“Don’t judge,” a tired mom says, as she gives her kids pizza for breakfast. “Don’t judge me” a friend laughs, trying to explain an odd fashion choice. Although we say it as a joke or to lightly excuse non-normative behavior, the truth is, judgement is perceived as toxic. The worst possible insult one can make is to call someone judgmental. The implicit and often explicit modern day notion of judging others is associated with poor character. No one wants to be friends with a judgy person.
Warnings and admonishments about judging are everywhere. I’ve noticed the judging taboo both professionally and socially. When I did my graduate studies in psychology, I was told that I need to create a safe space for my clients without judgment. In my work, I’ve been advised to adopt a non-judgmental persona to be successful. Friendships today seem to be predicated on the condition of non-judgmental behavior. Even my trainer, at the cool down end of a session, intoned: “Feel your body without judgement”.
I have always been slightly disappointed with myself for being unable to meet the lofty ideal of not judging. I am a thinking person with a brain. I witness behavior and I have — I know this is weird — thoughts about that behavior. I don’t go a day without judging people. When I see a woman in the grocery store yelling at her child, I make a judgement. When I notice someone not tipping at a restaurant, I judge. When a guy cuts me off in traffic, I definitely have some judgements to make about his character (and driving ability).
As much as people may strive for a nonjudgmental ideal, it’s not humanly possible. I would go so far as to say that judgment is one of the hallmarks of a civilized society. Our entire legal system is founded on the notion that we have the right, and even the obligation, to judge our peers. Imagine the jury in a murder case responding to the judge asking for a decision: “Well, we the jury decided that we don’t like to judge other people.”
Ironically, Rosh Hashanah, the day of judgement, and Yom Kippur, the resolution of that judgement, is the holiest time of year. The very act of sitting in judgement gives us an opportunity to start fresh. We are cleansed through judgement and can create a closer and more intimate relationship with G-d through the process.
Can there actually be something positive to be gained by judging? What is it about Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur and its inherent judgment that we need to learn from and perhaps even start to practice?
Judgement — the way G-d does it — is with love. It starts with the notion that we completely examine our actions with the concurrent understanding that G-d wants us to actualize our best selves. It involves G-d giving us infinite chances to do better. It culminates in the belief that we can reverse past wrongs with sincerity and commitment.
Making assumptions about other people is human and we all do it. To claim that we are “not judging” is ridiculous. We may say that we are non-judgmental but the reality is that we all have opinions and make judgements when we witness behavior. Judgement is not something to avoid. In fact, it is a unique opportunity to connect with others.
Judgment is the ultimate way we emulate G-d. Judging means reacting to people’s foibles with love and favor. It means not rushing to make negative assumptions. It means giving people who have wronged us endless chances when they come to us with sincerity. And most importantly, it means not judging people today for mistakes they made yesterday.
So that mother in the grocery store? Maybe she got a bad night’s sleep. Or maybe she responded calmly to her crabby child 30 times and I happened to witness the 31st time when she snapped. What about the woman who didn’t leave a tip? Well, she probably got terrible service at the restaurant or maybe she was really strapped for cash and feels awful about it. As for the guy who cut me off? Well let’s face it. That guy really doesn’t know how to drive.