Measure for measure

The Power of Stories series

Jewish Family Education with Candace R. Kwiatek, The Dayton Jewish Observer

Yakov joined a local Minchah (afternoon) service and sat a few rows behind a father and his four kids. The man in front of them drummed his fingers on the bench. The kids fidgeted. The father whispered sharply.

Behind them, the prayerful rocking of another attendee invaded the family’s space. The kids fretted. The father snapped crossly.

“What a jerk,” Yakov thought. “Your discontent is disturbing everyone. Do you have to scold your kids? If they get on your nerves, why not leave them home?”

At the conclusion of the service, the four kids—ages 12, 9, 8, and 6—stood and recited the Mourner’s Kaddish. Yakov sat, his face hot with shame.

The Mourner’s Kaddish is recited by children of any age when they have lost a parent during the previous 11 months.

Every day, we make judgments about others based on their behavior. This airline’s check-in personnel are efficient. That driver’s weaving on the road is dangerous. Those business investors are far-sighted.

According to psychologist Elizabeth Hall, “Our brains are wired to judge automatically, allowing us to move through the world without spending too much time or energy on understanding everything we see.”

On the other hand, to make sense of why people behave the way they do, we engage in a more deliberate judgmental process, attributing behavior to either personality or situation.

Slow cashier? It’s because of incompetence (personality) or being new at the job (situation). An acquaintance overlooks you? It’s because she’s thoughtless (personality) or he’s preoccupied (situation).

Behavioral science also observes that we favor excusable situational explanations for those we care about, but we tend toward hostile personality conclusions for those we don’t know well.

“Jewish tradition accepts that judging is built into human nature,” educator Hanan Harchol writes.

However, judging others involves moral and ethical concerns, so it’s no surprise that biblical texts and rabbinic writings spell out clear guidelines embraced by two overarching principles.

“In justice shall you judge your fellow man,” the Bible commands: don’t show favoritism or hatred, don’t take vengeance or bear a grudge, and love your neighbor as yourself.

Understood as obligatory in both legal and everyday circumstances, this command requires that we judge others realistically, logically, accurately, and fairly.

The great Talmudic sage Hillel adds, “Do not judge your fellow until you have (put yourself in) his place,” meaning that a person’s situation must also be taken into account when evaluating their behavior.

“Judge the whole of a person with the scale weighted in his favor,” Joshua ben Perachia teaches in Pirkei Avot. That is, when judging, look not only at another’s behavior in the moment, but at the whole person, and begin with their virtues.

Interpret every situation in a way that yields the most favorable assessment of the person being judged. Give the benefit of the doubt.

We have been granted the beneficial and dangerous capacity for judgment. In order to function, we judge automatically. But to understand others, we judge by choice. How do these stories illustrate the principles of pursuing justice and weighing favorably — or not?

The senator. In 1963, Daniel Inouye was sworn in as a U.S. senator for Hawaii, the first Japanese American to serve in the upper chamber of Congress.

According to Rabbi Joseph Telushkin, a few days after featuring a photograph of the new senators taking the oath of office, “a newspaper received a caustic letter complaining that ‘the senator from Hawaii doesn’t know his right hand from his left.’”

The writer’s conclusion was unjust. An infantry officer during World War II and the recipient of several military decorations for acts of valor, Inouye lost his right arm to a grenade wound.

The survivor. A Jerusalem wedding was surprisingly luxurious in the eyes of guests who knew the groom’s family. After all, they were far from wealthy and frequently requested financial help from the community.

Returning to the wedding hotel for the Sheva Brachot celebration, many guests began to gossip against this family who incurred such exorbitant expenses for their son’s wedding while living on others’ charity.

Overhearing the rumors, the rabbi shared the following story: Having no clue about the process or expense of renting event venues, catering meals, or arranging wedding details, the groom’s father had simply entered the first hotel that caught his eye. Inquiring about prices he paused to introduce himself, at which point the hotel event planner burst into tears.

She explained, “Your father helped my family escape from Germany during the Second World War. It is the reason we are here today. I insist that your son’s wedding is celebrated in this hotel on my tab.”

The sofer. The new, young rabbi of an established, elderly Johannesburg shul, Rabbi Mendel Lipskar was leading his first Yom Kippur service when a young man walked in.

Wearing jeans and sandals and sporting long, frizzy hair, he looked very out of place. Nonetheless, Rabbi Lipskar asked the gabbai (congregational functionary) to give their visitor the honor of opening the ark. The gabbai was horrified. Such an honor to this hippie? Unthinkable. But the rabbi insisted. The gabbai acquiesced, and the young man was honored. Inspired, he went on to become a well-respected American sofer (ritual scribe).

The sages of the Talmud taught: “One who judges another favorably is himself judged favorably.”

The opposite is also true. Criticism or compassion? Fault-finding or fairness? How we judge others is ultimately how we will be judged, measure for measure. By others around us. And by God.


Literature to share

Angel of Alta Langa by Suzanne Hoffman. Inspired by real-life events, this historical novel follows the epic stories of several families in Italy’s wine-growing region during the era of fascism and the Nazi occupation. It’s a complex tale of love and war filled with suspense and tragedy, resistance and despair, courage and friendship, richly embellished by the history and culture of Italy’s Piemonte region. Enjoy this novel during the long cold winter.

Rosalind Looked Closer: An Unsung Hero of Molecular Science by Lisa Gerin. A Jewish girl growing up in World War II England, Rosalind had a passion for science. Despite little encouragement and few female role models in scientific fields, she entered Cambridge to study chemistry and then molecular science. She was the first to capture an image of the DNA double helix, one of the most import findings of the 20th century, and then went on to research the molecular shape of viruses. A fascinating and inspiring book for primary grades.

To read the complete January 2023 Dayton Jewish Observer, click here.

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