Dan Le-Khaf Zekhut: Two Practical Tips
PLEASE NOTE: Because of the timing of the end of Pesach, Kedoshim is the Parasha this week in Israel and next week in the Diaspora
Last week, I mentioned that there is a Torah obligation to judge people favorably (dan le-khaf zekhut). Since it is mentioned in Pirkei Avot 1:6, I used to think that it is like much else in Pirkei Avot – a good middah (trait) to which we should aspire. (After all, Avot 2:4 recommends not judging someone until you are in their place – a beautiful ideal, but clearly not an obligation.)
At the same time, the halakhah does not require us to judge favorably all the time. (I addressed this in Session Eight of my MythBusting course at WebYeshiva.) Sefer Chofetz Chaim clarifies that the obligation to judge someone positively applies only if their action can equally be judged positively or negatively; if the negative possibility seems much more likely, judging positively is no longer obligatory, though it is still preferable. What the Chofetz Chaim doesn’t address is how to judge favorably under those circumstances. If someone did something wrong, and especially if they did something wrong to me, how exactly can I convince myself that it isn’t so bad?
One tip, presented by Rashi in his commentary on Shabbat 127b, is that if I should tell myself, “He meant well.” The person definitely hurt me – there’s no point in pretending otherwise – but he may have had good intentions. Rabbi Dovid Siegel elaborates:
Let’s be honest. We constantly come up with loads of excuses for our own less-than-exemplary behavior. I was tired, I was ill. I was under stress. I was thoughtless or careless, saying something without thinking. Isn’t someone else also entitled to excuses?
Sooner or later, I mess up. Afterwards, I might rationalize that it was an honest mistake and I didn’t mean to hurt anyone. I should apply the same logic to other people’s mess-ups. This is the first tip to judge someone favorably while knowing that what they did was wrong.
DON’T GET MAD, FEEL BAD (FOR THEM)
Another way to judge favorably appears in an unlikely source: Murphy’s Law Book Two (p. 52). This little book is full of cynical observations about life. One of them, formulated by Robert J. (Bob) Hanlon, is a philosophical razor, namely a rule of thumb that allows some explanations to be shaved off:
Hanlon’s Razor: Never attribute to malice that which is adequately explained by stupidity.
This guideline, whose sentiment has been expressed in earlier variations as well, is a remarkable hybrid of cynicism and optimism. While expressing something negative about the other person, the net effect is the same as our first tip – to assume good intentions. True, this is still negative about the other person, so I recommend making sure not to formulate it out loud (or else it would be lashon ha-ra or another interpersonal violation). Nevertheless, the overall judgment is positive. If I imagine the other person to be malicious, I will probably feel anger or resentment. But if I imagine that they are just incompetent or negligent (nothing to do with me), I might feel pity for them instead. And pity is much better than anger, for both of us.
Similarly, Rabbi Yaakov Yehoshua Blekherovitz, in his Tiferet Yehoshua commentary on Avot 1:6 (p. 101), advises the use of pity in being dan le-khaf zekhut. Rabbi Noach Weinberg comes to the same conclusion, comparing the offender to someone who is visually impaired:
The next time your parent, in-law, co-worker, or neighbor does something to make you crazy, picture them wearing dark glasses and holding a white cane. They are blind. They can’t see that they are doing wrong. Help them, guide them, and show them gently the error of their ways. But don’t expect them to change. A blind person can’t see overnight. It takes time, and sometimes they will never see. Feel sorry for them! (As cited in Lori Palatnik & Bob Burg, Gossip: Ten Pathways to Eliminate It from Your Life and Transform Your Soul, pp. 72-73.)
To be honest, I did not discover these rabbinic sources until years after I had been using Hanlon’s Razor to help me judge people favorably. Rashi’s tip (assume good intentions) and Hanlon’s tip (assume incompetence) can both be extremely useful in fulfilling the mitzvah to be dan le-khaf zekhut.
To sponsor a weekly dvar Torah, please contact us.