Tuesday, October 11, 2005

#146 Giving the Benefit of the Doubt

Musings #146
October 11, 2005
The 8th of Tishrei

Kaf Zchut, Giving the Benefit of the Doubt

There’s a very important concept in Judaism, considered a significant mitzvah, commandment, between man and man, that one should give others the benefit of the doubt.

According to the
Gemarah, (a series of books explaining Jewish Law), by giving others the benefit of the doubt, others will treat you the same way. It is one of only six mitzvot for which you not only benefit in “this world,” but the principle stays in “your account” in Olam HaBa, the Next World.

This past Shabbat, Shabbat
Shuva, the Shabbat between Rosh Hashannah and Yom Kippur, when we’re supposed to work harder at repentance, my neighbor, Rabbi Dov Berkovits gave a talk in English. He discussed this mitzvah and the other five with the same status. They concern making extra time, first thing every morning to learn Torah, to visit the sick, to make sure we teach our children Torah, and others. Most are very obviously important, but this one had me bothered.

The traditional example of giving someone else the benefit of the doubt is of a worker, who after a number of years went to his employer asking to receive his wages, so he could return to his family for the holidays. The employer told him that he was sorry but he had no money to give. So the employee suggested that he be given some of the goods in lieu of money, but his employer told him that it would be impossible.

The poor worker kept making reasonable suggestions, but each was vetoed, without explanation, by his boss. Finally, he just went home empty-handed, no money for his family. A few weeks later, suddenly his boss showed up with donkeys laden with goods, payment, and money for the poor man.

The boss asked his employee why he had been so accepting of all the
refusals, and the worker told him. Amazingly, each of the reasons was the true reason why the employer couldn’t give him anything at all at the time.

All right, this sounds reasonable, but I kept thinking of all of the cases of sexual abuse that have been revealed as true, years after they were denied. The Catholic Church and all sorts of religious schools, all religions including Orthodox Jews, and youth activities, all over the world have had scandals revealed and confirmed in recent years.

Not long ago, it was disclosed that my “very own” NCSY had a long-time sexual abuser as a rabbinic staff member. Apparently, this began just after I made aliyah so I knew nothing about it. Over the years there were complaints to the top administration, but they found it impossible to believe and using the halachik (Jewish Law) concept of “Kaf Zchut,” “giving the benefit of the doubt,” they accepted the account of the abuser.

It’s now Tuesday, three days after the shiur, and I should be preparing my English lessons before going to work, but this dilemma has been occupying my mind. Finally, I think I have it. The high level rabbis who received the complaints were supposed to give the benefit of the doubt, but not to the rabbi-abuser. They were supposed to give the benefit of the doubt to those complaining. By not taking them seriously, by not believing them, they were actually causing “motzei shem ra,” giving those reporting a “bad name,” casting doubts on their integrity.

What resulted, in the short term at least, was a perversion of a very important Halacha, Jewish Law. In this specific case, after a number of years the truth came to light and some of the authority figures who had supported the abusing rabbi, themselves lost their positions and good name.

There is no doubt, that this is an extremely difficult Halacha to observe properly. We need a major amount of “Siyata d’Shmaya,” help from G-d, to know who is telling the truth, who deserves the benefit of the doubt.

May G-d help us, and may we understand His instructions and messages.

Batya Medad, Shiloh
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Voice said...

Giving the benefit of the doubt has always been something I've done naturally. Unfortunately more often than not, I've been wrong and was duped or conned or worse. I still do it though, maybe I'm just not a good judge of character (?)
I think though, it's important to do this, because life is not black and white, easily read as it were...but many shades of grey.
No doubt the rabbis at your shul, Batya, should have investigated immediately, as should the Catholic church. That they didn't is irresponsible at the least. As we can see, not much was done to the offending Catholics, and more people were harmed. It's to their shame this happened, and probably continues today. They'll pay for this sin eventually, maybe not while they're living, but they will pay for it.

Batya said...

It's not an easy thing at all.

Unknown said...

Batya, this is a very thought-provoking piece and I am glad you posted it. I too have the tendency to give the benefit of the doubt, and in most cases it was unwarranted and I paid a price for my faith in human nature. However, I do not allow the negative experiences to change my belief in the basic goodness of individuals and people in general. When my faith is rewarded, I feel a wonderful sense of well-being and spiritual lightness. Some people tell me that I am allowing myself to be duped or used and at times I am sure this has been true. But having faith in my fellow men and women is one of the sustaining forces of my life.

I refuse to live my life constantly on guard and expecting people to show me their worst side. And if I get hurt now and then, although I don't like it one little bit, it is a small price to pay to maintain a positive attitude towards the world around me.

As far as the religious groups handling of sexual abuse charges, this is a very different story. As you wisely pointed out, the wrong people were given the benefit of the doubt, and the accusers and/or victims were re-victimized by the people who were guilty of the wrong-doing. This continues to happen in the Catholic church. Not only are they attempting to reneg on the settlements they made with some of the victims, they are also trying to villianize homosexuals as being the reason this abuse took place. It's one thing to disapprove of the homosexual lifestyle (as a Gay man this is a position I also personally disagree with) but now they are actually endorsing the old false stereotype of Gays being child molesters. Shame on them.

Anonymous said...

I think the mitzvah is to "take someone "as their word" meaning, as if they honor their word, so I will honor their word". If someone claims they did nothing wrong, you take them at their word (innocent until proven guilty) and if someone alleges a crime or knowledge of a crime (alleges means that they tell it to an authority), you investigate it until you can determine it is or is not verifiable/prosecutable. A claim of a crime by another to someone who is not someone who is being asked to act upon that knowledge would merely be loshen hora, and if it is told to someone who cannot act, one honorable act to do is to encourage them to stop saying it except to someone who can do something about it--they may not know who to tell.