichtenstein saved the best for last.

In addition to the intuitively obvious answer, he suggested the possibility that the imperative to judge others favorably and to give them the benefit of the doubt is intended primarily for the benefit of the person doing the judging. This was the approach apparently favored by Maimonides….

But in the end, Rabbi Lichtenstein favored a third answer, that the intended beneficiary is society at large. He argued that to properly appreciate this rabbinic imperative, one needs to couple it with its complementary piece, a rabbinic interpretation of a verse at the end of the book of Numbers. There, the rabbis interpret the verse “and you shall be innocent in the eyes of God and Israel” (Numbers 32:22) to mean that we are each obliged to take steps to always be above suspicion, to be fully transparent and to prevent anyone from even thinking we’ve done anything improper.

Rabbi Yosef Kanefsky, “Judge with Generosity”, Jewish Journal (1-7 May 2015), 47.