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Benefit of the Doubt

Being positive is an old Jewish practice. Who knew?

by David Holzel

The story is always changing  

The story changed between the idea and when I sat down to write about the idea. It will have changed again by the time you read this. The story is always changing. In the morning the story is about a young celebrity, her insobriety, her bizarre behavior, her weight, her fitness for motherhood. By noon it is the pregnancy of her even younger sister.

I have faith that the story will have different contours by evening. What remains

unchanged is our desire to draw conclusions. But why do we feel we must we sum up the story? Why must we be judge and our peers jury?

It is an animal impulse. The same impulse, when we are at a party, to find flaw with every person who walks into the room. Alan Morinis calls this a threat response. “It’s an unconscious response
 to demean everyone.”

There is another option, although most of us aren’t built for it, not culturally, at least: The benefit of the doubt.


“Without training you won’t do it,” says Morinis, author of “Everyday Holiness: The Jewish Spiritual Path to Mussar.”  “It’s something that has to be cultivated.”


The benefit of the doubt has an ancient Jewish pedigree. In Hebrew, the concept is called dan l’kaf z’chut, and with it you can draw a line with one end in the book of Leviticus and the other in the latest morsel about Britney Spears.


It’s a wild ride, full of wisdom and contradiction. And here is where it begins, in Leviticus chapter 19, verse 15: “…in righteousness shall you judge your neighbor.”

That’s it. A fragment of a verse, which the rabbis in Pirkei Avot (The Chapters of the Fathers) broke open. Inside, they discovered how that abstract notion can be understood to apply to the real life of real people:  

Ve’heveh dan et kol ha-adam l’kaf z’chut

“Judge everyone on the positive side of the scale.” (Pirkei Avot 1:6)

In other words, “it’s innocent until proven guilty,” says Rabbi Stephen Weiss, of B’nai Jeshurun Congregation, in Pepper Pike, Ohio, outside Cleveland.  “If you see someone doing something, and you can ascribe either a bad motive to that person’s actions or a good motive, then ascribe a good motive. There’s a heavy weight in our tradition against making snap judgments.”


It’s tough to keep from snapping when the story keeps changing, the news keeps cycling and the information is overloading. Our minds demand some conclusion, a judgment that ties a story together and files it away neatly. It’s tough to just let it lie. To see Britney and just walk away.

Tougher still when you’ve never heard of dan l’kaf z’chut , a midah – or character-building behavior – that has long been part of the Jewish tradition, but which has been forgotten in all but Orthodox communities.

I’m new to the idea as well – I first heard the term during a conversation with a smart, learned friend. As I did my research to try to find out more, I came across the following entry by an Orthodox blogger:


“Britney Spears is a bit eccentric… She made the news again the other day with her new haircut – a completely shaved head…


“My wife suggested that maybe she donated her hair to a cancer organization or something like that. We were fairly impressed that we could be 'melamed zechut' (find a meritorious way of explaining the situation), even though [Spears] has a reputation of being a bit hasty and freaky.”


Later, I mentioned the blog entry to Rabbi Weiss. He thought about the blogger’s attempt to judge from the positive side of the scale and then went a step further. “Why should we care if she cuts off her hair?” he said. “Why do we have to judge?”


'Musar is how you interact with other people.'

They don’t pass laws against things people aren’t doing. So if the Torah says to judge your neighbor in righteousness, my hunch is that means an awful lot of our biblical ancestors were doing the opposite.


And the midah, which the rabbis developed later, reminds us that we should not judge solely on appearances – a lesson drilled into us from childhood. “It’s not something that can be wished for,” Morinis says. “Without training you won’t do it. If it came to us naturally, we wouldn’t have to cultivate it.”

This cultivation of middot is the focus of a Jewish movement called Musar – a word taken from the book of Proverbs (chapter1, verse 2), meaning “instruction,” “discipline” or “conduct.” While kabbalah – Jewish mysticism – has attained mainstream popularity, and Buddhist practices, particularly meditation, have received a Jewish stamp of approval, Musar languishes in some warehouse of dusty Jewish relics.


That could be changing. Rabbi Debra Newman Kamin, of Am Yisrael in the Chicago suburb of Northfield, Illinois, wonders if the popularity of Jewish practices swings like a pendulum. If so,
she says, she might be witnessing the


We should not judge solely on appearances

More about Pirkei Avot 1:6 

Strategies for the Heart and Mind
The Jerusalem Report on Musar 

Overview of Jewish Ethics
by Rabbi Amy Scheinerman, of  Beth Shalom Congregation, Carroll County (Westminster Md.)

True Ancestor
David Gottlieb’s blog

Ben Franklin – Good for the Jews?
Was he the father of Musar?


beginning of a shift away from mystical and inward-centered practices. On its way, the pendulum might be heading toward an interest in the more practical middot that Musar champions. 
“Meditiation and spirituality are good for Judaism,” Rabbi Kamin says, “but they can get a little New Agey and me-oriented.” Musar, which she has seen practiced in small circles, is action oriented. “It is, ‘what can I do to be a better person?’ ”

One man trying to enlarge those small circles is David Gottlieb, a student of both Musar and meditation, and co-author of “Letters to a Buddhist Jew.”  


“Contemporary Jews, especially after the Holocaust, felt something missing in the super-rational environment [of the typical synagogue],” he says. “So mysticism came into vogue and meditation became to be seen as a part of it.”


Mysticism had its first run of widespread popularity with the rise of Chasidism in 18th century Eastern Europe. Until then, kabbalah was presumed to be too esoteric for the average Jew. As Chasidism spread its irrational belief in wonder-working rebbes and an emphasis on faith and spirituality over institutional study and disciplined behavior, the rabbis of Lithuania – dour proponents of scholarship and rationality – watched in horror.


It was Lithuania that in the 19th century gave birth to the Musar movement. Its chief proponent was  Rabbi Israel Salanter, and his emphasis on moral teachings and ethical behavior was a reality check on the airy-fairy spirituality of Chasidism.


“Musar masters felt that kabbalah would lead to estrangement from the world,” Gottlieb says.  “Musar is how you interact with other people.  With dan l’kaf z’chut, you have to change the way you think in order to change the way you act.”


Musar, in a word, is manners.

“It’s highly practical,” Gottlieb adds. “In that sense it’s a refreshing change,” both from the spiritual me-ism in vogue today and the stand-and-sit prayer services that are considered the main entrance into Jewish practice.


So what does it take to put the midah of dan l’kaf z’chut into action? To just let Britney cut off her hair or, for that matter, to give a colleague at work the benefit of the doubt.

“All the Jewish sources say the super-conductor of middot is humility,” Gottlieb says. “You have to understand that an oppositional outlook does not address your spiritual curriculum in an effective way.”


Always comparing oneself to others can make you feel like a victim, he explains. Paradoxically, it can also divert your attention from your self, and your responsibility for your actions.




'A negative way of looking at things is a product of one’s own ego.'

Restraining our darker, seamier urge to judge indiscriminately no doubt would blunt the fangs of public discourse. That would lead to a more civil society. After  all, good manners exist to make life more pleasant, civilization more civilized.


But if you think that’s the point of dan l’kaf z’chut and other middot, Alan Morinis has some news for you.


“If these behaviors cause the world to be civilized, I’m all for that.”


That statement sets up a “but” that reverberates to the 19th century and back. This is where the practical, behavior-modification aspects of middot begin a strange shift into the mystical.


Morinis, who teaches at the Mussar Institute, based in Vancouver, British Columbia, agrees that middot have a practical effect on the outer life. What interests him, though, is their effect on a Jew’s inner life.


“In the past, the inner life was important,” he says. “But the Jewish world today is not paying enough attention to the inner life.”


Look at it as Morinis does: Men and women have a lower nature and a higher nature. The lower nature is grasping, animalistic. The higher nature is loving, generous and spiritual.

 The higher nature is loving, generous and spiritual

Rabbi Yisrael Salanter said that when he first started learning Musar, he became angry at the world, but remained at peace within. As he studied further, he also became angry with himself. Finally, only the anger for him remained while his anger for others melted away and he became dan l’kaf z'chut – judging others favorably.


Rabbi Levi Yitzchak of Berditchev spotted a man greasing the wheels of his wagon while he was wearing his tallit and tefillin. Instead of being furious at this sacrilege, the rabbi turned his eyes toward heaven and proclaimed, “See, Master of the World, how holy Your children are! Even when he is engaged in greasing his wheels, he nevertheless remembers to pray to You.” The person who judges his neighbor in the scale of merit is himself judged favorably [by God].” Reb Levi Yitzchak trained himself to be dan l’kaf z’chut to judge everyone positively. However, favorable judgment by an onlooker does not diminish the error made by a person who misuses objects of kedushah, (holiness), such as a man who wears tallit and tefillin when he attends to everyday, common activities.  

from Sefer Kavanos Halev

“Jewish life wants to lift us up into the higher reaches of our nature,” he says. “Dan l’kaf z’chut is about lifting your perceptions and not seeing people immediately as a threat. If you can see they are on a journey, you can cut them a lot of slack.”


That would be going against the norms of our society, he adds. “A celebrity mother loses custody of her kids and everybody gloats. Where is the opposite message being delivered?”


Ultimately, dan l’kaf z’chut is an inner response to the outside world, Morinis says. “You have to take responsibility for your inner life.”

If you follow Morinis’ line of thinking, you will reach the spot where Musar meets mysticism. There you’ll find Rabbi Dovid Sears, a Breslov chasid affiliated with Breslov Center in New York.


Rabbi Sears’ understanding of the middot is based on the teachings of Rabbi Nachman of Breslov, a late-18th, early-19th century chasidic rebbe, whose discourses were collected in a volume called “Likutey Moharan.”


Rabbi Nachman’s Lesson 282 picks up where Pirkei Avot leaves off, in its call for us to judge others according to the scale of merit – in other words, on the positive side of the scale.  This is s good for everyone, Rabbi Sears say, not the least because “a negative way of looking at things is a product of one’s own ego.”


Doing the positive, according to Rabbi Nachman, is divine. And often difficult.


“Even a person who is a thoroughgoing evil person – you have to search for a little point of good in him,” says Rabbi Sears, quoting Rabbi Nachman. “And in that point, he is not a wicked person.”


By focusing on that single point of good, “you can transform that person without even saying a word – you can cause him to turn in teshuvah [repentance].”


What Rabbi Nachman is saying “is that evil is not the essence. It’s secondary. Good is the essence,” Rabbi Sears says. “Evil is not primary. What’s true is primary, essential and divine.”


Whether it is filled with mystical implications, a discipline to raise ourselves to a higher level of humanity, one of a set of good manners or simply a reminder to mind one's own business, dan l'kaf z'chut has been a part of the Jewish lexicon for ages. Who knew?

Copyright © 2008 by David Holzel
Thanks to Shmuel for getting this rolling, and to Joel Grishaver for what he gave me off the top of his head.



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