Kind Criticism and the Holy Community. Shabbat Kedoshim 5766

The first 19 verses of Parashat Kedoshim are an astonishingly broad code of religious life. The passage opens with a mandate for Israel to become holy like God, and it ends with preserving the integrity of plants and animals. In between is a remarkable series of commands designed to inculcate social solidarity and equality—we are commanded not to favor the rich or the poor in courts of justice, but to create an economic reality which is accessible to all people—including poor people who are welcomed to reap the fields of their more food-secure neighbors. Special attention is focused on physical disabilities, with the entire nation commanded to show reverence for God by not taking advantage of others.

This passage of Torah is not a secular social contract. The expression “I am the Lord” is repeated eight times. Cultic concerns with proper and improper sacrifice are mixed in with admonitions not to steal or besmirch the reputation of another person. It interests me that the punishment for desecrating God’s name through improper sacrifice is to be cut off from the people (v.8), whereas it is reverence for God that prevents taking advantage of other people’s disabilities (v.14). This is counterintuitive today—we think of piety as inspiring ritual, while social ethics are informed by interpersonal values. Leviticus sees it differently. Ritual piety secures membership in religious community; social ethics is an expression of reverence for God. As Rabbi Shimon b. Elazar says in Avot D’Rabbi Natan, “I the Lord created your neighbor; if you love them, then I will reward you, but if you do not love them, then I will exact payment.” 

How is Leviticus 19:1-19 a religious code? Its theology links people one to the other in relationships of kindness, responsibility, and truth. Truth, however, is tricky. This passage famously commands in v.17 that Israelites not hate one another, but rather that they engage in mutual criticism, so as not to bear one another’s sin. If I see a person on the street misbehaving and do nothing, Leviticus believes, that is a form of hatred. I have given up on that person and can’t be concerned with their misconduct. Leviticus wants us to intercede, so that their sin does not metastasize and implicate others. 

While Leviticus invites us to engage in social criticism, doing so with love is a very difficult art. Midrash Tenaim claims that the generation of Sinai was unique in that they knew how to give criticism and also how to receive it. Bavli BM (31a) emphasizes the importance of giving criticism, even repeatedly, even to teachers, and Bavli Shabbat 119b claims that Jerusalem was destroyed because sages refrained from criticizing the religious failures that they observed (this is one of many theories offered for the destruction of Jerusalem in this passage). 

Maimonides reiterates this obligation—saying that one should keep criticizing a person until they either repent or physically attack their critic(!). Still, he recognizes that criticism may be mismanaged, with a haughty aspect and with public shaming. A person who feels compelled to offer criticism generally must do so in a way that is private, humble and palpably loving. If that is not possible then it may be that criticism does more harm than good. 

A destructive trend of our society is that many people choose to launch criticisms in the most nasty, inflammatory and public way possible. Even if motivations are positive, the tone of public shaming and chastisement can undermine the good intended by the speaker. Frank Bruni wrote an important column this week in the Times about President Obama’s recent speech at Howard University’s commencement. Here is an excerpt from the article (full text below): At Howard, Obama insisted that change “requires listening to those with whom you disagree, and being prepared to compromise.” “If you think that the only way forward is to be as uncompromising as possible, you will feel good about yourself, you will enjoy a certain moral purity, but you’re not going to get what you want,” he continued. “So don’t try to shut folks out. Don’t try to shut them down, no matter how much you might disagree with them.”

President Obama was advising the graduates about tactics—how to succeed in bringing about difficult social change through the principled exercises of compromise. However, his words also apply to a religious ethic in which we are seeking not only secular justice but also to create a sacred sensibility in which awareness that “I am the Lord” motivates interpersonal acts of compassion, honesty and integrity. We must be ready to compromise if we value a large and diverse community. And yet we must be willing to criticize if we value the actions of our neighbors. Finding the proper balance is the great challenge, and the reason that Leviticus 19 is perhaps our most important religious code. 

As we complete an academic year I think about the many criticisms we have posed to one another—peer to peer, student to teacher, and teacher to student. These are precious interactions when they are handled with kindness and sensitivity. It is a blessing to learn from each other. As we spread out this summer, often interacting with a broader set of people, let us bring this confidence in the moral capacity of others to our interactions. Let us not be afraid to share critical thoughts, but always with a spirit of humility and kindness so that together we may build a more just and holy community.

ויקרא פרק יט, איט

(א) וַיְדַבֵּר יְקֹוָק אֶל מֹשֶׁה לֵּאמֹר: (ב) דַּבֵּר אֶל כָּל עֲדַת בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל וְאָמַרְתָּ אֲלֵהֶם קְדֹשִׁים תִּהְיוּ כִּי קָדוֹשׁ אֲנִי יְקֹוָק אֱלֹהֵיכֶם: (ג) אִישׁ אִמּוֹ וְאָבִיו תִּירָאוּ וְאֶת שַׁבְּתֹתַי תִּשְׁמֹרוּ אֲנִי יְקֹוָק אֱלֹהֵיכֶם: (ד) אַל תִּפְנוּ אֶל הָאֱלִילִם וֵאלֹהֵי מַסֵּכָה לֹא תַעֲשׂוּ לָכֶם אֲנִי יְקֹוָק אֱלֹהֵיכֶם: (ה) וְכִי תִזְבְּחוּ זֶבַח שְׁלָמִים לַיקֹוָק לִרְצֹנְכֶם תִּזְבָּחֻהוּ: (ו) בְּיוֹם זִבְחֲכֶם יֵאָכֵל וּמִמָּחֳרָת וְהַנּוֹתָר עַד יוֹם הַשְּׁלִישִׁי בָּאֵשׁ יִשָּׂרֵף: (ז) וְאִם הֵאָכֹל יֵאָכֵל בַּיּוֹם הַשְּׁלִישִׁי פִּגּוּל הוּא לֹא יֵרָצֶה: (ח) וְאֹכְלָיו עֲוֹנוֹ יִשָּׂא כִּי אֶת קֹדֶשׁ יְקֹוָק חִלֵּל וְנִכְרְתָה הַנֶּפֶשׁ הַהִוא מֵעַמֶּיהָ: (ט) וּבְקֻצְרְכֶם אֶת קְצִיר אַרְצְכֶם לֹא תְכַלֶּה פְּאַת שָׂדְךָ לִקְצֹר וְלֶקֶט קְצִירְךָ לֹא תְלַקֵּט: (י) וְכַרְמְךָ לֹא תְעוֹלֵל וּפֶרֶט כַּרְמְךָ לֹא תְלַקֵּט לֶעָנִי וְלַגֵּר תַּעֲזֹב אֹתָם אֲנִי יְקֹוָק אֱלֹהֵיכֶם: (יא) לֹא תִּגְנֹבוּ וְלֹא תְכַחֲשׁוּ וְלֹא תְשַׁקְּרוּ אִישׁ בַּעֲמִיתוֹ: (יב) וְלֹא תִשָּׁבְעוּ בִשְׁמִי לַשָּׁקֶר וְחִלַּלְתָּ אֶת שֵׁם אֱלֹהֶיךָ אֲנִי יְקֹוָק: (יג) לֹא תַעֲשֹׁק אֶת רֵעֲךָ וְלֹא תִגְזֹל לֹא תָלִין פְּעֻלַּת שָׂכִיר אִתְּךָ עַד בֹּקֶר: (יד) לֹא תְקַלֵּל חֵרֵשׁ וְלִפְנֵי עִוֵּר לֹא תִתֵּן מִכְשֹׁל וְיָרֵאתָ מֵּאֱלֹהֶיךָ אֲנִי יְקֹוָק: (טו) לֹא תַעֲשׂוּ עָוֶל בַּמִּשְׁפָּט לֹא תִשָּׂא פְנֵי דָל וְלֹא תֶהְדַּר פְּנֵי גָדוֹל בְּצֶדֶק תִּשְׁפֹּט עֲמִיתֶךָ: (טז) לֹא תֵלֵךְ רָכִיל בְּעַמֶּיךָ לֹא תַעֲמֹד עַל דַּם רֵעֶךָ אֲנִי יְקֹוָק: (יז) לֹא תִשְׂנָא אֶת אָחִיךָ בִּלְבָבֶךָ הוֹכֵחַ תּוֹכִיחַ אֶת עֲמִיתֶךָ וְלֹא תִשָּׂא עָלָיו חֵטְא: (יח) לֹא תִקֹּם וְלֹא ִטֹּר אֶת בְּנֵי עַמֶּךָ וְאָהַבְתָּ לְרֵעֲךָ כָּמוֹךָ אֲנִי יְקֹוָק: (יט) אֶת חֻקֹּתַי תִּשְׁמֹרוּ בְּהֶמְתְּךָ לֹא תַרְבִּיעַ כִּלְאַיִם שָׂדְךָ לֹא תִזְרַע כִּלְאָיִם וּבֶגֶד כִּלְאַיִם שַׁעַטְנֵז לֹא יַעֲלֶה עָלֶיךָ:

מסכתות קטנות מסכת אבות דרבי נתן נוסחא א פרק טז

ושנאת הבריות כיצד מלמד שלא יכוין אדם לומר אהוב את החכמים ושנא את התלמידים. אהוב את התלמידים ושנא את עמי הארץ. אלא אהוב את כולם ושנא את המינין ואת המשומדים ואת המסורות וכן דוד אמר משנאיך האשנא ובמתקוממך אתקוטט תכלית שנאה שנאתים לאויבים היו לי (תהלים קלט כא כב). הלא הוא אומר ואהבת לרעך כמוך אני ה‘ (ויקרא יט יח) [מה טעם כי אני] בראתיו ואם עושה מעשה עמך אתה אוהבו ואם לאו אי אתה אוהבו. רבי שמעון בן אלעזר אומר בשבועה גדולה נאמר דבר זה ואהבת לרעך כמוך. אני הבראתיו אם אתה אוהבו אני נאמן לשלם לך שכר טוב ואם לאו אני דיין לפרוע:

מדרש תנאים לדברים פרק א

דא אל כל ישראל מלמד שהיו בעלי תוכחות ויכולין לקבל תוכחות:

תלמוד בבלי מסכת בבא מציעא דף לא עמוד א

אמר ליה ההוא מדרבנן לרבא: ואימא הוכח חדא זימנא, תוכיח תרי זמני? – אמר ליה: הוכח אפילו מאה פעמים משמע, תוכיח אין לי אלא הרב לתלמיד, תלמיד לרב מנין תלמוד לומר הוכח תוכיח, מכל מקום.

תלמוד בבלי מסכת שבת דף קיט עמוד ב

אמר רב עמרם בריה דרבי שמעון בר אבא אמר רבי שמעון בר אבא אמר רבי חנינא: לא חרבה ירושלים אלא בשביל שלא הוכיחו זה את זה, שנאמר היו שריה כאילים לא מצאו מרעה. מה איל זה ראשו של זה בצד זנבו של זה אף ישראל שבאותו הדור, כבשו פניהם בקרקע ולא הוכיחו זה את זה.

רמבם הלכות דעות פרק ו הלכה ז

הרואה חבירו שחטא או שהלך בדרך לא טובה * מצוה להחזירו למוטב ג ולהודיעו שהוא חוטא על עצמו במעשיו הרעים שנאמר הוכח תוכיח את עמיתך, המוכיח את חבירו בין בדברים שבינו לבינו, בין בדברים שבינו לבין המקום, צריך להוכיחו בינו לבין עצמו, וידבר לו בנחת ובלשון רכה ויודיעו שאינו אומר לו אלא לטובתו להביאו לחיי העולם הבא, אם קיבל ממנו מוטב ואם לאו יוכיחנו פעם שניה ד ושלישית, וכן תמיד חייב אדם להוכיחו עד שיכהו ה החוטא ויאמר לו איני שומע, וכל שאפשר בידו למחות ואינו מוחה הוא נתפש בעון אלו כיון שאפשר לו למחות בהם.

Obama’s Gorgeous Goodbye

Frank Bruni MAY 11, 2016

In this twilight of his presidency, Barack Obama is unlikely to deliver much in the way of meaningful legislation.

But he’s giving us a pointed, powerful civics lesson.

Consider his speech to new graduates of Howard University last weekend. While it brimmed with the usual kudos for hard work, it also bristled with caveats about the mistakes that he sees some young people making.

He chided them for demonizing enemies and silencing opponents. He cautioned them against a sense of grievance too exaggerated and an outrage bereft of perspective. “If you had to choose a time to be, in the words of Lorraine Hansberry, ‘young, gifted and black’ in America, you would choose right now,” he said. “To deny how far we’ve come would do a disservice to the cause of justice.”

He was by no means telling them to be satisfied, and he wasn’t talking only or even chiefly to them. He was talking to all of us — to America — and saying: enough. Enough with a kind of identity politics that can shove aside common purpose. Enough with a partisanship so caustic that it bleeds into hatred.

Enough with such deafening sound and blinding fury in our public debate. They make for entertainment, not enlightenment, and stand in the way of progress.

His remarks at Howard were an extension of those in his final State of the Union address in January and of those to the Illinois General Assembly in February, nine years to the day after he announced his history-making bid for the presidency. The Illinois speech, wise and gorgeous, received less attention than it deserved.

“We’ve got to build a better politics — one that’s less of a spectacle and more of a battle of ideas,” he said then. Otherwise, he warned, “Extreme voices fill the void.” This current presidential campaign has borne him out.

Obama detractors and skeptics probably hear in all of this a professorial haughtiness that has plagued him and alienated them before. And there’s legitimate disagreement about the degree to which he has been an agent as well as a casualty of the poisoned environment he rues. His administration’s actions haven’t always been as high-minded as his words.


But we should all listen to him nonetheless, for several reasons.

One is that he’s not just taking jabs at opponents. He’s issuing challenges to groups — African-Americans, college students — from whom he has drawn strong support and with whom he has real credibility.

“We must expand our moral imaginations,” he told black students at Howard, imploring them to recognize “the middle-aged white guy who you may think has all the advantages, but over the last several decades has seen his world upended by economic and cultural and technological change, and feels powerless to stop it. You got to get in his head, too.”

Just two weeks earlier, at a town-hall-style meeting in London, hevolunteered a critique of the Black Lives Matter movement, saying that once “elected officials or people who are in a position to start bringing about change are ready to sit down with you, then you can’t just keep on yelling at them.”

Another reason to listen to Obama is the accuracy and eloquence with which he’s diagnosing current ills. In Illinois he noted that while ugly partisanship has always existed, it’s fed in our digital era by voters’ ability to curate information from only those news sources and social-media feeds that echo and amplify their prejudices.

“We can choose our own facts,” he lamented. “We don’t have a common basis for what’s true and what’s not.” Advocacy groups often make matters worse, he added, by “keeping their members agitated as much as possible, assured of the righteousness of their cause.”

At Howard, Obama insisted that change “requires listening to those with whom you disagree, and being prepared to compromise.”

“If you think that the only way forward is to be as uncompromising as possible, you will feel good about yourself, you will enjoy a certain moral purity, but you’re not going to get what you want,” he continued. “So don’t try to shut folks out. Don’t try to shut them down, no matter how much you might disagree with them.”

At this late point, his message isn’t a self-serving one about the political climate that he personally wants to operate in and benefit from. It’s about the climate that would serve everyone best. If it draws attention to the improvements that he pledged but couldn’t accomplish, he’s O.K. with that. It still needs saying.

And so he’s fashioning this blunt, soulful goodbye, a reflection on our troubled democracy that, I fear, will be lost in the din of the Trump-Clinton death match. It brings him full circle, from the audacity to the tenacity of hope.