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"In righteousness shall you judge your neighbor" (Vayikra 19:15).
The Torah commands us to give people the benefit of the doubt when we are not sure whether or not their actions were permissible. For example, if someone sees a Jew driving on Shabbos, and he doesn't know whether he is desecrating the holy day or taking a seriously ill person to the hospital, he should judge him favorably and assume the latter.
Actually, it depends. If the one whose actions are in doubt is generally known to be an extremely pious, G-d fearing person, then, even if his actions are most probably forbidden, yet, if there is even a one percent chance that it is permissible, we are required by the Torah to judge him favorably.
If, however, the fellow is someone who is average in his observance, sometimes succumbing to sin, then the Torah requires us to give him the benefit of the doubt only if there is at least a fifty per cent chance that it was OK. If the odds that it was forbidden outweigh the chances that it was permissible, then the Torah allows us to regard it as questionable - but certainly not to rule that it was forbidden. According to the Rambam, even in such a case it is an act of piety to judge him favorably.
Only if someone is a known desecrator of the Torah, should we assume that what he did was forbidden.
In practice, this commandment is difficult to obey. We are quick to assume that others are misbehaving (although we almost always assume that we are perfect or close to it) and we rarely give even tzaddikim (righteous people) the benefit of the doubt. When we judge ourselves, on the other hand, we instinctively assume that we are righteous.
The Mussar Movement was founded by Rabbi Yisrael Salanter zt"l. Its precepts include a great amount of introspection based upon the premise that one should be suspect in his own eyes and not so quick to assume that his intentions are the most praiseworthy. Nevertheless, it is told that Reb Yisroel said that he, himself, learned Mussar three times: the first time, he realized that everyone is not up to par - except he; the second time, he realized that he was not so special either; the third time, he came to the conclusion that everyone else is doing fine while he has to work very hard on self improvement! That is the way of the real tzaddikim.
Rabbi Aryeh Levine zt"l, the tzaddik of Jerusalem, unconditionally loved every single Jew, with no exception; and they loved him in return. When he would speak in shul, people would listen; never taking offense at what he said. They knew that even if he reprimanded them for misbehavior, it was only meant for their benefit; so that they could learn how to be truly happy, in this world and the World-to-Come. Even prominent, elder Rabbis, would enjoy listening to him speak. One of them was the great Reb Isser Zalman Meltzer zt"l, father-in-law of Reb Aharon Kotler zt"l, who would listen attentively to all that Reb Aryeh had to say.
One day, someone brought to Reb Aryeh's attention that a fellow in the neighborhood did not treat his wife properly. He would fight with her in public and verbally abuse and embarrass her. Reb Aryeh agreed. In his next address, Reb Aryeh spoke about how important it is to respect one's wife; to appreciate all that he has because of her and to imagine what his life would really be like without her. He quoted the Talmud and the Rambam who declare that a man should love his wife like himself and honor her even more than himself; being especially careful not to hurt her feelings since she is naturally sensitive. Reb Aryeh went on to enumerate how many blessings are bestowed upon a home in which the Shechinah (the holy Spirit) dwells because there is peace between man and his wife.
Everyone listened very attentively and Reb Aryeh hoped that the culprit, for whom he was speaking, was getting the message. But when the speech was over, Reb Isser Zalman, who was known to be especially kind and considerate to his wife, approached Rabbi Levine and whispered to him, "Your sermon was very nice Reb Aryeh, but tell me the truth, did you hear that I am not nice to Belah Hinda?"
Shema Yisrael Torah Network