She walked over to the swimming pool with the baby held lovingly in her arms. She was laughing and making silly faces; the baby clearly delighted and entranced with her antics. A maternal warmth spread over me like a soft blanket.
At first I thought she was wearing a shirt over her bathing suit. But then I realized that the dark pictures, symbols and quotes, swirling up and down her toned arms, were not made of cloth. She was wearing a jacket of tattoos. And all of a sudden, my mommy radar went off.
What mother would do that to her beautiful body? (I apologize to my kids and everyone I know with a butterfly or motif imprinted on their ankle or shoulder blade for having this thought, but it’s the truth.)
I know it’s only human to make assumptions about others based on what we know or think we know to be true. We instinctively assess them based on how they look, speak and present themselves; their overall appearance dictating our impressions which often become intractable and difficult to alter.
When others diverge from what we conceive of as the norm, when they exceed the boundaries of mainstream or acceptable, we often evaluate them as “less than, not as good as, or not worthy of” our time, attention or respect.
The irony of this instinct is that it serves to limit us in ways we may never intend. In saying “no” to the way a person chooses to dress or the way they live, we not only invalidate their choice or lifestyle, we limit our own ability to expand our minds and hearts to ways of being that depart from our own.
Jewish tradition has much to say about judging others. Leviticus 19:15 states: “With righteousness shall you judge your fellow,” which means that we should give others the benefit of the doubt when evaluating their behavior and try to view them with compassion, understanding and kindness.
Great advice that is easier said than done. For while I might be able to imagine the reasons why a young woman would choose to mark her beautiful body with what looks to me like a blurry newspaper comic strip, my initial assessment may limit me more than it will limit her.
Before I go further, let me clarify that the Torah strictly prohibits the making of tattoos on one’s body. Leviticus 19:28 states: “You shall not etch a tattoo on yourselves.”
This prohibition applies to all tattoos besides those made for medical purposes, such as to guide a surgeon making an incision. But in that moment at the swimming pool, that was not what was foremost in my mind.
Putting aside for the moment the halachic prohibition against tattoos, I turn to the Talmud which provides a practical insight about “judging everyone favorably.” A proper Hebrew translation is actually “Judge the whole of a person favorably” (Pirkei Avot 1:6).
We are required to stop and look at the entire person in their wholeness before making judgments about them. We are asked to take into account the vast complexities and inconsistencies of being human; the challenges of being multifaceted and complicated. It is our responsibility to look at the multiplicity of qualities — the kindheartedness as well as the thoughtlessness, the generosity and the meanness, the stability and the insecurities, in order to truly understand another human being.
We must come from a place of inner peace, or shalom, which also means wholeness, when we judge others wholly. For it is wholeness that we ultimately seek in our own lives.
I may have seen a woman covered in tattoos, but I also saw a tender, attentive mother loving her baby, keeping him safe and happy. And in that moment by the pool I realized that it is up to me to view these seemingly disparate incongruities without judging “the book by its cover.”
Jewish tradition wisely recognizes that we all have the tendency to pass judgment on others without fully understanding their background, or the physical, psychological, social or financial realities that motivate them to act. That is why the sagely words of Rabbi Hillel spoken some 2,000 years ago still ring true today: “Do not judge another person until you have reached his place.”