Message for the Week from Rabbi Stein
Presumption of Innocence
Rabbi Jay M. Stein on Tuesday, October 31, 2017 at 12:00:00 am
One last comment about Friendship...
JUDAH B. TABBAI SAID: DO THOU NOT [AS-A JUDGE] PLAY THE PART OF AN ADVOCATE; WHILST THEY [I. E. THE PARTIES IN A LAWSUIT] ARE STANDING BEFORE THEE, LET THEM BE REGARDED BY THEE AS IF THEY WERE [BOTH OF THEM] GUILTY, AND WHEN THEY LEAVE THY PRESENCE, [AFTER] HAVING SUBMITTED TO THE JUDGMENT LET THEM BE REGARDED BY THEE AS IF THEY WERE [BOTH OF THEM] GUILTLESS.
In American law there is a presumption of innocence. We ought to give people the benefit of the doubt. The problem is there are so many factors that sway us in one direction or another. There are specialists who prepare people for trial, helping the individual to select the appropriate clothing, the best posture, even facial expressions all in an attempt to influence a jury to rule in their favor. We know there are many factors that go into how we judge others.
That is where this Mishna is particularly powerful. We instinctively, sometimes for self-preservation, sometimes merely out of habit, judge others. This Mishna teaches us to be mindful of that inclination and then compensate for it. Be scrupulous in deciding on whether or not a person is telling you the truth, but then make sure, if it is at all possible, to believe them.
Human interaction is filled with moments of judging. In those moments we must always find a balance. We must regularly hold our skepticism in check with our optimism about the human spirit.