Recently I feel a friend of mine, who is usually a nice person, has done something really wrong. On the one hand, I am embarrassed to talk to her about it, and also I don’t want to put her on the spot. On the other hand, another friend says I have to judge her favorably, even if that means making up some excuse that hardly seems likely, or otherwise talk to her about it to get to the truth. What should I do?
First of all, your other friend is right. If the “offender” is usually a good person, and normally does the right thing, you are required to judge her favorably, even if this involves a gymnastic stretch of imagination. We learn this from the Torah verse, “b'tzedek tishpot” (Leviticus 19:15), which literally means judge righteously. But our Sages taught that it also means “judge other people to be righteous”. Accordingly, the Torah requires that we give others the benefit of the doubt – an idea echoed in Pirkei Avot 1:6, “Rabbi Yehoshua ben Perachaya says…judge every person favorably”.
A very early and authoritative work on Jewish ethics called Chovot HaLevavot, or “Duties of the Heart”, relates a famous teaching: Once a virtuous man was walking with his students when they chanced upon the carcass of a dead animal. The students said, "What a foul odor is coming from this carcass!" But the virtuous man said, "How white are its teeth!" (Sha’ar Hakeniya, ch. 6). While both statements are true, the virtuous man went out of his way to find a positive viewpoint despite the more readily perceptible foul odor of the carcass. If this is the case concerning a dead animal, how much more so should we try to find the good in a human being?
Interestingly, I recently heard two true stories (from the people involved) directly related to your question:
A young man went to a local kiosk to buy something. He gave the saleswoman a twenty-shekel bill. While she was getting his change, the phone rang. He waited for her to finish the short call to receive his ten-shekel change. When she finished, he asked for the change, but she replied that she had given it to him. He insisted that he didn’t get it. She told him to check his pockets, which he had already done. He countered that she had been talking on the phone and obviously wasn’t paying attention to what she was doing. She claimed she knew she took the change from the register. Each was certain that he/she was right and that the other was wrong. The young man decided it wasn’t worth arguing over, so he left. After a few moments, she ran after him calling him back. It turns out, she explained, that she found the coin in her sleeve, and it must have slipped in there during the phone call.
One neighbor noticed rubble that obstructed an air vent to the basement. He recalled that another neighbor on that side of the building had done some construction a while back and decided the debris must have been left from the construction. He approached the neighbor politely saying that the workers must have left the rubble there and asked him to remove it. He was astonished when not only did the neighbor not capitalize on the opportunity he provided him to bow out gracefully, the neighbor “audaciously” asserted that the debris was not his. The one claimed, “Where else did it come from?” The other retorted, “I don’t know, but it wasn’t from me”. While they were arguing, a third neighbor called from a window at their feet, “Stop bickering, I just had this new window installed — I’ll remove the debris tomorrow when the job’s done.”
These true stories demonstrate that often we’re sure we are right and others are wrong. After all, “all the facts” point to that conclusion. In reality, the truth is “up the sleeve” or “at your feet”, but we don’t look into the matter thoroughly or objectively enough. Ultimately, the best thing to do would be to approach the person in a non-accusing manner with a sincere intention to judge the person to be righteous.