Jewish Teachings about Judging Others

Thought from the Jewish tradition on judging others

Posted Sep 05, 2010

Judging personality involves moral and ethical concerns as well as the search for accuracy in judgments of an individual's character.  Recently, I have been examining thoughts about judging personality, paying particular attention to the ethics codes of the American Psychological and American Psychiatric Associations (backgroud here). The lineage of these ethics codes extends back to the philosophical and religious traditions of the Great Transformation (1000 BCE - 200 BCE), which include Buddhism, Confucianism, Greek philosophy, Hinduism, Judaism, Taoism, Zoroastrianism and others.

In Judaism, the ten days starting with Rosh Hashanah (the New Year, which in 2010 begins this Wednesday evening), are referred to as the "Days of Awe."  The Days of Awe are a time for introspection, for reflection on one's transgressions and for making amends with others. The ten days conclude with Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, a solemn day of self- and community-examination and prayer.

Self-reflection can involve many issues.  Among them -- and one topic of these posts -- is how to best judge the personality of  others. The Days of Awe provide an opportunity to consider some of the better-known Jewish teachings on this subject.  For example, the book of Leviticus in the Hebrew Bible contains codes of laws and other precepts, including statements concerning judging others: not favor the poor or show deference to the rich; judge your neighbor fairly...You shall not hate your kinsman in your heart. Reprove your neighbor, but incur no guilt against your kinsfolk. Love your neighbor as yourself: I am the LORD. [19:16-17]

As indicated in that passage, Biblical Judaism included laws and obligations that people judge one another fairly, and with loving-kindness.

Religious scholars often distinguish between Biblical Judaism, as reflected in Leviticus, and Rabbinical Judaism, a later body of interpretation and further development of biblical ideas.  Among Rabbinical writings, the Mishna records the Jewish oral tradition beginning about 300 BCE. It was redacted (written out) sometime around 200 CE. One section of the Mishna is referred to as the Pirke Avot (Sayings of Our Fathers), and is full of practical advice for everyday behavior, including the art and practice of judging others. For example, in the Pirke Avot, Rabbi Joshua ben Perachya is quoted as saying: "...judge everyone favorably." One commentary, by Maimonides, interprets the saying as indicating that each person is believed to have goodness within them, and that one who judges is obliged to look for those good qualities.

The documents of the Great Transformation often refer to great teachers, and one concern those teachers shared, whether Hindu, Confucian, or Hebrew, was who would make a good student (and future teacher). Rabbi Hillel noted, concerning who might be taught, that:

"The brute will not fear sin. The ignoramus will not be saintly. The inhibited will not learn. The irate cannot teach. Nor can one given over to business grow wise..."

Hillel's personality judgments are elaborated through commentary.  For example, on why the timid cannot learn: They don't ask enough questions. The Pirke Avot provide a series of brief descriptions of types of people, and which ones might be most respected or best avoided. Beyond these personality judgments themselves, a second body of wisdom grew concerning how one ought to judge. One of Hillel's most quoted ideas is to take care when judging others:

"Don't judge your fellow human being until you have reached that person's place."

Commentaries in the Pirkei Avot elaborate on Hillel's idea in various ways. For example, Rabbi Bartinoro believed that only people who were confident that they had attained equally good or better behaviors themselves should judge, "If you see your neighbor ensnared by some temptation, do not judge your neighbor harshly until you have faced the same temptation and mastered it."

There are many ideas and lessons one can draw from these ancient teachings, but there are two in particular that I find intriguing.

The ancients' judgments served practical purposes. The teaching in Leviticus was partly in terms of how to carry out legal judgments. Hillel's saying about who might learn was concerned with how Rabbis might find good students, ergo, future religious teachers. 

Alongside the ancients' judgments was an evolving wisdom that judgments are fallible and consequently must be carried out with care and empathy (e.g., refrain "...until you have reached that person's place..."). Moreover, a reasonable interpretation of Hillel's caution also might include a beginning technology of judging: that is, that a person's situation must be taken into account as you evaluate someone's behavior. Only then can fair judgments be made.

The ancients were saying, implicitly, judge others because there is a purpose to doing so, and yet do so cautiously and err toward the positive, because it is easy to make mistakes. Finally, put yourself in the other's place, if at all possible, when thinking through such judgments.

Such ancient teachings about judgment are not so different from what we would regard today as good guidelines for judging others.


The passage from Leviticus is from The Torah. The Five Books of Moses. Philadelphia: The Jewish Publication Society of America. [Leviticus, 19.16-19., p. 217].

The quotations from Hillel are from Kravitz, L. & Olitzky, K. M. (1993) (Eds. & Trans). Pirke avot: A modern commentary on Jewish ethics. New York: UACH Press. Hillel's saying "Don't judge" is found in 2:4 (p. 20). Bartinoro's commentary appears on p. 21. "The brute will not fear sin..." 2:5, p. 21. Joshua ben Perachyah's "Judge everyone favorably," arises in 1:6. For that passage I also drew on on-line sources, available at: and

Copyright © 2010 by John D. Mayer