For this year’s e-Torah, I will be featuring passages from the Talmudic tractate Avot, a compilation of the ethical, spiritual, and political teachings of second-century Rabbis. I’ll be approaching this venerable text through the lens of Rabbi Shmuly Yanklowitz’s Pirkei Avot: A Social Justice Commentary.
Avot 1:6—Yehoshua ben P’rachyah says: Get yourself a teacher, acquire for yourself a friend, and judge everyone favorably (i.e. with the presumption of innocence).
Given the importance our tradition assigns to learning and community, the first two parts of this passage are not surprising. In order to grow in wisdom, we need good teachers; solid friendships are the foundation of sustainable, caring community. But what is the relationship between these teachings and the last one, enjoining that we assess others with the benefit of the doubt?
The Italian Renaissance commentator Ovadiah Sforno writes: “Judge everyone fairly—because without this trait friendship will not endure. For the majority of statements, the listener can judge a speaker in a negative light. And this attitude will unquestionably annul all friendship.”
In other words, friendship depends upon trust. If we go through life assuming bad intentions on the part of others, we cannot maintain friendships. To be a friend is to have someone’s back, and know that they have ours.
It is much the same in the teacher-student relationship. The learner must trust that the teacher is wise, honest, and has her or his best interests at heart. And so it is in almost all significant relationships—if we approach the other with guarded suspicion, things will not end well.
We need not agree with one another. Students can grow by challenging their teachers; friends can and should offer loving criticism when it is merited; and Torah defines the role of our partners as ezer k’negdo—those who help us through life by guiding us toward new ways of thinking.
Disagreement is very Jewish—but only when it is accompanied by genuine trust. To judge others favorably—and know that they are affording us that same privilege—is to pave the way toward the kind of vulnerability that undergirds all deep reciprocal relationships, between teachers and students, friends and lovers, and sustaining members of compassionate Jewish communities.