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The Mitzvah of Criticism

05/09/2022 01:50:35 PM


Rabbi Ilana Goldhaber-Gordon

Quite a few years ago, when I was a much younger adult, my parents-in-law spent a sabbatical year in Cambridge, England, and my husband David and I flew out to visit them for a couple of weeks. We must have rented bikes, because the story I want to share with you happened when we were out on a bike ride around town. I was biking a little slower than the others, and David and his parents were about half a block ahead of me when a middle-aged woman - she was probably about the age I am now - approached from the opposite direction.

She looked at me with fury on her face. "Get off your bike," she yelled, "This is a pedestrian lane." And she went on and on, demanding I get off my bike.

I don't know if she was right. Afterward, my mother-in-law told me that some of the pedestrian lanes are specifically labeled as ok for bikes, and she thought this was the case where we were. But wrong or right, it really didn't matter. All I could hear was the anger that woman was throwing at me. It's a scary feeling, to get yelled at like that. And do you think I got off my bike? Of course not! I like to think if that happened to me today, with the maturity of years I might have the presence to slow down and respond to her anger with kindness. But the truth is, when someone is throwing that kind of anger at you it is hard not to react defensively.

So no, I did not get off my bike. I pedaled faster. I must have also said something to her because when she heard my American accent her fury turned to hatred and she yelled after me as I pedaled off: "You come to our country and disobey our laws."

I find it interesting, thinking back on that exchange all these years later, to wonder: what was this woman trying to accomplish at that moment? I don't suppose she asked herself that question, but it should be clear to all of us that she was NOT actually trying to get me to walk my bike. Because if that were the goal, yelling at me was not going to do it. 

Here is where I want us to look at Chapter 19, verses 17 & 18: 

לֹֽא־תִשְׂנָ֥א אֶת־אָחִ֖יךָ בִּלְבָבֶ֑ךָ הוֹכֵ֤חַ תּוֹכִ֙יחַ֙ אֶת־עֲמִיתֶ֔ךָ וְלֹא־תִשָּׂ֥א עָלָ֖יו חֵֽטְא׃

You shall not hate your kinsfolk in your heart. Reprove your kin but but  Exact force of we-uncertain. incur no guilt on their account.

לֹֽא־תִקֹּ֤ם וְלֹֽא־תִטֹּר֙ אֶת־בְּנֵ֣י עַמֶּ֔ךָ וְאָֽהַבְתָּ֥ לְרֵעֲךָ֖ כָּמ֑וֹךָ אֲנִ֖י יְהֹוָֽה׃

You shall not take vengeance or bear a grudge against members of your people. Love your fellow [Israelite] as yourself: I am יהוה.

The two verses are packed chock full with weighty mitzvot. 

1. "You shall not hate in your heart"

2. "You shall reprove your kinsman". Reprove is not part of my daily vocabulary. I usually translate this as rebuke or criticize. You shall tell them off when they do something wrong. The rabbis call this mitzvah Tochechah. Of course, that's the connection to my little story. But the verse goes on.

3. "You shall not incur guilt because of him."

All of that is just verse 17. And then verse 18, just as heavily packed: 

4. "You shall not take revenge"

5. "You shall not bear a grudge"

6. And, the grand finale - "You shall love your neighbor as yourself, I am Adonai."

These six mitzvot, in two verses, they are clearly apiece. But how each relates to the others is not so clear, and they can play off of each other in interesting ways. 

I am particularly interested in the second one - the obligation to criticize or Tochechah. It's a hard one to wrap our heads around this one. How can a mitzvah to criticize be bundled up with our number one Jewish ethic - love your neighbor?

The verse seems to suggest that if you don't criticize your fellow and he then goes ahead sins, you bear some responsibility for his sin. There are no innocent bystanders, it would seem to be saying - only upstanders and guilty parties. 

But the rabbis found that strict dichotomy too harsh. The greatest of the rabbis - Rashi, Maimonideas, and others - outright rejected that most obvious interpretation of the verse. They said "You shall not incur guilt because of him" does not mean that if he does wrong and you didn't stop him, it's your fault. The guilt you might incur has nothing to do with HIS actions. It's your own actions that might bring you guilt - if you criticize too harshly. In fact, if you criticize someone so harshly that their face turns pale, the rabbis said what you have done to him is almost as bad as murder.

And now the love connection is clear. The mitzvah to "reprove your fellow" - Tochechah, criticism - only works if it comes from a place of love.

We have so many bad reasons for criticizing each other.

We criticize from a sense of shame. If you are my child or my student or my partner or my friend, I feel that your behavior reflects on me. Without even realizing it, I criticize to distance myself from you. 

We criticize from a sense of helplessness, to deflect blame or avoid responsibility. It's everyone else's fault that things are turning out badly, so I don't have to look at my own role in it. 

We criticize to quiet our own insecurities. If I put you down, for a moment I might feel myself to be a little higher because I am better than you.

Of course, none of this does any good. Those kinds of criticism have no positive impact on the person receiving it, and whatever emotional benefit it brings to the criticizer is fleeting at best. And yet so many of us do it, at least sometimes - because it's so easy to fall into.

But there is a kind of criticism that is holy, Tochechah, holy rebuke. As our bat-mitzvah girl taught us this morning holiness, requires being thoughtful in our words and actions. Holy rebuke is done with the conscious, careful intention to actually help someone change their behavior. And that's why it's an act of love. Because you care about them, you want them to improve.

Bill and I witnessed a lovely example of Tochechah at a workshop a couple weeks ago hosted by the Hartman Institute. The speaker, Elana Stein Hain, is a known advocate for Jewish women's Torah scholarship. One of the participants is a leader in the National Council for Jewish Women. In introducing herself to the group, this participant gave her name and what she does, and in the course of explaining her work, she said, "I love Jewish women." Elana smiled and said, "I love Jewish women, too." It was a sweet moment of shared understanding between two women who had devoted their lives to Jewish feminism. But then from the back of the room, a man called out, "I love Jewish women, too."

Of course, his saying it had a totally different connotation from the two women feminists saying it. But if Elana had laced into him she ran the risk of humiliating him in public. And really, the remark wasn't so terrible, either. This was a friendly group, and he had just gotten a little bit too comfortable. We all make mistakes like that sometimes. Elana could have let it go, and I don't think anyone would have thought the worse of her.

But she didn't miss a beat. "It's dicier when you say it," she shot back. And then she moved on.

Imagine if we could all be that precise and effective with our words. When someone crosses a line, if we could just let them know clearly and simply, without anger, and without dwelling on it. Our world would be so much happier a place!

Unfortunately, most of us are not as quick on our feet as Elana Stein Hain. And even if we were - I appreciated the way she handled that moment of Tochechah, but I can't really know how it landed with the man who needed to receive it. What feels like a clear and simple communication to me might go right over the head of someone else, ir it might feel like a harsh attack to him.

Because tochechah is a mitzvah that requires thoughtful participation from both sides, multiple commentators taught that the truest form of tochechah - the mitzvah of rebuke - can only be done for someone that you are in a genuine, caring relationship with.

For example, let's look back at verse 17 for a moment, at the first mitzvah in this verse: "Do not hate your brother in your heart." Why is this the warning that precedes the mitzvah of Tochechah? I think the simplest explanation is the one suggested by the medieval commentator, Nachmanidies - don't hold hatred in your heart. If something is bothering you, get it out. Tell them what they did wrong.

Though that may be the interpretation that makes the most sense textually, it makes very little sense contextually. Rebuking out of a feeling of hatred is never effective. I learned that as a young woman biking in a possible pedestrian lane in Cambridge, England.

A modern, Orthodox commentary by the name of Avnei Azel draws the exact opposite connection between the first mitzvah of the verse - Do not hate - and the second one - Reprove of Tochechah. The commandment "Do not hate" is a warning, a qualifier on the next mitzvah of tochechah. Do not try to criticize someone if you hold hatred for them in your heart. He writes that true Tochechah can only emerge from love. 

And I've seen that kind of tochechah, too. It is a fine art to give really effective criticism - criticism that provokes positive change. What a precious gift, to be able to give someone, or to have someone give to you. And I think the Avnei Azel's comment is true but not complete. In my experience, even more important than love is that intentionality that our bat mitzvah girl lifted up, and also an understanding of where the other person is at, and, most of all, an openness on the other side.

I'll end with one more story. It was shared with me recently by a good friend and colleague in a different part of the country, reflecting back on her first few years as a congregational rabbi. At the time, she was a young assistant rabbi, working under a very experienced senior rabbi. My friend did not feel her voice was always heard.

It happened once that an older woman in their community - I'll call this older woman Sue - had fallen and broken a leg. Sue was a person of considerable influence and respect, both in the synagogue and in the broader world. She was well-cared for during her recuperation. She was also a Shabbat morning regular, and she soon began coming to shul on a scooter with a massive cast. 

Some time later, Sue invited my friend out to lunch. My friend was flattered that Sue wanted to connect with her, and was excited to talk to her about ideas for the synagogue and vision for the future. But it turned out, Sue had something else on her mind. She had asked my friend to lunch in order to gently let her know that she had been hurt that my friend had never once asked her how she was doing after her leg broke.

That was a painful moment. There was the disappointment - here she thought Sue was asking her to lunch to get her opinion about things that mattered. And even without disappointment - it never feels good to be told you did wrong.

But - there was so much learning in that moment! My friend realized the value of a simple expression of caring. It takes so little to offer it, and yet even rabbis don't always think to do so. And digging deeper, my friend realized that her voice mattered, even if she didn't always feel heard. Sue had tons of people checking in on her, but she wanted to hear my friend express caring, too.

None of that learning could have happened if Sue hadn't cared enough to go to the effort to invite her to lunch, to talk to her gently and to help her hear. Clearly Sue was irked with my friend. Feeling that wary, many people would have just sent a grumpy email, venting their irritation. Others would have just let it go - what did Sue really care if this young rabbi bothered to check-in on her? But Sue did care, and so she expressed her criticism with care, and that allowed her to make a difference.

May we all be blessed to have such people in our lives.

Thu, September 28 2023 13 Tishrei 5784