Giving the Benefit of the Doubt

By Rabbi Mordechai Levin

We would all like others to give us the benefit of the doubt; however, we sometimes find it difficult to do the same for them.

If someone fails to show up for an appointment, we assume she just did not care. But perhaps her absence was caused by a serious situation that called for her immediate attention. In another example, a person may say something that turns out to be hurtful, and we assume he said it on purpose. But perhaps he wasn’t aware that his words were hurtful, or he simply – and unintentionally – had his facts wrong.

Judaism teaches us to avoid jumping to negative conclusions. For instance, we read in the Hebrew Bible (Leviticus 19:15): “with justice you shall judge your neighbor.” The Mishna (Avot 2:5 and 1:6 ) advises us: “Do not judge your fellow human being till you stand in his situation”; and “Judge every person favorably.”

Because we can never be aware of all the circumstances in other people’s lives, our assumptions about their actions may sometimes be way off the mark.

Obviously, there are times when people are irresponsible, insensitive, hateful, or they intend to be hurtful with their words or actions. But those are not the situations which I’m referring to here; I’m talking about circumstances in which there are no ill intentions, and yet we misinterpret others’ words or actions.

If somebody disappoints us, we would be wise to avoid automatically jumping to a negative conclusion regarding that person’s motivation. How can we learn to give others the benefit of the doubt? First, don’t believe a rumor unless it’s proven to be true. Remember playing telephone? One person would begin, and by the end of the chain of four or five people, the original message would be completely different. So how can we believe gossip knowing how distorted a rumor gets as it’s passed from person to person?

If we see people acting in ways that seem incriminating, we should not automatically jump to the worst conclusions. Rather, try to figure out why they did what they did. Maybe their actions were not done on purpose. Maybe their words were quoted out of context. Or maybe we don’t know the whole story. Instead of spending our time looking for people’s faults, let’s look for ways to see the best in them.

We are constantly judging our peers based on their words and behavior. Giving the benefit of the doubt helps us to think better of others and to act better as well. As the Talmud (Shabbat 127b) reminds us: “The sages teach: One who judges his/her friend favorably will be judged favorably by God.”

Posted in Articles, Thought for Shabbat

Rabbi Levin is the rabbi of Congregation Beth Israel in Munster, IN. He received his rabbinic ordination from the Latin American Rabbinical Seminary, and is a member of the Rabbinical Assembly. In 2010, he was awarded an Honorary Doctorate of Divinity from the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York City for his years of dedicated service to the Conservative movement and the Jewish community...Full bio