Parshas Shoftim - Should Religious People "Believe" in Humanity

By Rabbi Moshe Taragin

Posted on 08/17/20

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The opening verse of Parshat Shoftim depicts the formation of a national and local judicial system. Judges are commanded to maintain impartiality and render truthful and accurate verdicts – "mishpat tzedek". Although the verse profiles the narrow activities of a formal beit din our Chazal understood this verse (and a parallel verse in Parshat Kedoshim) in broader terms. We are all – at one point or another- judges of our fellow man. We witness behavior, decisions and actions of others and we render judgement. The principle of "dan l'caf zechut" mandates that we afford other people a reasonable benefit of the doubt. Witnessing suspicious behavior which may be harmless, we are instructed to interpret that behavior favorably rather than criminally. Obviously, if the malicious intentions are unambiguous, it is foolish to act naïve and assume proper intent. However, where reasonable doubt exists, we are expected to judge generously and assume the best in people. Notably, the original statement of "kaf zechut" in the Mishnah in Avot (1:6) demands granting the benefit of the doubt to all human beings, and not just to Jews.

Granting the benefit of the doubt to all human beings is based on a "humanistic" approach which regards human beings are fundamentally virtuous and noble. G-d bestowed every human being with innate nobility and inner virtue – tzelem Elokim-and as my Rebbe , Rav Aharon Lichtenstein zt"l wrote "Humanism affirms the dignity , uniqueness and virtue of man…assumes man's special status as the one creature capable of relating intelligently  to G-d." If we truly believe in human beings, we are more likely to assume the best in them, and of them. The broader basis of kaf zechut ultimately demands a more favorable view of humanity at large. 

The religious value of humanism is not obvious nor is it simple. Indeed, humanism is an evaluation of the virtue of the nobility and even majesty of human beings who are at the center of the created universe. Secular humanism- very popular in the modern secular world- further asserts that since human beings are so central, life should be geared almost exclusively to human needs and desires. By contrast, religious humanism, accepts man's great potential but imposes equally great Divine demands and duties upon him, precisely because Man is so uniquely equipped to perform those duties. As Rav Lichtenstein wrote for a religious humanist "energies which might have been channeled toward…purely human welfare, are expended in the service of G-d."  Religion and Humanism are not fundamentally incompatible. If anything, belief in human beings, empowers and obligates us to greater religious challenges and duties. The principle of kaf zechut is predicated upon this humanistic view of our world. If we believe that humans are fundamentally virtuous, it is obvious that we should assume noble intentions rather than criminal interests

Belief in Humanism should manifest itself in several additional areas:

1.Valueing Life

Humanism demands that we not just evaluate people and their intentions favorably, but also, that we value life itself as the supreme gift bestowed by G-d. Parshat Shoftim alludes to capital punishment– which we take every possible measure to avoid administering. Even after a person is legally indicted, beit din will re-examine every possible angle in search of an exoneration – even one based on legal loopholes. Even though the crime was clearly violated and the person's felonious intent is unquestioned, beit din will take every effort to avoid taking a life. Affirming the nobility of the human condition requires that we impute noble intentions to people and also, that that we preserve and value life.

2. Acting Respectfully to Others

The principle of kaf zechut and the humanistic view it is based upon demands that we exhibit respect for others. Respectful behavior is the baseline of healthy personal interactions. You can divide people into two groups- those who are respectful to others and those who aren’t. The differences between these two groups are instantly recognizable on the road, while waiting on line in the grocery, in public gatherings and in a range of different contexts. Respectful people are more likely to honor the dignity and autonomy of another person while disrespectful people are more likely to be manipulative and exploitative towards others.

3. Respecting Different Opinions  

Humanism demands that we not only act respectfully towards other people, but also, that we respect their opinions and beliefs, even when they seem so different from our own deeply held convictions. Obviously, ideas which are religiously deviant or dangerous must be disqualified. However general views on life, relationships, politics and other "non-religious" or "non- halchik" topics, possess merit even if they aren’t our own personal views.  The trait of tolerance allows us to 'bear' those with different opinions than our own. Humanism demands that we not only tolerate different views but also that we acknowledge that different opinions deeply held by others, presumably, have merit or basis. If we respect people's intelligence and are intellectually honest it is difficult to simplistically dismiss differing views. We can dispute the value or practicality of an idea but simple wholesale dismissal often reflects personal arrogance, disrespect of others, or intellectual dishonesty.

4. Sensing common ground with all human beings

Belief in the goodness of all human beings should also create "common ground" and a sense of shared experience. Obviously, we sense common ground more profoundly with other Jews whose lifestyles, destiny, and relationship with G-d more similarly mirror our own experience. However, respect for humanity should help us identify the common ground with every other human being we encounter.  We so often encounter non-Jews at work, when we travel, and in general public spaces. Derech eretz mandates that that we act courteously and politely. Concern for Kiddush Hashem dictates that we represent Jews and G-d with excellence. Belief in humanity, however, encourages us to identify the common ground between ourselves and every human being of "good behavior" and share our common experiences. Sensing that common ground is a manner of locating and affirming the tzelem elokim in all human beings. For centuries, the prospect of sensing common ground with the non-Jews of our world was, at best, remote and, many times, felt absurd. Jews were routinely persecuted and any sense of "common ground" was demolished by the hostility and violence directed at our nation. Additionally, the relatively sorry state of humanity at large, made it difficult to appreciate the commonality between Jew and non-Jew. In the modern, enlightened world the "other" is b"h far more civilized and thankfully, Jews are, by and large, treated fairly under democratic law. Are we able to sense greater common ground with humanity at large? Can we sense this common ground without compromising or diluting the unique identification we feel toward fellow Jews with whom we share so much more?