The incident I'm going to tell you about occurred more than ten years ago, but hardly a week goes by in which I don't think about it.

I had popped into a Jerusalem synagogue for minchah (afternoon prayers). A few rows in front of me there was this man, sitting with his four kids. The fellow in front of him had his arm over the back of the bench, and the fellow behind him was also disturbing him in some way. He kept snapping at his kids. What a jerk, I thought to myself. Ok, you're nervous, you're rude, that's fine, there are lots of nervous and rude people in these stress-ridden times, but does the whole world have to know it?

I'm really a live-and-let-live kind of guy, but this fellow was impossible to ignore. His ill-will and discontent filled the room. Yes, I thought, your kids are a rowdy bunch, but do you have to yell at them all the time? Why don't you leave them home if they get on your nerves so much?

At the conclusion of the service, his four kids -- the twelve-year old, the nine-year old, the eight-year old and the six-year old -- stood in a row and recited the mourner's kaddish. What a jerk, I muttered -- meaning myself of course -- my face hot with shame.


Since there's so much that we'll never know about another person, any attempt to pass judgement on him or her seems doomed to failure. In the words of the Talmud, "Do not judge your fellow until you have reached his place." What the Talmud is really saying, I suspect, is, "Don't judge your fellow, ever," since "his place" is a place where you can never truly be.

The problem, however, is that there are times and circumstances in which we have to judge others, or at least appoint people to do the job for us. We call these people "judges," and without them, no society could function.

Indeed the Torah instructs, "Judges and officers you shall appoint in all your [city] gates." But the Torah also sets down numerous rules and regulations which delimit the judge's power to judge, and ensure that when he does judge, he does so with utmost caution and sensitivity.

A case in point is the law of the "indefensible criminal." This is how it works:

Under Torah law, capital crimes are tried by a tribunal of 23 judges called a "Minor Sanhedrin." After hearing the testimony of the witnesses, the judges themselves would split into two groups: those inclined to argue for the acquittal of the accused would serve as his "defense team" and seek to convince their colleagues of his innocence; those inclined to convict would make the case for his guilt. Then the judges would vote. A majority of one was sufficient to exonerate, while a majority of two was necessary to convict.

But what if all twenty-three judges form an initial opinion of guilt? What if the evidence is so compelling and the crime so heinous that not a single member of the tribunal chooses to argue in the accused's favor? In such a case, says Torah law, the accused cannot be convicted and must be exonerated by the court.

The Lubavitcher Rebbe explains the rationale behind this law as follows: No man is so utterly evil that there is nothing to be said in his defense. There is always some explanation, some justification, some perspective from which the underlying goodness of his soul can be glimpsed. This does not mean that he is going to be found innocent, in the legal sense, by a court of law: at times the "mitigating circumstances" result in a verdict of acquittal; at times, they do not. But if not a single member of the court perceives the "innocent side" of the person standing accused before them, this is a court that obviously has very little understanding of who he is and what he has done. Such a court has disqualified itself from passing judgement on him.

But that's a lesson for judges. The rest of us have neither need or cause to pass judgement on anyone. Which is fortunate, because there's so much that we don't know.