Kaf Ze-khut

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Lyrics

I will judge everyone favorably 
Though I’m upset,
   I’ll give my neighbor the benefit of the doubt 
When I feel resentful,
   I will remember the words of this song 
And think of a reason
   why she [ they / you ] could be right 
   and I could be wrong 

(Chorus) 
“He-ve dan 
  et kol haadam le-khaf zekhut” 
“He-ve dan 
  et kol haadam le-khaf zekhut” 
Lo ehyeh kapdan 
Ela mukhan 
Be-khol inyan 
Ladun kol adam 
Le-khaf zekhut 
Kaf zekhut, kaf zekhut 

“הוי דן את כּל האדם לכף זכות”
“הוי דן את כּל האדם לכף זכות” 
לא אהיה קפדן 
אלא מוכן 
בכל ענין 
לָדוּן כּל אדם 
לכף זכות 
כּף זכות, כּף זכות 

(Judge every person favorably,
 Give every person the benefit of the doubt, 
 I won't be hypercritical, 
 But rather, ready, in every case, 
 To judge everyone on the side of merit.)

 

Middot

Humility  ענוה  Anavah  
Exactness  הקפּדה  Hakpadah
 
Truth  אמת  Emet  
Patience  סבלנוּת  Savlanut 
Respect  כבוֹד  Kavod 
Compassion  רחמים  Rachamim 
Restraint  גבוּרה  Gevurah

 

About Judging

For some, even the idea that we might judge others raises hackles. “We have no right to judge anyone,” says one friend. While most of us are not in a legal position to judge other people, we do it all the time anyway. We size up others at first sight, and we categorize people based on brief interactions. We even draw conclusions from headlines, speech patterns, grooming, and far less substantial evidence.

Would the world be better if we did not judge one another? Perhaps. Yet the behavior is deeply ingrained and, when properly deployed, can serve positive goals—such as safety, and noticing opportunities for friendship and kindness.

It’s part of our toolkit as humans—we constantly evaluate stimuli as “food, friend, or foe.” When the stimulus is another person, our task is to judge more deliberately, more kindly, more respectfully. While our animal brain might quickly jump to conclusions, our Mussar path is to notice that we can do better, and to evaluate from a more favorable perspective.

 

References 

Avot 1:6 

Micah 7:18

Tomer Dvorah, chapter 1, section 5

R’ Dovid Nussbaum, oral communication

  

Elul 

I'm grateful to offer this song as part of The Mussar Institute's program for Elul 5772, September/October 2022.

Reflections on this Song

הֱוֵי דָן אֶת כָּל הָאָדָם לְכַף זְכוּת 
He-ve dan et kol ha-adam le-khaf ze-khut 
(Avot 1:6) 

This teaching of R’ Yehoshua ben Peraḥya supports several translations: 

  • Judge every person favorably. 
  • Give every person the benefit of the doubt. 
  • When judging any other person, tip the balance in their favor. 
  • When judging, focus on the whole person’s merit. 

Just as we can translate his words in several ways, so too we can interpret a seemingly negative situation from several perspectives—we need not stick with the one we seize first.

Many of us don’t even notice when we judge others; we need triggers to identify opportunities for kaf ze-khut. Once we recognize an opportunity, we also need ways to judge favorably, to actively give the benefit of the doubt.

The Hebrew word hakpadah הקפּדה can mean strictness, punctuality,  precision, punctiliousness, pedantry. This trait has both positive and negative aspects—depending on context and degree. For example, precision can be important in engineering, law, forensics, writing, and baking. Yet in human interactions, too much exactness can come across as pointy or prickly—the same root letters (קפּד Koof Peh Dalet) appear in the word kippod / porcupine. 

Kapdan can refer to one who is unreasonably judgmental or overly critical. If we are too critical, our nitpicking can irritate others. The faults we see can madden us, and our vexation can irk others in turn. 

R’ Dovid Nussbaum teaches us to notice when we are being exact or strict, especially if at the same time we feel negative, upset, hurt, or resentful—or if we elicit those feelings in others. Recognizing our moments of negative hakpadah / prickliness is key to changing our attitude and our direction. 

This song reminds me to be less prickly. Less demanding. Less exacting with others. Less easily annoyed or insulted. More easygoing. The practice follows R’ Nussbaum: Notice the tendency to judge, and notice the first moments of prickliness. Remember that I don't want to be prickly or judgy—and stop, by taking the role of their advocate. What in the other person’s words or behavior is triggering me? Could they be right? Could I have misunderstood what they meant or what they did? Could I be missing information? I should not respond until I can imagine some way to explain to myself how they could be right—however unlikely that explanation might seem. 

This practice draws upon several middot. 

  • Patience—hold aside my anger. 
  • Humility—I might be wrong. 
  • Respect—they could be right, and even if they aren’t, I must respect them as a human being. 
  • Compassion—they need kaf ze-khut; give it from a place of kindness. 
  • Truth—my first understanding might not be the whole truth. 
  • Strength—restrain my first impulse. 
  • Exactness—use my hakpadah / exactness in a positive way, to ensure I've explored all possible paths to judging favorably. 

In chapter 1 of Tomer Dvorah, R’ Moshe Cordovero encourages us to emulate Micah’s description of the One Above, including this phrase. 

לֹא־הֶחֱזִיק לָעַד אַפּוֹ 
…Lo heḥezik la’ed apo… 
…God does not grasp anger forever… 
(Micah 7:18) 

Intentionally practicing kaf ze-khut can help us release our grip, abandon our anger, let go of our resentment, and forgive. Step one is noticing my counterproductive response. Step two is creating a scenario in which the other person could be right. 

The next phrase in Micah teaches us another motivation for practicing kaf ze-khut. Judgement (in Hebrew, din) is juxtaposed opposite kindness (ḥesed): 

כִּי־חָפֵץ חֶסֶד הוּא 
…Ki ḥafetz ḥesed hu… 
…because God delights in kindness…

Kaf ze-khut is a path of kindness to others, and kindness to ourselves as well. The Holy One delights in it.

You could be right, and I could be wrong

You could be right, and I could be wrong

Thanks to R' Dovid Nussbaum for the teaching that inspired this song in 2019.

Thanks to my Hebrew language review board for being exact with grammar and steering me straight on nuance: Rivka Sherman-Gold, Elad Ferber, Esther Rosenfeld.

Thanks to Sheila Kay for sharing her perspective with me.

Photo by Simon Hurry on Unsplash.