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Judge and jury – when it’s okay to speak your mind

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While Rosh Hashanah reminds us that G-d is the “true judge”, there’s no denying the fact that as human beings, we often judge one another. How do we maintain strength and self-belief when someone else is judging us or our choices?
by GILLIAN KLAWANSKY | Sep 26, 2019

“So much of this comes down to self-confidence and self-esteem,” says clinical psychologist Lana Levin. “It’s about knowing yourself well enough that you trust your judgement to be right for you. They may not be right for others, but that doesn’t make them wrong for you.”

Matthew Gordon is one of those who have had to stand their ground against social opinion. He says trusting his judgement has helped him to deal with those who judge him for his sexual orientation. “I’m at a point where I don’t need someone else’s validation. I’ve always believed strongly that my relationship with G-d is between me and G-d, and what I do is between me and G-d. If I’m affecting you in any way, you can judge me. Otherwise if someone judges me it’s on them, not on me. It’s about their insecurities and interpretations. I often have to remind myself of that.”

Gordon came to this realisation via a difficult personal experience. “I volunteered for a Jewish organisation,” he says. “I was religious at the time, which was required, but I was also openly gay. At a show with fellow volunteers, girls were saying that the comedian who performed was good looking and I said; “Yes he is.” I got this weird look from them. Soon afterwards, I was called in and told I couldn’t be a member of the organisation because of that.”

Such attitudes have pushed him away from a religious lifestyle. “Going to a shul and being openly gay, I also feel very judged,” he says. “It might just be my perception, but I feel people look at me differently, so I try and avoid shuls.”

Also facing religious backlash, Jenna* has stuck to her choices. Working for an Orthodox organisation, she wasn’t altogether surprised when colleagues’ eyes widened when she became engaged to a non-Jew. “They asked if he’d convert for me,” she recalls. “When I said no, their eyes went even bigger, and then they kept quiet and walked off.”

On another occasion, Jenna was setting up for a meeting, and heard attendees discussing intermarriage in spite of the fact that she was there. “One man was talking about how disgusting it was that someone he knows married a non-Jew. Everyone agreed, and practically gasped at how ‘one of their own’ could even think of doing something so disgusting. I kept quiet. I just didn’t invite any of them to my wedding.”

When Jenna later chose not to bris her son, many actively tried to change her mind. “One staff member offered me R40 000 to give him a bris, while an acquaintance got a doctor who performs brisses to phone me, and tell me about the benefits. He was very nice, and offered to bris my son for free.” Yet Jenna wasn’t swayed.

“It doesn’t upset me because I know they’ve been brought up to think one way, and to them, it’s right,” she says. “I think they’re close-minded. Not everyone in the community is like that though. Many people just see me as a person with a different mindset to them. They know that if they don’t judge me, I won’t judge them. With everything I’ve done that’s ‘not right’ according to the community, I couldn’t be in a happier place. I’m more in love than ever before, and thank G-d, my son is thriving.”

Talia* bemoans the way mothers judge one another, especially on social-media groups. She recently wrote a post on one such group calling people out when a mom was judged for what she fed her child. “Being a mom – especially these days when everything is an issue – is hard,” she says. “In a mommy group, we’re all in the same boat, yet you are judged. We feel so guilty all the time anyway. Give others room to be flawed and human, not everyone has the same priorities. I strongly believe that as moms, we need to support one another. Instead of insulting or judging any parent, just say you’re doing a great job, do the best you can.

“The pressure on women is greater because we’re working, and we’re supposed to be the primary caregiver,” says Talia. “I’m the main breadwinner, and my husband is around for the kids, but invariably their teachers still contact me because I’m the mother. They’re taken aback when I tell them to contact him. He also gets judged for ‘not supporting his family’.”

Rabbi Ari Kievman of Chabad’s Sandton Central Shul addresses Judaism’s take on judgement. “On the one hand, we naturally judge each other, it’s just the way human beings are,” he says. “On the other, the Mishnah [oral Torah] teaches us that one shouldn’t be judgemental of others. Yet, Pirkei Avot has the words kol ha’adam – it says judge the entire person favourably. So, the Mishnah says don’t judge others, and the other says judge the whole person.”

Kievman explains how to reconcile the two. “We don’t always know a person’s situation. If you’re judging someone, you better have a good understanding, otherwise don’t judge them. There’s often more to the picture.” In the case of judging people’s religious choices, Kievman says, while the thinking is “if you see something, say something”, you still need to know the full story.

“In the Torah, where it says you should rebuke someone, it says you should rebuke your friend,” he says. “Consider how a friend would tell another friend that they’re doing something wrong. If they’re not your friend and you don’t know them well, if you’re not going to wield any influence, there’s no point in saying anything.

“Only speak if you know that you can make a difference to that person’s life. The Rebbe would say that words that come from the heart will penetrate. It’s not about judging the other, it’s about being concerned about them in a genuine way. If I’m just being judgemental, then I don’t care for the other person. That doesn’t help. If you really care about someone, you’re going to make a difference in their life, and you’ll work with them through whatever their challenge might be.”

If someone makes a judgement about you, instead of automatically dismissing it, evaluate its validity, suggests Levin. Consider three things: “The source of the feedback; how many people are giving you the same or similar feedback; and the impact that your behaviour is having on your life.”

If you know their judgement is invalid, consider your response before acting, she says. “The cost-benefit ratio needs to be assessed in terms of what you’ll get out of a confrontation.”

*Names have been changed

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