Friday, April 25, 2014

Criticize Me! Creating a Healthy Culture of Rebuke

"If you treat a man as he ought to be and could be,
he will become what he ought to be and could be"
A parlor game for the Biblically inclined: Of all the verses in the Torah, which is the commandment people fulfill most often? I’d put my money on this one:
הוֹכֵחַ תּוֹכִיחַ אֶת עֲמִיתֶךָ,
וְלֹא תִשָּׂא עָלָיו חֵטְא
Criticize, yes, criticize your fellow,
And you shall not bear sin because of him!
(Leviticus 19)

The action has many names: admonishment or feedback, advice or chastisement. Each verb reflects a different style and approach in the conveying of the same basic information (“you did X and that was a mistake”). What word would you use to describe the last time you criticized someone? Rebuke seems to be a favorite of Bible translators, although the more neutral “reproof” comes the closest to the Hebrew original – tochecha תוכחה, from the Hebrew word להוכיחto prove; to make manifest.
What is clearly manifest is that criticism is too often a self-detonating mechanism. It is experienced as an attack – thus inviting a defensive response, or a counter attack… There is no speech act more quotidian and yet more treacherous then the conveying of criticism.
And yet there is nothing more crucial to a healthy society - or relationship - then a healthy culture of criticism. Getting this commandment right is crucial at home as in the workplace, in the trenches of social action as between friends. To use the language of our weekly portion, Kedoshim - which begins with the call to “Be Holy!” and continues to command us to “Rebuke, yes Rebuke!” – the path to a Holy Society passes through the Temple of Rebuke. But our text seeks to create a society which aspires not only to Holiness but also to Love. Our chapter, Leviticus 19, includes not only “Be Holy” but also “Love your Neighbor as yourself” among its top-ten. Indeed, for the Rabbis, rebuke is the very cornerstone of a loving relationship:

אמר ר' יוסי בר' חנינה: התוכחת מביאה לידי אהבה, "הוכח לחכם ויאהבך" (משלי ט ח), היא דעתיה דר' יוסי בר' חנינה דאמר: כל אהבה שאין עמה תוכחת אינה אהבה.
Rabbi Yose son of Rabbi Hanina said: Rebuke leads to love, as it says, “Rebuke a wise man, and he will love thee” (Proverbs 9:8). In addition he said: Love unaccompanied by rebuke is not love. (Beresihit Rabbah 54; 21:25)

So how is criticism done right? I’m still working on that one. In the meantime, I’ve found some good practical advice in the following sources:

Speak Sheep to Power
Nathan is faced with the challenge of a lifetime when he is commanded to make manifest to his King that he is not only an adulterer, but a murderer to boot. Facing King David, Nathan’s dilemma captures how painful the process of rebuke is. For at its core, rebuke is the tearing off of a mask of lies and deception which a person has told not only others, but himself.
Nathan’s solution is brilliant: I can’t rip this mask off his face, but he can…

1The Lord was displeased with what David had done, and the Lord sent Nathan to David. Nathan came to David and said, “There were two men in the same city, one rich and one poor. 2The rich man had very large flocks and herds, 3but the poor man had only one little ewe lamb that he had bought. He tended it and it grew up together with him and his children: it used to share his morsel of bread, drink from his cup, and nestle in his bosom; it was like a daughter to him. 4One day, a traveler came to the rich man, but he was loath to take anything from his own flocks or herds to prepare a meal for the guest who had come to him; so he took the poor man’s lamb and prepared it for the man who had come to him.”
5David flew into a rage against the man, and said to Nathan, “As the Lord lives, the man who did this deserves to die! 6He shall pay for the lamb four times over, because he did such a thing and showed no pity.” 7And Nathan said to David, “That man is you! […] 13David said to Nathan, “I stand guilty before God!” (Samuel II 12)
Nathan does not rebuke David, he sets up the situation so that David rebukes himself. He invites David to view himself from an external viewpoint, allowing him to recognize and admit his own guilt. Successful rebuke is the act of causing self-incrimination.

Speak of the Future, not the Past
Maimonides in his Code gives some practical advice on the setting in which successful criticism can be given:
He who rebukes another, whether for offenses against the rebuker himself or for sins against God, should administer the rebuke –
in private;
speak to the offender gently and tenderly;
and point out that he is only speaking for the wrongdoer's own good, to secure for him life in the world to come. (Maimonides’ Code, LAWS OF CHARACTER TRAITS 6:7)

Maimonides points out a few concerns: social setting (privacy, intimacy – avoiding public shaming); tone and timing (not to criticize as an immediate response or an emotional outburst, but in a methodical and opportune moment); and finally –creating an atmosphere of trust and genuine investment in the other’s wellbeing. Rebuke cannot be experienced as a gratuitous revisiting of yesterday’s actions (or the making of a theological stance about the afterlife). The motivation for criticism must be the desire to see the best possible future for the other.

Don’t Speak
There is a commandment to rebuke, but sometimes – if there is cause to believe that the rebuke will not achieve the desired effect – the correct fulfilling of the mitzvah of rebuke is to be silent.

אמר רבי אילעא משום ר' אלעזר בר' שמעון: כשם שמצוה על אדם לומר דבר הנשמע, כך מצוה על אדם שלא לומר דבר שאינו נשמע. רבי אבא אומר: חובה, שנאמר: "אל תוכח לץ פן ישנאך הוכח לחכם ויאהבך" (משלי ט:ח).
R. Ela’a in the name of R. Elazar son of R. Simeon said:  Just as one is commanded to say that which will be heard, so is one commanded not to say that which will not be heard.
R. Abba stated: It is a duty, for it is said in Scripture: "Rebuke not a scorner, lest he hate thee; Rebuke a wise man, and he will love you" (Proverbs 9:8). Talmud Bavli  Yevamot 65b
Figuring out when to rebuke and when to stay silent is perhaps the most challenging of all. For me this week’s portion invites a moment of introspection: those times in which it would be wise to be more sparing in fulfilling this commandment, and the time when my opting for peace and passivity turned into passive aggressiveness…  But perhaps the biggest piece of advice is not about giving rebuke, but about being a person who willingly accepts, even seeks, advice. As Sefer Haredim, a 16th century self-help guide for “Holier living” puts it:
"Remove the barriers from your heart" (Deut. 10:16) A person's heart must be soft and receptive, receiving the words of a reprover and not hating him, rather loving him more,  as the verse says: “Rebuke the wise one and he will love you(Proverbs 9:8).

Finally, after teaching about rebuke a few years ago, someone gave me a wonderful gift. This poem by William Blake:

A Poison Tree

I was angry with my friend; 
I told my wrath, my wrath did end.
I was angry with my foe: 
I told it not, my wrath did grow. 

And I waterd it in fears,
Night & morning with my tears: 
And I sunned it with smiles,
And with soft deceitful wiles. 

And it grew both day and night. 
Till it bore an apple bright. 
And my foe beheld it shine,
And he knew that it was mine. 

And into my garden stole, 
When the night had veild the pole; 
In the morning glad I see; 
My foe outstretched beneath the tree.

Shabbat Shalom,