“Oh hi Mom, good to hear your voice,” I responded. My mother often begins our phone calls in the middle of a conversation she started before dialing my number.
“I played bridge today,” she continued, “and was stuck with a real dud for a partner. Dumb-as-a-door-nail Debbie — absolutely no personality.”
Let it be known: My mother tends to judge people by outward appearances and first impressions. True, we all make assessments of others based on how they look, dress, talk, even eat, but her quick judgments have always been a problem for me.
“So what happened, Mom?” I asked, knowing that whatever it was, it was bound to be a good topic for dinner conversation with my husband.
“We played bridge and just like I thought — she was terrible. Didn’t concentrate on the game, kept looking around the room as if she couldn’t wait to go home. I kept reminding her that it was her turn. But after the game, a woman at the next table came up to her and asked how she was doing. She answered so quietly I could barely hear.”
“Not so good,” Debbie whispered. “I’m waiting to hear from the doctor — about my kidneys. They aren’t working right and I may need dialysis.”
My mother was shocked. It had never occurred to her that her “dud of a partner” might have been preoccupied with such a frightening thought. And she was ashamed — of herself and how quickly she had misjudged the situation and Debbie herself.
Mom got up and went over to Debbie and put her hand on her shoulder.
“I’m going to think of you all weekend and hope that you get good news,” she said. Debbie thanked her and then began to cry. It was the end of a misjudgment and the beginning of a friendship.
On Monday, Mom called Debbie and learned that she wouldn’t need dialysis after all. Mom hung up, but not before telling Debbie that she looked forward to seeing her again soon. And she meant it.
It’s so easy, so very human, to judge another person, whether it’s a friend, family member or someone we barely know. The critical judge that lives within each of us creates a story, often not based in fact but in our own perception. That story greatly influences how we relate to the person and becomes the lens through which we view him or her. Dumb Debbie. Arrogant Alice. Pretentious Peter.
These unfair judgments interfere with our ability to appreciate the real person sitting across the table from us, whether that table is in a classroom, boardroom or dining room. Once we conclude that a friend spends too much money (on things we don’t value) or that a co-worker is after our job, all of our interactions will tend to validate that assessment. If my mother had not learned about Debbie’s impending news about her kidneys, she would still think of her as dumb Debbie the next week at bridge and most likely find her conversations boring.
Many of us spend more time checking out the characteristics of a new car or kitchen appliance than we do the qualities of another human being. So how can we stop ourselves from jumping into judgment mode?
The Torah commands us: “love your neighbor as yourself.” This is explained in the Ethics of the Fathers as a commandment of restraint: “What is hateful to you, do not do to others.”
Applying this Golden Rule of Judaism to our tendency to judge others makes perfect sense. If I don’t want my friends to judge me based on who I was five or even two years ago, then I have to be open to who they are now and how they might have changed over time. To do otherwise denies a fundamental truth about human nature: We are continually growing, changing, and for many of us, striving to become the people we want to be.
I found another answer to this question in yoga class, when the teacher asked us to let go of all judgments for the hour we were on the mat. Could I suspend judgment for just one hour? Relinquish all judgments of how I thought I looked in eagle posture or how wobbly I felt in standing tree pose? We also were told not to judge others whom we thought were doing the posture “better” or “worse” than we were. Seemed like a simple request until I tried it. Ten minutes into class, I realized how very hard it is to let go of that critical judge.
We can quiet our judging minds only if we’re aware of our tendency to judge and make an effort to stop. Sometimes we will succeed and when we do, we may find that our assessments were really barriers to intimacy, obstacles to true friendship and understanding. That is why the sage words written by Rabbi Hillel over 2,000 years ago still hold true today: “Do not judge another person until you have reached his place.”
Amy Hirshberg Lederman is an author, Jewish educator, public speaker and attorney who lives in Tucson. Her columns in the AJP have won awards from the American Jewish Press Association, the Arizona Newspapers Association and the Arizona Press Club for excellence in commentary. Visit her website at amyhirshberglederman.com.