I remember a weird story from my youth. I attended public school and in the afternoon went to a synagogue Hebrew school where I learned how to read Hebrew and lead the services. Although I was a good student, I occasionally was mischievous. One cold, snowy day, I decided to play a prank on the teacher and placed a snowball on his chair expecting him to get up right way when he discovered the moisture on his seat.
To my surprise, he said nothing. However, on the next day he called into the school office a student whom he suspected of causing the prank. The student, of course, denied it, and the incident passed without any student being punished. Retrospectively, I realized it was an example of the presumption of innocence being operative here. I was known to be a good student; the other pupil was known to be a troublemaker, and so he was called into the office and I was not.
The notion of the presumption of innocence is visible in a crucial scene in Driving Miss Daisy, the story of Daisy Werthan, a 72-year-old Jewish widow who needs the help of a driver to chauffer her to various citywide functions and activities. Although reluctant to hire a driver, her son Boolie insists that she be driven rather than drive herself. He fears that his mother may hurt herself and hurt others with her diminished driving skills.
The driver he hires is Hoke Coleburn, a 60 year-old black man. At first their relationship is rocky when she refuses his overtures to help her. In time, however, they become fast friends when one incident changes their relationship. On one winter morning, Daisy discovers a can of salmon missing from the pantry. She immediately suspects Hoke of pilfering it. When Hoke returns to her home, he openly informs her that he took a can of salmon for dinner the previous night because the leftover food was inedible. Daisy is ashamed of herself and from that point on sees Hoke as a man to be trusted.
The notion of judging someone favorably and giving people the benefit of the doubt is a Jewish sensibility. The Talmudic Sages tell us that one who favorably judges others will be judged positively by God. It is good to give someone the benefit of the doubt. This approach to human relationships is based on a legal concept in Jewish law known as a chezkat kashrut, the assumption that all people are basically good and do not want to take advantage of you.
This Hebraic notion finds expression in American law as well, and is referred to as the presumption of innocence. A person is presumed to be innocent of wrongdoing, and it is the prosecution’s task to prove that a defendant is guilty beyond a reasonable doubt. This presumed status of honesty in relating to other people is what lubricates the fabric of society, enabling people to trust others in both social and financial matters.
In Driving Miss Daisy, Hoke is a role model of someone who thinks the best of others, even when the other at times acts badly. He holds no grudges and always sees the best in Daisy in spite of her occasional rebuke of him.
Daisy has social baggage. Living in the South for many years, she innocently has picked up certain social prejudices regarding blacks, but they do not prevent her from seeing things anew. Daisy is open-minded and is willing to see things from the perspective of another, enabling her to form a lasting friendship with her driver, Hoke. It is a friendship that transcends race and class, and suggests that we are all part of one grand human family.