Chanifah is strictly forbidden by the Torah.
(Shortcut explanation of chanifah: It’s basically any time you give the impression that the forbidden is permissible.)
Judging favorably is a popular topic in frum lectures, books, and articles.
Popular Benefit #1: "Things Aren't What They Seem..."
In other words, the suspicious-looking person is indeed innocent or truly not at fault.
As long as the assumption of innocence won’t harm you or anyone else, you are indeed obligated to believe the best of the other person.
And some inconvenience is okay to risk, but potential harm demands precautions.
So it’s okay to say to yourself (and to Hashem!): “I don’t know if things are or are not wha they seem.” Or, “I’m just not sure. I can’t decide how much to give the benefit of the doubt here.”
If you’re from America or Great Britain, you’ll probably want things to be black-and-white, you'll want to act with confidence, and just have a pat solution of how to proceed.
This reaction is because of the surrounding culture.
But it’s perfectly okay to be uncertain.
Some people really are bad. Some really do cause harm.
Sometimes, things aren't only what they seem, they're even worse.
So while we can't gossip about things, it's okay to privately hold out until the situation becomes clearer.
Popular Benefit #2: Justifying Forbidden Behavior
If a person truly does not know, then that’s understandable.
We all fall into that category sometimes. And while it is some excuse, damage still occurs.
For example, there was an otherwise shomer Shabbat community who, out of ignorance, put their cholent in the fridge overnight and then transferred it to the electric platter Shabbat morning.
Are they bad people? Not at all!
But can you eat at their house? Are they allowed to eat their own cholent?
A halachic authority needs to be asked.
Shabbat transgression is still taking place even though they honestly did not know. They’re not evil or heretical, but it’s still a problem.
(And yes, they were told at some point, but struggled to accept the prohibition because their parents had warmed up the cholent the same way.)
The problem arise when someone does know better.
Sometimes, they even admit this outright, usually in a joking manner, like saying how fun it is to hurt people or how easy you make it for them to criticize you, or how you or someone else really "deserves it”…
At this point, if you confide in someone about it, you’ll probably be introduced to the “going/gone through a hard time” excuse.
Like Popular Benefit #1, "hard-knock life" can indeed justify a certain amount of less-than-ideal behavior.
Someone in physical pain or ill or going through trying times with their marriage, children, or finances may not find the ability to smile, greet you nicely, watch their children properly, or pay attention properly within a conversation.
They can talk too much or too little, eat too much or too little, struggle to arrive to appointments on time, be brusque when dealing with people, and so on.
This excuse works well in situations in which the other person is truly overwhelmed and probably wants to be better, but just can’t make it at the moment.
However, this does not justify stealing (or being a willing and aware party to unethical situations), any kind of abuse, nastiness, embarrassing people, or any other forbidden behavior.
I think most of us can admit we’ve taken out a bad mood on an innocent person and also admit we were wrong to do so. Okay, that happens. In such a case, you apologize, sincerely take measures to prevent it from happening again, and go on with your life.
No one’s perfect.
The problem comes when people behave this way for years.
And everyone will dance around this person’s victims chanting, “She doesn’t know! He’s struggling in his marriage! She had a difficult childhood! He’s having financial problems!”
So…it’s wrong to do this.
I cannot emphasize enough how every mussar sefer and how Rav Levi Yitzchak himself says that you cannot join with people who consistently harm others.
Yes, you should be courteous to them! You must be careful not to embarrass them or any other behavior the Torah forbids.
Rav Levi Yitzchack says that if a person is truly wicked, you cannot even join him in thought—you can't even think much about him!
You can't think about him except to find a good quality in him (which is different than saying his theft or verbal abuse is okay).
Rav Levi Yitzchak explains:
"The whole connection with him is only spiritual...Meaning that all of my thought around a bad person is only to seek and find the Divinity and good that is still found in him..."
(Words of Faith II, page 285)
The Torah itself commands you to judge others on the side of merit.
You must do so. The question is, how?
3 Ways to Judge Favorably
- 1) You tell Hashem how, from the other person’s point of view, they feel their behavior is completely appropriate.
- 2) You find a positive aspect in their negative behavior: “His penchant for mockery would be great if used against avodah zarah—may it be Your Will that he channels it for the good!”
- 3) You can find a good point that has nothing to do with the bad behavior, i.e. regarding a person who tends to be dishonest: “Nonetheless, she is genuinely kind and intuitive toward elderly people.”
Once you find a person’s good point—at least one—then you open the door for them to return to the right path and fulfill all their wonderful potential.
It’s a deceptively powerful act.
Of one who finds positive aspects in others, Rav Levi Yitzchak Bender says:
"…it could be he has many baalei teshuvah dispersed around the globe…yet he knows nothing of this whatsoever…he has no idea that through him, so many people came back in teshuvah.
For indeed, through this that he judged them on the side of merit, he paved the way for them."
(Words of Faith II, page 285, emphasis mine--MR)
We want to effect real change in the world and this one of the best ways to do it.