"הִלֵּל אוֹמֵר: אַל תָּדִין אֶת חֲבֵרְךָ עַד שֶׁתַּגִּיעַ לִמְקוֹמוֹ." פרקי אבות ב', משנה ה
"Do not judge your neighbor until you walk two moons in his moccasins."
There are different ways of understanding this dictum in Pirkei Avot. Does it mean not to judge, because in his situation you would do the same thing? Or does it mean that until you really understand his particular situation, you do not understand his inputs? I lean more towards the latter. It is often difficult to be empathetic, and realize just what causes a person to act the way he does. Probably the intent is just to personal and situational stresses, which caused him to act wrongly, and without feeling and thus understanding those, we will simply condemn. Hashem is bochen klayot valev, but we are not able to do so. Though we can try.
This can extend to other situations, not just where the person is acting wrongly, even from his own perspective. Rather, it might well be that the person is acting internally in a morally correct fashion, but his makom is so different from ours, and his perspective on the world is so different from ours, that we do not see this possibility. His actions may be just as wrong, and we are able to see that the actions are morally reprehensible, but based on his inputs, it is not so.
There is a famous saying in Computer Science: "Garbage In, Garbage Out." You can have a perfectly fine computer program, with perfectly crafted instructions. But if you feed it garbage as input, you will end up with garbage as output. The same with people. Different people have different hashkafas and different perceptions of reality. And their moral programming can be perfectly crafted, but with a distorted perception of reality or a distorted hashkafa, this moral programming will output absolute garbage.
The obvious danger in this is that you excuse terrible and evil behavior. And that you let it pass without condemnation, and let it continue. And you become a person who excuses evil behavior. Almost any behavior can be explained away in this manner, and then ultimately nobody is responsible for his actions. This is akin to pluralism leading to moral relativism.
However, there is a truth to this. Distorted reality can lead to terrible actions, even where the person is not an "evil" person. For example, if Sam believes that everyone in his vicinity is a flesh-eating zombie, and decapitates them to protect the world, then he is a lunatic. But is he a black-hearted evil person? No. Perhaps he should be locked up so that he is not a danger to others, and he is indeed a lunatic, but the crime was not one of evil intent.
In contrast, here is another take on the matter, by a commenter Chaim, in an excerpt from some comments left on parshablog:
People who do evil things are evil, it doesn't matter that their wickedness stemmed from an idea that if true would warrant their evil deeds. Perhaps their wickedness is that they have those evil ideas or perhaps they have those evil ideas because they are wicked (I'm not sure what comes first).I don't think the latter is likely -- that they have some mystical "wickedness" aspect to them, and therefore they get these misperceptions which guides them to evil action. In terms of the former, perhaps, or perhaps not. I do not believe it is that simple.
I do think that there is "evil" aside from the above -- garbage not in the data, but in the ethical programming. That a person knows that something is bad, that it is theft, that he is being selfish, that he is hurting another person, but he does not care. Of course, data and instructions are at some level one and the same, and the inputs into the person are what molded his personality, and thus his choices. And so this is another type of makom. Yet it is here that we talk about bechirah chofshis, where people are not mere automatons; and it is here that we might make judgments about a person's moral programming.
In AI for robotics and intelligent agents, an important distinction is made between the universe and perception of the universe. And the robot or agent can only react within its own perception.
Humans as well do not have complete knowledge of reality. We have incomplete perception, or in many cases flawed perception. But we do our best with our limited knowledge.
A mohel thinks metzitza befeh is the only way to perform the mitzvah, and thinks anyone who suggests using a tube is a heretic. He ends up infecting 20 infants. Is he evil? No, just horribly misguided, and the product of a flawed society.
A Palestinian child is falsely taught that the Israelis are infecting his family with AIDS, and is using nerve-gas against innocents. He throws a rock at the Israeli "oppressors." Within this limit view, is he evil? Or just horribly misguided?
A chareidi believes that the sexual thoughts one might have from seeing a woman wearing denim can cause the destruction of the soul, and that the woman is acting bemeizid because she is a horrible person. He throws bleach on her clothing to ruin it, and torches the store that sells MP4 players. He is horribly misguided.
A Christian missionary believes if people do not accept Yushke, they will burn in heck forever. He saves them by torturing them until they convert, and perhaps kills those who will not convert as an inducement to others. Given his skewed reality, what he is doing is a huge favor. He is saving them.
An Israeli politician believes that there is no alternative to land for peace, and thinks that this will ultimately save both Arab and Jewish lives. A show of force to create a frozen peace would have worked better, and instead he brings on waves of rockets which kill many Israelis. He was horribly wrong, but not a black-hearted evil-doer.
And so I end up excusing horrific actions.
Luckily for me, I am not Hashem. I don't need to judge them, and send them to Heaven or Hell. Perhaps my sense of fairness demands that those who put out hurt in this world be repaid in kind, but perhaps not. There is din, and there is a Dayan, and I will let Hashem sort this out.
Perhaps it is selfishness on my part, but I would rather concern myself with how *I* should react. I would like to know the optimal way to react to them, on an emotional level and intellectual level, besides on a practical level. I want to avoid misperceptions on my own part. I do not want to simplify, and just say that they are evil and that is why they are evildoers. I do not want to lie to myself and say, in an instance that it is not the case, that even were their assumptions true (e.g. avodah zarah), the proper process to follow would not include X. Is there anything I can learn from them about myself? Is there anything I can now think of to better react to them, now that I know their process and motivations?
That does not mean that I do not condemn them. Looking from outside the closed system, their actions were bad. But not only the actions were bad but they stem from ignorance, or from bad hashkafas. So not only are they bad, but their mother is overweight too! (I speak metaphorically.) What kind of society produces such misperceptions that result in such horrible behavior?
Delving into the closed system, I can also ask what about their society promotes such poor hashkafot or such ignorance.
Perhaps a recognition of such differing and flawed perceptions can help avoid kannaus. Yes, I do believe I am right. Absolutely. But others think otherwise, and are just as absolutely convinced. Maybe before I take such definitve action, I will stop and think that maybe I am not correct, but I am human and it is only my limited perception that makes it so. Or if not that, then I am absolutely correct. But that woman in the front of the bus who refuses to move to the back is not evil. She is the product of her own makom, and believes she is doing something correct and righteous. If so, then perhaps despite her assur actions, she should not be beaten up and spat upon.
The flaw with the above is that kannaim don't think like that, or they would not be kannaim. And they do not come from a society that promotes thinking like that. Nor would they be likely to engage in outreach efforts to realize that our opponents are people too. Normal people might join in Du Siach, dialogue, to understand the other position and the humanity of our opponents even as we ultimately disagree with their conclusions.
This is not a direct commentary on Rabbi Schorr, or his analysis of the situation as "avodah zarah," or his subsequent actions. One can read my previous posts for that. I care more about our own reactions than any actions done by others. There are plenty of others who already reacted to that situation. And I don't know enough about the event or the players to make a solid determination anyway. And not every Jew needs to pass judgment on every incident.