Judging Others Favourably

Around 18 months ago, I reflected on a realization that I came to regarding the Rabbinic precept of acquiring for oneself a Rav.  I would now like to consider the final clause of Rabbi Yehoshua ben Perachya’s teaching (Avot 1:6): “v’haveh dan et kol ha’adam lekaf zechut” — “and judge every person favourably.”

In a class I taught recently to a group of Jewish young adults, we examined a story about Rabbi Yehoshua ben Perachya that stayed with me, largely because it is the Talmudic narrative of how Jesus came to leave (proto-)Rabbinic Judaism.  The Talmud relates:

“In all circumstances one should use the left hand to push away and the right to bring closer…not like Yehoshua ben Perachya who pushed him –Jesus–with both hands…When King Yannai was executing our Rabbis, Rabbi Yehoshua ben Perachya and Jesus fled to Alexandria, Egypt. [When peace was restored] they went up to a lodge where they paid [Yehoshua ben Perachya] great respect. He said ‘how beautiful is this achsania [inn, or inn hostess]’, Jesus said to him “My master, her eyes are misshaped.” He said to him “Evil one!, in this what you are busy with?!” he brought out four hundred Shofars and excommunicated him.

Later, Jesus came to him repeatedly, pleading, ‘receive me,’ but he paid no heed. One day he (Rabbi Yehoshua ben Perachya) was reciting Kriat Shema, when Jesus came before him. He intended to receive him and motioned to him with his hand, but Jesus thought he was rebuffing him again. So he went and set up a brick and worshiped it.  Rabbi Yehoshua said to him ‘repent.’ Jesus said to him ‘I learnt from you; ‘all who sin and cause others to sin we do not give him the ability to repent’.” (Sanhedrin 107b, censored in many versions of the Talmud)

Not only is this story a fascinating window into how the rabbis understood their relationship to Jesus, but it provides much-needed context for the succinct teaching we find in Pirkei Avot.  The Talmud highlights Rabbi Yehoshua ben Perachya (who, for those interested in the history, lived about 200 years before Jesus) as the paradigmatic pedagogic model to be avoided, as he was too harsh with a star pupil of his, leading to widespread heresy (in the rabbis’ opinion).  It is no wonder, then, that this very rabbi is attributed with writing the teaching to find a Rav — a strong moral guide — as well as a Chaver (friend), and to judge every person favourably.

The story about Rabbi Yehoshua ben Perachya and Jesus is all about not judging favourably.  They both think the worst of each other, Jesus assuming his teacher is interested in the physical appearance of the innkeeper, and Rabbi Yehoshua ben Perachya thinking that Jesus is as shallow as his comment suggested.  That encounter leaves Jesus so hurt that he falls prey to the same deficiency again, assuming that his rabbi is rebuffing him, rather than asking for patience.

So much of our communication is non-verbal, just as that highlighted in the story.  How do we attempt to follow this final teaching of Rabbi Yehoshua ben Perachya, a teaching he clearly strove — imperfectly — to follow in his own life?

I think that judging people favourably is intricately bound up in the fundamental mitzvah (commandment) of the Torah, loving your neighbour as yourself.  In order to know how to judge another favourably, we must first attune ourselves to be aware of how we relate to those we deeply love.  When a loved one does something wrong, we do not immediately find fault with them, and we do not get angry.  We first try to find a reason to exonerate them, and, if that proves unsuccessful, we then ask politely why they did whatever they did that hurt us.  What I see in the above story is a deep critique by the Rabbis, arguing that, had Rabbi Yeshoshua ben Perachya acted in such a loving way, rather than in the way that he did towards Jesus, Judaism would be fundamentally more unified.  By ‘pushing Jesus away with both hands,’ Judaism lost the teachings of a truly wise teacher.

Increasingly, I am seeing every moral failing we face today as a failure to live up to this teaching of Rabbi Yehoshua ben Perachya.  Partisan bickering, racism, homophobia, and our blatant lack of concern for the environment, to name just a few, all stem from an empathy deficit (the last towards our children).  Righting that imbalance will require dedication, education, and a concerted effort to treat the Other like we treat those people we could not get through the day without.

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