In Mishneh Torah, Hilchot Deot (Laws of Personal Development), Maimonides records various interpersonal laws. Among those mentioned is the obligation to judge others favorably.

But is this actually an obligation? If we analyze the way Maimonides describes this mitzvah in a number of places, we run into some difficulty. First, we will consider what he writes here in Deot:

A Torah sage should not shout or shriek while speaking, like the cattle and wild beasts, nor should he raise his voice too much. Instead, he should speak gently to all people. . . . He should judge every person in a good light, [and] speak favorably of his fellow, [never mentioning] anything that is shameful to him.1

Among many positive traits expected of a scholar is that he judge others favorably. From here it seems that this is behavior to which a pious person should aspire to. It does not seem to be a mainstream obligation. However, when we consider what Maimonides writes when describing this mitzvah in his Sefer Hamitzvot—where he lists all 613 mitzvot—we are left with an entirely different impression. Describing positive commandment 177, he writes as follows:

The 177th mitzvah is that judges are commanded to treat both litigants equally. Both must be allowed [to speak], whether it takes a long time or a short time. The source of this commandment is G‑d's statement, "Judge your people fairly."2

This mitzvah also includes the law that one is required to judge one’s fellow favorably, and to explain his words and actions only in a good and kind way.

So as an addendum to the mitzvah obligating judges to rule fairly, there is the mitzvah obligating people generally to judge others favorably. From the language here, it seems that contrary to the implication in Deot, this is an actual obligation counted as one of the 248 positive mitzvahs, not merely pious behavior expected of a Torah scholar.

To decipher these two seemingly contradictory texts, let’s explore a third text written by Maimonidies that describes this obligation. This is found in his commentary to the Mishnah on Tractate Avot, and in fact predates both of the above-quoted texts and contains significantly more detail.

The Mishnah in Tractate Avot states as follows:

Joshua the son of Perachia and Nitai the Arbelite received from them. Joshua the son of Perachia would say: Assume for yourself a master, acquire for yourself a friend, and judge every man to the side of merit.3

Maimonides comments:

And judge every man to the side of merit: This refers to when you are unsure about a certain individual whether or not he is righteous or wicked, and you witness him doing an act or saying something that may be interpreted as either good or bad. In such a case, judge favorably and do not think he is doing something wrong.

He then differentiates between someone who has a reputation as a righteous individual and one who is known to be a sinner. In the former case, even if it takes great mental gymnastics to construe the action as positive, one still has the obligation to do so. In the case of a “known sinner,” on the other hand, even if the perception is that a certain action is good, one should not be swayed to think that this individual is doing something positive.

He concludes with the following:

And if you do not know the individual involved, and the action itself is of an ambiguous nature, leaning neither toward one side or the other, then according to the ways of piety, it is proper to judge favorably . . .

So it seems clear that in a case where you do not know the individual involved, it is only a matter of piety to judge favorably. This seems similar to the section quoted from Deot, which describes this mitzvah as being within the purview of behaviors befitting a Torah scholar.

But what are we to do with the section from Sefer Hamitzvot? There Maimonides clearly used the language of obligation, with no caveat. Moreover, Maimonides is not alone here; many commentaries count this obligation as a positive mitzvah.4 So it seems that the text in Sefer Hamitzvot is not an anomaly, but rather part of broad consensus that this is in fact a positive commandment.

The Resolution - A Close Reading of the Text

Rabbi Yisrael Meir Kagan, popularly known as the Chofetz Chaim after the name of his famous work, tackles this difficulty. He notes a key difference between the texts of the Mishnah in Avot and Hilchot Deot on the one hand, and the text of Maimonides in his Sefer Hamitzvot on the other.5

In Avot and Hilchot Deot,the language used is very inclusive: “And judge every man to the side of merit.” One must judge all individuals favorably, even individuals with whom we are not familiar and therefore have no particular reason to judge favorably. In such a case, it is indeed a tall order to judge favorably, as all we have to go by is what we see, and what we see does not look positive. This is why Maimonides writes in his commentary to Avot that this is pious behavior, beyond the letter of the law.

Similarly, in Mishneh Torah, Hilchot Deot, he uses the exact same language as Avot—“every man.” This is why it is pertinent to Torah scholars, since we are talking about someone whom we do not have any prior information about. If one sees such a person doing something questionable, one has no obligation to judge favorably. It is laudable behavior expected of a Torah scholar.

In Sefer Hamitzvot, however, the language Maimonides uses is different. There, when describing the obligation, he writes: “One is required to judge one’s fellow favorably.” Here he uses the Hebrew word chaveiro (חברו), which translates literally as “one’s friend.” The difference is obvious. Regarding someone who is considered “one’s friend,” one is obligated to give the benefit of doubt.

When someone is familiar to you and you are aware that what this individual generally does is correct, as an upstanding member of society, then if you witness this person acting in a way that is questionable, you are obligated (within reason) to see the action in a favorable light.

A New Perspective - Focus on the Individual, Not the Action

The Lubavitcher Rebbe—addressing a seeming contradiction between two sections of Mishneh Torah in a talk from the year 5742 (1982)—redefines the typical understanding of “judging everyone favorably.”6

In the sixth chapter of Hilchot Deot, after listing the mitzvah to love your fellow as yourself, Maimonides adds, “Therefore, one should speak the praises of [others].”7 What is the difference between this obligation and what is listed in chapter five as behavior befitting a scholar to “speak favorably of his fellow man”?

To resolve this, the Rebbe explains what is uniquely expected of a Torah sage with regard to both the directive to judge others favorably and the directive to only speak the praise of others. Regarding another Jew, even if he has strayed off the path, even if his actions are clearly sinful, still, it is the responsibility of a Torah scholar to “judge favorably.”

What does this mean practically? Continues Maimonides, “Speak only praise, and not his detriment at all.” Each individual is the product of his particular situation. If we see someone acting in a reprehensible manner, we are to look for reasons not to blame the individual, but instead, to speak only his praise. Furthermore, says the Rebbe, individuals who are challenged and tested religiously, even if they do sin, possess a greater potential than those who have not been tested.

When a Torah sage speaks only good, he is able to reveal this hidden potential. When this happens, the individual will indeed be able to overcome the obstacles. And then there will be only good to be spoken of.

The Rebbe has completely redefined what judging others favorably means. The classic understanding is that the focus is on the action itself—if it is a sin or not. In the Rebbe’s interpretation, the focus is on the person, not the sin. Judge the person favorably.

For the general population, the classic understanding of judging favorably would apply, as we quoted earlier from Maimonides himself. If the action looks like a sin, then even if this person is “chaveiro,” you would not need to judge favorably.

However, according to the Rebbe, even if we know a sin was committed, Torah scholars must still judge favorably. This does not only mean that they must reinterpret an ambiguous action; it also means redefining who the person is. Each person has the potential to overcome any obstacle he or she faces. If this is the focus, then this will be the reality.