The Side of Merit

Judge NotJudge every man to the side of merit.

Ethics of our Fathers 1:6

On the most elementary level, this means that if you discern a negative trait in your fellow or you see him commit a negative act, do not judge him guilty in your heart. “Do not judge your fellow until you are in his place,” warns another of the Ethics’ sayings, and his place is one place where you will never be. You have no way of truly appreciating the manner in which his inborn nature, his background or the circumstances that hold sway over his life have influenced his character and behavior.

However, this only explains why you should not judge your fellow guilty. Yet our Mishnah goes further than this, enjoining us to “judge every man to the side of merit.” This implies that we should see our fellow’s deficiencies in a positive light. But what positive element is implied by a person’s shortcomings and misdeeds?

Commentary on Ethics of Our Fathers
“Double Standard”
Tammuz 18, 5771 * July 20, 2011
Chabad.org

The character traits of strength and firmness evoke mixed responses. On one hand, everyone admires personal fortitude, and respects an individual who has the courage to persevere in his convictions despite challenges. And yet a strong person can also be thought of as rigid and insensitive, clinging stubbornly to his own views without bending in consideration of others. Counseling against this tendency, our Sages commented, (Taanis 20a) “A person should always be pliant like a reed, and not hard like a cedar.”

Commentary on Torah Portion Matot
“True Strength”
-Rabbi Eli Touger

The world of religion is terribly judgmental. To be fair, this is a human trait and not just one seen among people of faith. While secular people tend to blame religion for all the world’s ills (war, racism, poverty, and so forth) is it rather our human nature and our tendency toward selfishness and evil that lets us corrupt the values of God into something that harms people.

In Christianity we are taught, “Judge not, that ye be not judged” (Matthew 7:1 [KJV]), but that certainly hasn’t stopped many in the church from judging others, both within the congregation and in the non-believing world. Is this any way to show the world the love of Jesus Christ?

Despite what I’ve quoted above, Judaism is also populated by human beings and thus, Jewish people aren’t perfect. They have a capacity equal to any Christian to judge others and to assign unfair blame and ridicule. Asher at the Lev Echad blog is on something of a mission to try and turn the hearts of Jews toward each other and to heal the differences between them. Recently, he published a plea asking Jews to not judge each other for their differences in religious practices and lifestyle but rather to guide “others into a life of serving God and His children in a way that best matches their individual personality”.

Asher’s words can easily be applied to the rest of us, both in their practicality and in their need.

Returning to the example of the Ethics of Our Fathers from which I quoted above, we see in the commentary that we must not only treat our fellows fairly and as we want to be treated, but we should extend ourselves to give others the benefit of the doubt, while at the same time, looking at our own deeds without compromise:

So judge every man to the side of merit—every man, that is, except yourself. For the attitude detailed above, while appropriate to adopt towards other human beings, would be nothing less than disastrous if applied to oneself.

“True, I have done nothing with my life,” the potential-looking individual will argue. “But look at what I am capable of! Look at the quality of my mind, the sensitivity of my feelings, the tremendous talents I possess. It’s all there within me, regardless of the fact that I have never bothered to realize any of it. This is the real me. The extent to which I actualize it is only of secondary importance.”

In our judgement of human life and achievement, we must adapt a double standard. Our assessment of a fellow human being must always look beyond the actual to the potential reality within. On the other hand, we must measure our own worth in terms of our real and concrete achievements, and view the potential in ourselves as merely the means to this end.

FriendsChristianity has parallel teachings to these Talmudic gems:

“Why do you look at the speck of sawdust in your brother’s eye and pay no attention to the plank in your own eye? How can you say to your brother, ‘Let me take the speck out of your eye,’ when all the time there is a plank in your own eye? You hypocrite, first take the plank out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to remove the speck from your brother’s eye. –Matthew 7:3-5

Then Peter came to Jesus and asked, “Lord, how many times shall I forgive my brother or sister who sins against me? Up to seven times?” Jesus answered, “I tell you, not seven times, but seventy-seven times. –Matthew 18:21-22

At the core of all these lessons is the Torah itself and the Master’s commentary on the “Torah” that both Jews and Christians can embrace:

One of the teachers of the law came and heard them debating. Noticing that Jesus had given them a good answer, he asked him, “Of all the commandments, which is the most important?”

“The most important one,” answered Jesus, “is this: ‘Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one. Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength.’ The second is this: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no commandment greater than these.” –Mark 12:28-31

I specifically say this is a “Torah”, because Jesus is quoting from both Deuteronomy 6:4-5 and Leviticus 19:18, so the heart of Christianity was born in Judaism and if we are wise, we will not separate the branches from the vine (see John 15:5 and Romans 11:11-24).

Rabbi Touger’s commentary on Matos describes two symbols of leadership over the twelve tribes of Israel. The authority of a tribal head is symbolized by both a staff and a rod. They sound the same but are wholly different from one another:

What is the difference between these two terms? A rod is supple, able to be bent, while a staff is firm and unyielding. For a rod is freshly cut or still connected to the tree from which it grew and is therefore pliant. A staff, by contrast, has been detached from its tree long ago, and over time has become dry, hard, and firm.

Both terms serve as analogies for different levels in the expression of our souls’ potential. (See Sefer Maamarei Admur HaZakein 5562, Vol. I, p. 237ff.) The term “rod” refers to the soul as it exists in the spiritual realms, where its connection to G-dliness is palpably appreciated. It shares an active bond with the lifegiving, spiritual nurture it receives. “Staff,” by contrast, refers to the soul as it exists in our material world, enclothed in a physical body. On the conscious level, it has been severed from its spiritual source, and its connection to G-dliness is no longer felt.

In this setting, there is the possibility for both the positive and the negative types of strength and hardness. There is a tendency towards spiritual insensitivity, a brittle lack of responsiveness to the G-dliness invested within creation.

Tree of LifeTying this back to the analysis of Pirkei Avot 1:6, we see that we should be a “rod” when dealing with others but a “staff” when judging ourselves.

A rod and a staff have a common source and the difference is how long each one has been separated from the tree. It is said that the Torah is a “tree of life for those who hold fast to her” (Ethics of Our Fathers 6:7). Given the Torah source of both Jewish and Christian commentaries on compassion toward others, not the least of which is the teaching of the Master, how can we not take hold of that tree and cling fast to her in our relationships with others and with God?

Rabbi Chananiah the son of Akashiah would say: G-d desired to merit the people of Israel; therefore, He gave them Torah and mitzvot in abundance. As is stated, “G-d desired, for sake of his righteousness, that Torah be magnified and made glorious.” –Makot, 3:16

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.