Aryeh Ben David

The Sickness of Judgementalism

There is a terrible sickness in the Jewish community. I also have it and can’t seem to get rid of it. I feel contaminated. And this is the time — from Pesach to Shavuot — to work on healing ourselves.

What is the sickness? Judgementalism. We are constantly judging each other. The time has come for us to acknowledge: We have a sick community.

Often when teaching groups, I’ll ask: “What kinds of people do you not like to be around?”

Overwhelmingly I receive the same single answer: “Judgmental people. I really can’t stand being around people who are judgmental.”

Then I ask: “Have you ever met a judgmental Jew?”

The question gets more laughs than any joke. The hands shoot up. Some jokers raise both hands.

In my experience, this phenomenon stretches across the whole Jewish spectrum, defying affiliation, belief, or level of knowledge.

My question has evoked this reaction when teaching Reform, Conservative, Modern Orthodox, and ultra-Orthodox Jews. One veteran Chabad shaliach who embodied the Chabad approach of acceptance and love for the Jewish People shocked me when he admitted that he really didn’t like being around other religious Jews. He told me: “They’re always judging. I was sitting shiva for my father and someone came to comfort me. He looked at the book on the living room table and said: ‘You really shouldn’t read that book during shiva!’ And he was supposed to be comforting me!”

I’ve been confounded by this tendency because judging others is so antithetical to everything we are taught in Judaism:

Judaism asserts that loving one’s neighbor is a fundamental principle.
In our daily prayers we talk about how God loves us and how we should love God with all of our heart, soul, and being. One would assume that this love should extend to all of God’s creations.
Rav Kook wrote in his diaries that belief and love are synonyms; they should always go together. He wrote that he was not able to not love all of creation.

Yet somehow this has not translated to our value system. Why do Jews tend to be so judgmental of others?

I left it to my friend Zvi to explain it to me. This was his brilliant insight (regarding observant Jews):

“Judging others starts with our judging ourselves. We wake up in the morning and begin to judge ourselves:

What shoe do I put on first?
Which do I tie first?
Did I do netilat yadayim seriously?
Do I go to synagogue?
Did I go to synagogue on time?
Did I get there late?
Did I pray with kavanna (focus)?
How much did my mind wander?
Did I stay till the end?
Did I want to stay till the end? And more . . ..”

Just a couple of hours into the morning routine and I have already performed a countless number of tiny judgments on myself. It is as if I am attending a morning seminar on how to judge, repeated every single day. Eventually I become an expert in judging myself. And most likely, I don’t pass all of these judgments with flying colors. What grade would I usually give myself? Ehh. There is always room for improvement and by 8:00 AM I’m exhausted with myself.

It’s good to live a reflective life and evaluate how I am doing. But here’s Zvi’s insight:

“All this self-judging then spills over to everyone else. The preoccupation with judging becomes part of me.”

As I judge myself walking into shul 5 minutes late, I glance over to notice who walked into shul 6 minutes late. I notice this without anger or malice, without envy or anger. But I notice. As I push myself to stay to the end of davening, I notice who leaves early. Without anger of malice, without envy or anger, I just notice. It happens, and continues to happen throughout the day as I make more self-judgments. As I daily judge myself 613 times (an exaggeration but some days it seems like it), the judging state of mind spills over to everyone who crosses my path. It becomes part of me.

These tiny judgments do not benefit anyone. They do not help me, others, or the community.

And I subtly become someone I don’t want to be. I become judgmental.

The Talmud states that Jerusalem was destroyed because people judged each other.

What can be done?

I invite us to ask ourselves some hard questions:

On the 1-10 scale of judgment (1=least, 10=most), what number would you give to your community?
Are you satisfied with that number?
What would be different in your community if, collectively, the members were less judgmental?
What small steps could we each take to become less judgmental?

The 3 small steps I would suggest are:

Our leaders: Our community leadership needs to own the issue. Judging has become a moral sickness in our communities. We can’t fix a problem if we do not acknowledge it; brushing off the issue will not make it go away. Our leaders – in all spheres of public Jewish life – need to call out this issue. Educators need to bring up the subject in their classrooms. Rabbinical schools need to put a focus on loving – from the first day to the last. I’d rather have a rabbi who knew a few pages less of Talmud and was more caring, empathetic, and modeled love and acceptance in the community.

Our friends and family: We need to exhibit zero-tolerance for any public expression of wanton judgmentalism. It is today’s form of sinat hinam (baseless hatred). It may be unpleasant to ask a family member or friend to refrain from their judgments, but by remaining silent, we allow the epidemic to worsen.

Ourselves: We can’t be afraid to talk about loving. For some historical reason, Christianity became the religion of love and Judaism became the religion of action. I have often encountered looks of disdain from other Jews while talking about Judaism and love, hearing cynical comments like: “Hey pal, Woodstock is over.” The tikkun for judging someone negatively is judging positively, in Yiddish – firgun. We need radical and generous “firgun”. In the language of Rav Kook: “Ahavat hinam (undeserved love).”

We are now moving from Pesach to Shavuot: 49 days from Exodus until we receive the Torah and accept our national destiny. The countdown, S’firat HaOmer, is not the time to just count from 1-49. It is the time to move from being a motley group of individuals to becoming a unified nation: “As one person, with one heart”. There cannot be any spiritual unification with God without first having a human breakthrough and becoming unified with each other.

A judgmental people do not stand with one heart. We need to coach, support, and care for each other. Journeying to Mount Sinai is not only with our feet. It is a spiritual journey of our hearts.

About the Author
Aryeh Ben David founded Ayeka: Center for Soulful Education in 2008. Ayeka educates rabbis, teachers, and professionals to bring Jewish wisdom from our minds to our hearts to our souls and into our lives. He recently published: The Secret of Love - A Glimpse into the Mystical Wisdom of Rav Kook. He lives in Efrat with his wife, Sandra.
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