Judging and Misjudging People: An Unlevel Playing Field
Essays 2018 / Student Winners
Student Winner of MyLife: Chassidus Applied 2018
When we make assessments about the characters of other people based on limited information, this is judgment. It doesn’t always need to be a negative thing, but more often than not, it is human nature to hone in on the faults in others rather than on their finer qualities.(1) Unfavorable judgment of others divides us and precludes us from engaging in productive and meaningful relationships. It also leaves a bitter taste in the mouth of the judge—resenting others isn’t a pleasant experience.
This essay will explore some of the causes and effects of judgment, and will discuss the powerful tools that Chassidus presents in an effort to curb judgmental behavior. The concepts which will facilitate this discussion are self-love, the endowment effect and shiflus haruach —lowliness of the spirit.
Through my transition from adolescence to adulthood, I experienced the struggle of judgment. I was not a victim, however, but a perpetrator. As I matured, took upon more Jewish practices and developed new ways of thinking and analysing, I realized that I was unintentionally judging the people around me. I was observing—based on their actions—their progress in the areas of maturation and Judaism, and was stacking it up against my own. If I found that I was ahead in certain areas, I would automatically label others as ‘undeveloped’, ‘immature’, or ‘insensitive to Judaism’. These judgments obviously affected the way I interacted with these people as I had created divisions that, although invisible on a physical level, were ever-present within my thoughts. And although judging gave me a sense of moral superiority, there was no real satisfaction. I hated it but I found myself doing it time and again.
The issue of judging other people is also prevalent in many schools in our communities. Boys and girls may experience unfavorable judgment from their superiors when they act out of line. The labels of ‘unfixable’ or ‘unworthy’ which are sometimes applied to students can have immediate consequences in the student–superior relationship, as well as producing a general disenchantment with Chabad and Judaism.
The method which will be explained in this essay helped and continues to help me overcome the urge to judge others, and rather prompts me to see the good in other people. And trust me: it’s a lot better this way.
What causes us to judge?
Chassidus and psychology present different, but overlapping points of view in describing the reasons behind our seemingly irresistible urge to judge others unfavorably.(2)
The Tzemach Tzedek (the third Rebbe of Lubavitch), in his discourse on the commandment of ahavas yisrael, loving a fellow Jew as yourself,(3) explains that our self-love blinds us from our own faults. Although we may be intellectually aware of them, our deficiencies “are submerged—and nullified by—[our] intense self-love.”(4) The importance which we place upon our flaws exists only in the intellectual sphere, and it therefore does not prompt any real change. With our own shortcomings concealed, it becomes easy to view others in a relatively negative light and judge them in this manner. It’s an unlevel playing field.
The endowment effect
A similar idea can be gleaned from a phenomenon discussed in behavioral economics. This discipline studies the effects of psychological, social and emotional factors on the economic decisions of individuals. One of the concepts in this field of study is the endowment effect. Described by renowned psychologist Daniel Kahneman,(5) and economists Jack Knetsch(6) and Richard Thaler,(7)(8) the endowment effect is the tendency of people to “demand much more to give up an object than they would be willing to pay to acquire it.” Behavioraleconomics.com(9) explains that the bias occurs because we naturally overvalue goods that we own, regardless of their objective market value.
In general behavior, this relates to the self-love which the Tzemach Tzedek described. The phenomenon of overvaluing our own goods is analogous to the phenomenon of overvaluing ourselves by concealing our shortcomings. The effect of overstating our own value is that, by contrast, the value of others appears diminished. Their faults become glaringly apparent, and it is for this reason that we classify other people as ‘undeveloped’, ‘immature’, ‘insensitive’, and many other destructive labels which are so ubiquitous today.
What happens when we judge?
It is important to reiterate that only premature judgment is harmful. Regular judgment calls we make, which are based on research and proper knowledge and understanding of the subject at hand, are necessary for daily function.
For example, before accepting a client for her firm, an accountant needs to judge the trustworthiness, communication skills and profitability of said client. Clearly in such a case there are no labels being bandied about—it is a dispassionate discernment of a situation. The accountant is not evaluating the personal nature of the prospective client, and no ill feelings should be harbored by either party when the judgment is eventually made.
Conversely, when we judge others based on limited information, especially on a first impression, and we label them negatively, that is harmful in the following ways:
● Judgments restrict people in our minds to the labels which we give them.
● It is possible that the judgments we make about others are incorrect, but our behavior towards them will still reflect these incorrect judgments.
● The behavior of judging is a hair’s breadth away from non-constructive or even destructive criticism, which can damage relationships.
● People lose trust in those who judge for they fear that they, too, will be judged for what they say or do.
● Internally, too, judgment is harmful. It leads to inner turmoil, where we resent ourselves for resenting others.
● Judgments release negative energy around us, which isn’t conducive to coexisting with others peacefully and harmoniously.
● Judgments distract from living productively—if we are focused on the wrongdoings of others, we aren’t fully focused on whatever we are supposed to be doing.
The internal monologue
The act of judging is often an internal monologue. We witness the actions of others and begin to think:
The individual who cut us off in traffic has no care for others and isselfish.
The homeless man begging on the street clearly has never worked hard enough to hold down a proper job. He’sirresponsible.
The elderly couple blocking the aisle in the supermarket think they’re more important than anyone else.(10)
These are typical internal monologues we have upon seeing people do things we don’t like. They are judgmental because they determine the nature and character of the individuals (e.g., selfish, irresponsible, arrogant) based on limited information (e.g., cut us off in traffic, homeless begging, blocking the aisle).
Chassidus response to judgmental behavior
In order to properly demonstrate how Chassidus solves this contemporary problem, it is necessary to reiterate the key cause behind the unfavorable judgment of others: We compare our actionsto the actions of others, and, blinded by our natural self-love, we view ourselves as superior. We have an abundance of only good deeds, whereas others have a mixture of good and bad, with the bad being particularly prominent in our eyes. The outcome is that we stand atop the mountain of good and judge those in the rubble heap below.
Shiflus haruach: lowliness of the spirit
The Alter Rebbe (the first Rebbe of Lubavitch) in the Tanya(11) presents an entirely new way of comparing ourselves to others, one which will drastically shift the dynamic of the playing field. In a discussion which is primarily focused on how to fulfill the statement of Rabbi Meir to “be lowly of spirit before every man,”(12) the Alter Rebbe asks an obvious question: How is it possible that an average person should reasonably view himself as lowlier than every person,(13) which includes the “lowest of the low,”(14) those whose lives are deeply immersed in sin?
This question sets the Alter Rebbe onto the track which is relevant to our discussion—namely the new way of comparing ourselves to others. In order to achieve proper shiflus haruach, we must stop comparing their deeds to ours, and instead measure the extent of their evil impulse’s power, and weigh that up against our own.
Measuring the extent of another person’s evil impulse is comprised of two aspects:
1. How much do their background, education and current environment(15) contribute toward their temptation to sin?
2. How passionate is their evil impulse in general in tempting them toward sin?(16)
Investigating the answer to these two questions will invariably lead us to one conclusion:
We don’t know.
And because we don’t know, the only information that we have to go on is that the other person’s background, education and current environment may be contributing significantly to their temptations and their conduct; their evil impulse may burn as ardently as a “baker’s fiery oven.”(17) And because of these factors, we can no longer justifiably judge them, because we really have no inkling of what is driving their actions, and how we ourselves would fare given the same struggles and the same evil impulse. In essence, we must give others the “benefit of the doubt, instead of doubting their benefit.”(18)(19)
This paradigm shift causes a seismic restructuring of the arena. Our illusion of moral superiority shatters because we realize that we may have a less passionate yetzer hara, or fewer external forces pressuring us to sin or act in ways which we dislike.
(The intent in adopting a perspective of shiflus is not to crush our self-esteem or diminish the significance of our achievements. The fact that we no longer stand on a pedestal does not indicate that we are worthless. It just means that we don’t look down on others and judge them unfavorably based on what we see.) (20)
We now have a method to perceive ourselves and others in a manner which precludes us from judging their character based on their behavior. We are only shown the tip of the iceberg, but when we take into account what may lie beneath the surface, and how we may not share their struggles, it is no longer appropriate to judge negatively.
So Chassidus, through the concept of shiflus haruach, has levelled out the playing field for us. But perhaps we should consider the fact that life needn’t be a playing field in the first place.
Each of us has a unique mission to fulfill, and there’s really no need for comparisons at all.
1 The reason for this will be explained.
2 Judging can also be caused by insecurities in one’s passions and direction, but this essay will focus on the judgments which stem from an illusion of superiority over others.
3 Derech Mitzvosecha, pp. 56 א, כט
8 (1991). Journal of Economic Perspectives, Volume 5, Number 1, pp. 193.
10 Examples inspired by Rabbi Joseph Telushkin in A Code of Jewish Ethics: Volume 1: You Shall Be Holy.
11 Likkutei Amarim, Chapter 30.
12 Ethics of the Fathers 4:10.
13 As opposed to other commentaries on the verse, the Alter Rebbe interprets that the instruction is meant to be taken literally: we are meant to actually view ourselves as lowly before every man.
14 Likkutei Amarim, ibid.
15 The Alter Rebbe does not mention background and education, but these apply in the broader discussion of judgment.
16 The Tanya speaks specifically of sinning, but for the purpose of the broader discussion of judgment, this can be interpreted to also include any type of ‘misconduct’ or ‘wrongdoing’ which we witness, such as the examples listed above.
17 Hosea 7:6.
18 Kalmenson, Rabbi M. (2017). You Be the Judge. (http://www.chabad.org/parshah/article_cdo/aid/1226518/jewish/You-Be-the-Judge.htm)
19 It is important to note that the Tanya explains in no uncertain terms that no one is excused for their actions based on their current environment. Anyone can exercise their mind to overcome the temptations of their heart and remain on the proper path. The point of the shiflus perspective is to soften, or altogether eliminate, the character judgments that we make based on the actions we witness.
20 The Tanya takes the process one step further and explains that in order to be lowly before every person (as opposed to equal), we need to consider that we should have known better and therefore not committed a given sin, whereas someone else may not know as well. For the purpose of solving judgmentalism, however, it is sufficient to view ourselves on an equal plane to others.