I first heard this story during my Jewish Studies coursework. I keep poking around trying to find the original since more than ten years have passed since that first hearing, but I have been unsuccessful. So here is the story, reconstructed from class notes and filtered through a decade of forgetfulness:
Once, shortly after the Second Temple was destroyed, a famous Rabbi told his students that he would be making the long journey from Yavne to Alexandria, Egypt, to meet with an important Gentile woman. His students loved him and could not bear to part with him, so they insisted upon accompanying him on the journey.
They embarked, and after a month of arduous travel, they arrived in Alexandria. They found the home of the Gentile woman, and it was grand and palatial. She came out to meet them, and she was beautiful and powerful, exceeding anything they could have imagined. The Rabbi turned to his students who had accompanied him and told them that he would be entering the home of the Gentile woman alone, and they were not to follow him. He then removed his tallit katan [sacred clothing, literally “small tallit,” a kind of prayer shawl], handed it to one of his followers, and entered the house with the beautiful foreign woman. His students stood outside in wonder as the curtains within the house were pulled so tightly shut that they could not see inside.
Nearly an hour later, the Rabbi emerged from the house. He accepted the tallit katan and once again donned it.
“Now my friends,” he said. “Why did you think that I went into the house of the Gentile woman alone?”
“We thought that you were discussing great affairs of state, too sensitive even for our ears,” they replied.
“Ah,” said the Rabbi. “And why did you think that I took off my sacred clothing?”
“We thought you feared that the holy fabric might be soiled from some of the spittle from the Gentile woman’s mouth as she spoke, so you removed it instead.” [The spit of Gentiles is one of the many things that causes ritual impurity according to Jewish law.]
“Why did you think that I pulled the curtains closed?”
“We thought that your meeting was too secret to be seen by passersby in the street.”
“Ah,” said the Rabbi.
He then smiled. “My friends, and so it was, every whit. As you have judged me in these matters, so may the Lord God judge you.”
I have loved this story since I heard it. Sometimes I fear that the common Mormon maxim to “avoid the appearance of evil” (from 1 Thessalonians 5:22) tacitly leaves the impression that it is permissible to judge those who “appear evil.” I prefer the lesson of this old tale: we should bend over backwards in giving others the benefit of the doubt.