Posted by: R Jonathan Gewirtz | July 11, 2016

I’ll Be the Judge of That – No Kidding



I’ll be the Judge of That!

Recently I heard a story about Robin Williams.  Robin Williams is a world-famous comedian and actor who has been in the business for decades.  While he is not Jewish, he has said that growing up he gravitated towards the Jewish kids in school because they, like he who moved to the area from another city, were seen as outsiders.  He even called himself an honorary Jew because he attended 14 Bar Mitzvahs in a single year!

While being interviewed on a German talk show, a woman asked him, “Mr. Williams, why do you think there is not so much comedy in Germany?”  He replied, “Did you ever think you killed all the funny people?”

When a friend related this story, one woman who heard it was very upset.  She said, “If he really said this, it is a terribly cruel and insensitive response to someone not responsible for the horrific acts of a previous generation.”

Now, I’ve often said that when given the choice between good taste and a good line, a good line will win every time.  I’m not going to discuss whether his comment was tactful or not or whether it was funny or not. (OK, I think it was funny!)

What I’d like to focus on is this: The woman who was incensed by the cruelty of his comment may have jumped the gun.  She was obviously feeling defensive for the interviewer, who was seemingly attacked by this American, born after the Holocaust, who stereotyped Germans as indiscriminate murderers.

I wondered: how did he deliver the punchline?  What was said before that question?  How did the interviewer take the line?  In truth, we can’t rush to judgment because we don’t have all the facts.  We just have a snapshot in time where we see an interaction, but we’re seeing it out of context.  In that light, I don’t think it’s fair to condemn him.

Unfortunately, though, this woman’s behavior is not uncommon.  All too often we see people do things wrong and we condemn them.  We assume they are insensitive, sinful, callous, and any other adjectives that fit for someone who does something wrong and maybe even hurtful.

Chazal tells us, “Don’t judge your fellow until you reach his place.”  In American vernacular, we say, “Don’t judge a man until you’ve walked a mile in his shoes.”  Both expressions highlight something key.

If we want to judge someone, we first need to not only be in the same place as he is, physically, emotionally, spiritually, or otherwise, but to have gotten to that place on the same path as he arrived there.  Just as one who helicopters to the top of a mountain cannot gauge the skills necessary or the challenges faced by one who climbed to the summit himself, so can we not judge others when we’ve not experienced exactly what they have.  And here’s a little secret:  That will never happen!

No too people are alike, so we can’t know what someone else is thinking, how each experience affected them, or how they got to where they are.  In other words, we can NEVER judge people.  In fact, it’s a posuk, ‘ki hamishpat l’ailokim hu,’ for judgment is G-d’s.

Once we’re on the topic of judging though, let’s take this example one step further.  Just as we can’t judge people because we don’t know what they’ve gone through and why they do what they do, so too can we not judge HaShem and question His actions.

Now, before somebody stands up and says, “That’s the problem with you people,” (what does he mean by that?!) “you just believe everything the Rabbis tell you and you don’t allow people to think for themselves or ask questions,” let me stop you.  I’m not saying that we can’t wonder why HaShem did something, or that we shouldn’t discuss how and why “bad” things happen.

What I mean is that the point of the questioning should be to reach some level of understanding of why HaShem might have done something and what message He is sending, but we can’t second-guess Him or say that He made a mistake, or lost control G-d forbid.  We are only seeing an instant in human history, and only from the very limited perspective of our personal life experiences.  We don’t see the ripple effect, the consequences, good or bad, that are taking place.

A friend took his daughter and two grandchildren to the airport.  His daughter was traveling abroad and the airline told her that one of her bags was too large.  She had to call her father to come back to get it, and have a brother-in-law come get it from her parents’ home later.  Surely this was a frustrating experience that was just “bad.”

What she couldn’t know was that her father was a bit misty-eyed, having dropped off the kids and wondering when he would see them next.  When she called him to come back, he was pleasantly surprised to be able to hug them again so soon, courtesy of something “bad,” which G-d had planned all along.

So, before you rush to judgment next time, think of Robin Williams’s joke, and how we don’t know what took place before and after it was said.  It might make you withhold your opinion, and realize you’re just getting a glimpse through a keyhole.  That’s how wise people look at the world.  No kidding.


–Originally Published in 2013


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