Reflections: Flying high and judging fairly

Amy Hirshberg Lederman
Amy Hirshberg Lederman

I travel by air quite a bit and to be honest, it isn’t fun. Besides the stress of getting to the airport in sufficient time to remove half the clothing I put on just hours before, I generally arrive at my destination half-starved and sleep deprived.

But the real angst I feel when I travel is the heightened sense of scrutiny and mistrust I carry with me from terminal to terminal. I am cautioned by recorded messages to be wary about unattended bags as I walk shoeless through space age metal detectors.

And as much as I’m loathe to admit it, just last week I found myself feeling concerned when a husky, foreign-looking man with a hefty carry on boarded my plane.  Before 9/11, the Boston Marathon and ISIS, I wouldn’t have given him a second thought. But now I felt a slight sense of concern wash over me  —  and I hated myself for it.

The flight was uneventful and when we landed, I watched the man deplane only to be greeted in baggage claim by two adorable children and a wife with an infant in her arms.

“Hugs, not thugs,” I thought sheepishly as I walked off with my luggage.

I know it’s “only human” to make assumptions about others. We instinctively judge others based on how they look, speak or dress.  But our inner critic is also a limitation in that it impedes our ability to be caring and compassionate human beings.

Jewish tradition has much to say about judging others. Leviticus 19:15 states: “With righteousness shall you judge your fellow.”

Simply stated, we are commanded to give others the benefit of the doubt and use compassion, understanding and kindness when evaluating them.

It is easy to rationalize our feelings, especially those based in fear.  But Judaism also holds us to a high standard of review. At the very times when we are prone to misjudge, we are required to examine our beliefs.

The Talmud, in Pirkei Avot, teaches us to “judge everyone favorably.” A proper Hebrew translation is actually “Judge the whole of a person favorably.”

What this means is that we must look at the entirety of a person, taking into account the vast complexities and inconsistencies of being human.  We take into account that it is human to be kind as well as thoughtless, loving as well as hurtful, generous as well as stingy.

To be Jewish is to remain open and fair in the ultimate conclusions we draw about others. It is in this very openness that we become more human by acknowledging a person’s strengths and weaknesses before judging them.

Jewish tradition wisely recognizes the human tendency to pass judgment on others without fully understanding the cultural background, mental or physical challenges, psychological or financial stresses or inner feelings that motivate a person.

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 amy