The 11th Commandment: Thou Shalt Not Judge

It seems to be a consistent mantra for BTs, converts to the faith and others that we cannot, must not and should not judge others. That’s understandable: none of us can walk in another person’s shoes, or understand why they do – or don’t do – things. But if you are a committed jew, this approach raises not a few questions. For example, I believe that G-d appeared to all Jewish souls at Sinai, and charged us all with keeping his Torah.

Orthodox Judaism states very clearly that the obligation to try to keep the torah is on every Jew. If I try to play down or minimise that obligation for others, then I am running the risk of weakening one of the basic planks of my own belief and observance.

Why do I need to keep kosher? G-d told me to. Why does my Jewish friend / parents / sibling need to keep kosher. G-d also told them to. But they aren’t. This creates one heck of a problem for the ‘don’t judge’ paradigm, as the torah makes it clear time and time again that if the jews don’t respect G-d’s laws, they will be judged very harshly indeed.

Secondly, the Torah makes it very clear that we are responsible for one another, and will be judged collectively. We’ve all heard the parable about the jews being in one big, collective boat: it’s all very well for a few people to only drill under their own seats, but by so doing, they could sink the whole enterprise.

To come back to the kosher example: if my friend / brother-in-law / whoever is eating a prawn sandwich, why is it my problem? I shouldn’t judge him. But then, if his eating his prawn sandwich is in fact tipping the heavenly scales collectively against the jewish people, his actions could end up having a negative repercussion on me.

Not judging is a very modern, western thing, but in many ways it’s antithetical to Torah. And it’s completely unworkable in any genuine way. For all that we spout pious things about not judging others, we all do it. And if you have a go at someone else for being judgemental of others, you are doing exactly the same thing to them – why is your judgement value about their behaviour any more correct?

‘Not judging’ also blurs the line between what is objectively right, and what is objectively wrong. Is it right or wrong to mug an old lady? Right or wrong to have a one night stand? Right or wrong to marry out of the faith, or eat a prawn sandwich?

There are always mitigating circumstances for every individual, of course. But we have a clear manual, in the torah, about what actions are right and wrong in G-d’s eyes. And while we can’t and shouldn’t judge an individual (‘they are bad’), we have to judge their actions (‘that is bad’).

And the measurement we have to use is the Torah, as that is the only objective measure we have. And if we don’t judge other people’s action, then we end up blurring the lines even more between what G-d is asking of us, and what we expect from ourselves.

If my child comes to me and asks me why Mr So-and-So is eating a prawn sandwich, I will tell her that it – not him – is wrong. Because according to the Torah, it is. And because I want her to grow up understanding that the final arbiter of what is right and wrong is Hashem.

Of course, that doesn’t mean that I go up to Mr So-and-So and do a ‘fire and brimstone’ routine. Everyone is free to make their own choices in life, and be judged for it. But G-d is nowhere near as PC as our modern Western society, and we aren’t doing anyone – including ourselves – any favours by pretending otherwise.

18 comments on “The 11th Commandment: Thou Shalt Not Judge

  1. “We can’t just watch people driving by on Shabbat or eating treif and think “eh, OK, so they’re not frum yet.” We should sensitize ourselves to the severity of those actions.”

    There’s a big difference between the above comment being a rationalization, and it being an explanation. My kids have heard that expression many times, particularly with regard to their non-frum family. But the above is missing one key phrase – that “they’re not frum yet becaise they haven’t had the opportunity to learn about Torah”.

    Interesting topic, and this Sunday evening for anyone in the KGH vicinity, Reb. Samut will be speaking on “judging others favorably” at Cong. Ahavas Yisroel. Remember, this is not a black and white world. It has colors and tints therein.

  2. Ora, I’m not sure how much of a slippery slope it is to say that things are different today. If you are raised truly Orthodox, in an Orthodox community, with all the proper support systems in place, and you truly know what you are turning your back on when you choose to marry out, etc., well, then that’s the way it “was” and may still be today in some places. If you grow up without any of that (or even without some of it, and yes, I have a specific example in mind that unfortunately I can’t really share) then you don’t know what you’re missing and/or giving up. So why would you be just as culpable?

    Katrin, I have told my kids many many times about how I didn’t grow up with Shabbos… they feel sorry for me. My parents, although not fully observant, see that my children love Torah and Mitzvos, and do their best not to interfere with that, even though my mother herself tends to focus on the negative aspects (you can’t do this and you can’t do that) of observance, while we prefer to focus on the positive (we get to do this and we get to do that.)

    I agree, it’s a balancing act, to make it clear that the kids will not get away with doing things or even dressing the way their grandparents do, without condemning the grandparents for those very same actions. We fall back a lot on “They grew up without it, and they just don’t understand, but they’re trying to.”

  3. Jaded–
    See, this is what I mean by ‘fear of punishment.’ You hear punishment, and you picture an unjustified attack by a lone individual. What I’m talking about is society creating rules, and enforcing them. All societies do that. Wherever you live right now does that. Not only the ‘holy folks’ (not sure who you mean by that) care what happens to their society.

    As I said, it’s not realistic to enforce all Torah law right now. But it’s something to strive for. And no, that doesn’t mean bleach attacks. It means cases going to a beit din and not a secular court, a Torah form of government, and no distinction between Torah and secular law.

  4. To a certain extent, much of halacha and hashkafa has elements of pasing a judgment and applying a label with respect to one’s behavior. Terms such as kosher, passul, treife, lchatchilah, bdeieved, shas hadchak, maikil, machmir, mdakdek, mutar, assur, Patur aval assur etc are but a few of the basic halachic terms that IMO have a definite ring of passing judgment in their assessment of whether one is passing halachic muster or not. Terms such as “mitzvos anashim mlumadah” or “naval brushus HaTorah” definitely are meant to set forth a sense of passing judgment. One can see differences in judgment even in Sifrei ShuT such as RMF’s DhuT Igros Moshe where RMF uses Bnei Torah and Shomrei MItzvos as requiring different levels of observance.

    That being the case, we all have used terms indiscriminately to describe someone who is different from us. One can say that is also a passing of judgment, but one that requires a lot of thought before using an inappropriate term or label.

  5. “So the judgement of the act is clear, but perhaps we have to work on being able to judge non-frum people in a much more favorable light…”

    Another way of putting it, is that after categorizing the act, we then need to look at it in the context of the entire situation and background that led up to the moment of current decision, as in the literal meaning of to “judge the *entire* person favorably” and “until you reach his place”. This is also how we ourself would like to be judged(as in the Baal Shem Tov’s principle regarding the story of Nosson Hanavi/Dovid Hamelech).

  6. Mark, profound points (all of them).Those questions are so hard to focus on and figure out the right answers to. Sometimes its impossible.

    Lisa , lovely local notions.Sometimes though , when the local is tripping you up and brains are getting sprained its best to just focus on the global.Ànd ignore the local until the global picture is àt least 10 megapixels.

    BoB Miller “magic slate” lol, that works so much better than the looseleaf bible.Just so you know ;-). It would look great on a coffee table.

    Ora,so your advocating immediate cause and effect punishement for the merry sinners among us? Firstly I think that’s a happenstancing reserved for the holy folks.
    I’m sure you’ve of heard of our bleach spraying brethren àdvocating théir Clorox love for all things modest.I’m not so sure that was the best move to promote modesty. Théir fanaticism is definitely not facilitating with any positive warm fuzzy feelings towards modesty.
    I doubt there are any cloroxed kids suddenly goin with the nunnery notions for dress and buttoning and covering after their inspirational bleached by fanatics experience.

  7. As for our kids, we should certainly tell them what’s right and what is wrong according to the Torah, but even in that case one must tread carefully. For example, what if their grandparents are not frum, should we condemn them to our kids? I don’t think that is a Torah way to go.

  8. i have friends, and not a few family members, who aren’t frum.

    my daughters have now reached the age of understanding that not every jew they meet keeps the mitzvot we do.

    as a rule, i’m uncomfortable with judgement – i think we all are. but i have been ruminating on this subject a lot, because if i play down the importance of keeping Hashem’s commandments, i am ultimately potentially weakening my children’s connection to Hashem (G-d forbid).

    the point cannot be stressed too many times that as many commentators have rightly emphasised, only Hashem can truly judge the person.

    but i feel that fudging the issue on what is right or wrong in terms of actions, observance-wise, is putting an obstacle in front of my own kids. And their well-being has to be the priority – even if it means inadvertently rocking the boat with non-observant friends and family.

    it’s terribly hard. but that’s why we have the torah to guide us, and rabonim to help us interpret what path to take, eg, with choosing the right hair covering, when the path is perhaps not so clear.

  9. Our job on earth is not to replace HaShem’s Torah with our own Magic Slate. But all our interactions with other Jews have to be fair, compassionate, etc., because they are our brother and sisters and we want to inspire them in the right way.

  10. Jaded–The idea that lack of clothing or seafood sandwiches are “really just distractions” is interesting. But it’s not Torah. Torah requires actions, not just general niceness and pleasant thoughts.

    Ruth–I understand what you’re saying, and I agree with most of what’s been written here. But on the other hand, if you read Tanach, it sounds pretty different. It doesn’t sound like hoping that “those who don’t keep mitzvot will eventually be inspired to do so” was Hashem’s favored way of dealing with avoda zara, marrying out, etc. I know that a lot of people argue that things are different today, but that’s a bit of a slipperly slope.

    Anyway, even with the argument, which I think we can agree to, that we have to treat all of our fellow Jews kindly and not get into fire and brimstone, Katrin’s point still stands. We can’t just watch people driving by on Shabbat or eating treif and think “eh, OK, so they’re not frum yet.” We should sensitize ourselves to the severity of those actions.

    Also, I think that modern society, especially in America, has an entirely unjustified fear of punishment. People need punishment for bad behavior, and if they don’t get it, society gets noticably worse.

    As we don’t subscribe to the theory of “maybe someday they’ll decide to stop” for traffic crimes, I don’t see why we should for Torah crimes. It may not be practical to start enforcing Torah law right now for a variety of reasons, but I think it’s important to at least encourage Torah-observant institutions and strongly discourage places (stores, factories, schools, etc) which publically violate Torah.

  11. Katrin,

    Incisive, thought provoking post. A post to be read carefully- you argue well that “behavior” needs to be judged, not the person.

    You have a very clear, unbiased manner of thinking.

    Jaded Topaz,

    The “local” stuff is exactly what the Torah is about. Some people don’t “enjoy” the laws of dress or kosher, etc, but “local” is what it’s about- as local as the person him/herself. Beautiful spiritual fuzzy clouds of “global focus” is not really attached to reality, but a way to “make nice” when we don’t want to take responsibility for our actions that go against the Torah’s laws.

    “If one is so concerned about global Gd sanctifying, focusing on local issues is not the best way of creating that lofty spiritual picture.”

    Not at all, actually. Sanctifying G-d and bringing Him honor means doing what HE wants you to do, not what you feel like doing. And Mitzvos that you label “local” are what He instructed us to do.

    It is understandable to say you don’t feel up to it, or have a burnt out feeling from some difficult experience. But we can’t change what G-d told us clearly to do, in the Torah, to suit our “global”, new-age views of spirituality. Better we should work on being honest about the Torah’s expectations, and our current ability to fulfill them.

  12. I think we have to put the “What Judgements Should We Make” in context. Are we judging to determine:
    – Where to live
    – What schools to enroll our children
    – Who to associate with
    – Who our children should play with
    – Who to marry (Or who should our children marry)
    – Whether we should do a specific activity (TV, Internet, etc…)
    – How to view another person

    To determine whether a given act is proper, we have to follow our halacha and hashkafa. The other questions need to consider more factors.

    One personal interest is the Kiruv fact that most non-frum people feel judged by frum people.

    If we going around thinking that non-frum people are violating the Torah regularly (which they are), then it is no wonder they feel judged. But if we understand that their violations of the Torah might be less culpable in G-d’s eyes than ours (a viewpoint advocated in the Iggeres Ramban), then I think we would view non-frum people differently.

    So the judgement of the act is clear, but perhaps we have to work on being able to judge non-frum people in a much more favorable light, possibly more favorably than we judge ourselves.

  13. Good post Katrin,

    To say we shouldn’t make judgements within ourselves is ridiculous, everyone makes judgements every day (that’s how we make decisions, e.g., I’m going to deal with the salesperson who is more pleasant) But to voice them before you know all the facts (or even if you do) is a different story. It often becomes obvious to the BT that getting a kosher meal at a family function or otherwise setting ourselves apart is considered “judging” to some even if we don’t actually say a word. That gives you an idea just how sensitive it can become. If you actually want others to do more mitzvoh’s, leading by example might work better than rebuke. Keep in mind the results you want and think of how various strategies would be successful in acheiving them.

  14. If the Torah is the final arbiter, please tell me why some people think a sheitel is OK, and others believe that covering one’s hair with hair that looks even better than their own is not the way to be frum? Gee, is a bad sheitel OK?

    This is somewhat different than the kosher issues, but ultimately it is up to each individual. Those that simply do not know are one thing, and those that have made a decision about how or if they are going to be observant are another. In the end, we each make decisions about who we wish to associate with, and if their offenses are so egregious that we choose not to have an individual or a family as part of our circle, then that is our right or duty. We also know that children must learn that just because someone else is doing something does not make it OK.

    People make these kinds of decisions all the time. I am so tired of hearing Jack Abramoff described as an “observant Orthodox Jew”. But he and his ilk are not welcome in my kitchen, and not based on what they wear or eat.

  15. I think some of those commenting should read the post a little more carefully. Katrin said we should not judge other people, but we should judge actions. The Torah tells us “b’tzedek tishpot es amisecha,” that means giving other people the benefit of the doubt. The object is amisecha, your friend, not his behavior. We should consider mitigating circumstances. We should assume those sinning may not know better. We can realize that we don’t have all the facts and can’t judge. Only Hashem can judge them. But we can still think it is right to keep kosher, Shabbos, etc. We can hope that those who don’t keep these mitzvos now will, eventually, be inspired to do so, because it is better for them and for all Jews.

  16. Katrin,

    I know it’s tough to do, but you have to at least try not to be judgemental in a negative way. If you do the “fire & brimstone” routine, that will only turn someone who could get closer to Hashem away.


  17. Katrin, are you suggesting that we all start perfecting are latent judging traits and continue judging all religiously come hell or high water ? Pious pesach with payos will judge mé for wearing pants with the same fervor spiritual Paul will judge mé for eating shellfish at the sea shore.Brilliant Brian will understand that since the global focus at the end of the day is mostly how can I sanctify Gds name and do stuff in his honor. Sometimes the local stuff like clothing or lack there of and or shellfish sandwiches at the sea shore are really just distractions (only the end user should be concerned or not about)and definitely don’t warrant any unsolicited judging from friendly kiruv coordinaters and associates.If one is so concerned about global Gd sanctifying, focusing on local issues is not the best way of creating that lofty spiritual picture. Its definitely using one of those manual no extra features photo editing programs as opposed to using photoshop. The trick with photoshop is to know how to use the program other wise you can ruin the picture especially for others who are not even sure about the picture to begin with.

  18. Some people are wrong for understandable reasons (didn’t learn the right idea or action, had a negative experience in Jewish school, etc.) but wrong is still wrong, as Katrin pointed out. These are reasons but not excuses. How we approach those we see doing the wrong thing takes a lot of diplomacy and a knowledge of what makes the other person tick.

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