Years ago, my family lived on the upper floor of a two-family house. The landlord had exclusive use of the driveway, so my wife and I would park our cars on the street. Next door to us was an older widow, who owned a single-family home; she always parked in her own driveway. (This seems like a pretty straightforward arrangement, no?)
One day, my wife and I came home from work to find our neighbor’s car parked in front of our house. This was strange because her driveway was empty – why would she want to park in front of our house and walk farther to get to her door? But we don’t own the street and it was none of our business so we just parked across the street. As we say in French, that’s nisht geferlech (not so terrible).
Our neighbor continued to park in front of our house for a week, which was odd but, so far as we could see, completely her prerogative. At the end of the week, there was a knock at the door. (Actually, it was the doorbell, but “a knock at the door” makes for heightened drama.) It was our neighbor, rather frustrated. She had wanted to talk to us about some trivial matter so she parked in front of our house expecting that we would come home from work, see her car and go knock on her door, asking her to move it. She was incredulous that after an entire week, we still hadn’t come to complain.
In truth, it never occurred to us to do so. To our neighbor, however, it was the natural response and it was simply unthinkable that someone might behave otherwise.
This inability to understand that others see and do things differently is a normal (though not universal) human condition, and it can lead to a lot of conflict. Consider, for example, when King David sent a contingent to pay a condolence call to King Chanun of Ammon in II Samuel 10. Chanun refused to accept that the visitors might not be spies, presumably because if he were to send visitors to another land, they invariably would be spies. Similarly, why couldn’t King Saul get past the idea that David wasn’t trying to usurp his throne? Probably because he was imagining how he might act if the shoe were on the other foot. (Saul was a righteous king but flawed. He’s one of the most complex characters in Nach, so a full review of his motivations is beyond our scope.)
Each of us tends to see social, political and religious matters in a certain way. We often take it for granted that a given issue is so obvious that everyone else must see it that way as well. When someone invariably differs, we attribute all sorts of motivations to them: They’re stupid. They’re evil. They’re hateful. They’re disingenuous. They’re heathens. Of course, while some people certainly are stupid, evil, hateful, disingenuous and/or heathens, such is not the automatic consequence of having a different opinion.
And so, we humans tend to judge one another, often swiftly and harshly. I don’t like who you voted for, so I’m defriending you because you must be a hater, or perhaps you must not really support Israel. I don’t like whether or not you put a key in your bread or what you do or don’t wear on your head, so I don’t want my kids playing with yours because you’re obviously a fanatic or a heretic. If you don’t agree with me, there is clearly something wrong with you!
There’s a well-known saying about not judging another person until you have metaphorically “walked a mile in his shoes.” As best I can tell, this phrase dates back to the 1895 poem Judge Softly by Mary Torrans Lathrap. Lathrap, apparently inspired by the plight of the Native Americans, writes:
Just walk a mile in his moccasins
Before you abuse, criticize and accuse.
If just for one hour, you could find a way
To see through his eyes instead of your own muse,
I believe you’d be surprised to see
That you’ve been blind and narrow-minded, even unkind.
(If the poem sounds vaguely familiar, it served as the basis for Joe South’s 1970 hit Walk a Mile in My Shoes, which was also covered by Elvis Presley.)
If you’re a regular reader of my musings and familiar with how such things tend to go, it won’t surprise you that Chazal expressed this idea millennia earlier. This one is actually pretty well-known, as it appears in Pirkei Avos, the tractate of the Mishna that addresses a wide array of moral issues. In Avos 2:4, Hillel says:
Do not separate yourself from the community. Do not trust in yourself until the day you die. Do not judge another person until you have reached his place.
I quote the whole section, and not just the one relevant line, for reasons that will quickly become clear.
Regarding, “Do not judge another person until you have reached his place,” the Bartinuro clearly states our basic understanding of this dictum: “If you see another person tested and fail, do not judge him poorly until you undergo a comparable test and overcome it.” The commentary called “Magen Avos,” however, sheds additional light on this idea.
The Magen Avos sees these three ideas of Hillel as interrelated. For example, not trusting yourself until the day you die is a function of not separating oneself from the community because people in communities have support systems, while those who go off on their own are more likely to give in to their urges.
Similarly, the idea of not judging others until you have been where they are is related to not trusting yourself until the day you die, as the Magen Avos explains:
If you see another person stumble when he’s tested, or when he ascends to a position of authority, don’t judge him as guilty and deserving of (punishment)… The idea of not judging is to wait until you come to the end of your days and see if you are tested or appointed to a position as he was and you manage not to stumble….
The Magen Avos then cites a midrash that ties together several Biblical narratives: after Shlomo had built the Beis HaMikdash, he went to bed with the Temple keys under his pillow so that he could get up early for the daily sacrifices. Shlomo’s wife, however, hung a canopy over his bed that made the morning appear as if it were still night, causing him to oversleep. Yeravam gathered a contingent from his Tribe of Ephraim; they went to the palace to criticize their king for this error. At that time, a Heavenly voice proclaimed that Yeravam – who was criticizing Shlomo for his one-time error in delaying a sacrifice – was destined to intentionally prevent many, many sacrifices from being brought at all. (Yeravam, upon becoming king of the Ten Tribes, would establish two idols at ends of the country to keep his subjects from going to the Temple, setting into motion a chain of events that ultimately led to national exile.) Shlomo certainly made a mistake; he should have been more diligent. But when faced with a challenge, Yeravam failed many orders of magnitude beyond Shlomo’s mistake. He was in no position to judge.
Do we do the same thing? Do we fault others for accidents? For weaknesses? For errors in judgment? What makes us think we’re any better?
The same is true when we wonder how someone can support that candidate, that policy, that organization, that philosophy…. We’re all different. We’ve all had different upbringings and different life experiences, and none of us can say what we would be like if we had been raised in someone else’s shoes.
We’re not obligated to agree with everyone else’s positions or to condone everyone else’s actions. We’re permitted – even encouraged – to discuss, to debate and to disagree. What we’re not allowed to do is to judge one another because that presupposes that I’m better than you, or vice versa. If we were in one another’s place, each of us might actually be far, far worse. And who knows? If we try – maybe just a little – we might even come to understand one another.
That’s probably not the worst thing that could happen.
Rabbi Jack Abramowitz is Torah Content Editor at the Orthodox Union. He is the author of six books, including The Tzniyus Book and The Taryag Companion. His latest work, The God Book, is available from OU Press as well as on Amazon.
The words of this author reflect his/her own opinions and do not necessarily represent the official position of the Orthodox Union.