Admit it. Like me, you also make snap judgments about people, situations, artwork, decisions, and everything else in life without fully thinking them through each and every time. It’s OK. Don’t worry about it. We all do it. It’s probably part of our biological makeup and the evolutionary process; our brains size things up to decide if they’re safe, pleasurable, tasty, fun—or not.
I recently read that it takes a particular level of intelligence to buck the evolutionary process and to subconsciously think ahead. Applying this idea to making judgments, it stands to reason that judging is built into us as humans, and therefore not judging takes something extra. Is it worth super-human effort to reserve judgment? When it comes to other people, is there any benefit to not immediately judging them, even if the judgment is “sound?”
Of course it’s worth it, and of course there’s a benefit—not only for the “suspect” but also for us as judges and our children as witnesses. As with other important values, it takes empathy and awareness to live the value, and it’s not enough to just think about it. Most important, while it will make us as “judges” more content, not judging people is a critically important lesson we teach our children from a very young age, without knowing we’re teaching it to them.
One thing I’ve learned as a head of school for the last 16 months is that almost every situation has nuance and context that requires thought and conversation before reaching a conclusion. It is almost never black and white, and there are way more shades of gray than just 50!
It’s not easy, but our responsibility as parents and educators is to show our children just how gray things are and to help them think critically instead of reactively. It’s important to not rush to judgment or to expect us to do so. When we make off-handed comments, our children notice. When we hang up the phone (or press “end,” I should say) and act exasperated, our children notice. When we honk at the slow driver or snap at the person fumbling to get his wallet out in the checkout line, our children notice. We must not raise a generation of judges; we must instead raise a generation of independent thinkers, of respectful human beings, of benefit-of-the-doubt-ers.
We are all created b’tzelem elohim (in God’s image), and none of us has the right to judge others. In addition to empathy, kavod (respect) is an important value that helps us do the right thing in situations like those mentioned here. Kavod means respect, but it also means honor, which I believe is better than respect. When we honor a person, we are intentionally recognizing something positive about that person, whereas respect might just mean tolerate. Respect must come first, but our goal should be to find what is honorable in people and then celebrate it.
Can you imagine a world, or even a community, in which the first thought we all have when encountering others is, “What is honorable about this person, and how can I celebrate it?” That is the community in which I want to live and raise my children.
Noah Hartman is the head of Cohen Hillel Academy in Marblehead. Originally from Atlanta, he is a graduate of Jewish day schools and an alumnus of New York University, Camp Ramah and the Day School Leadership Training Institute. He loves baseball, comedy, maps, social media and buying books. Noah lives in Swampscott with his wife, Anna, and two children, Josiah and Juniper.