Criticize with Kindness
“There’s always a nice and decent way to say something.” This is a lesson we repeated to our girls, whenever they would say something a bit edgy to each other or to me or my wife.
The idea is, even if you feel very strongly about something, and inside you’ve made up your mind to blast the person because you’re angry, hurt, disappointed, or the like, there’s always a nice and decent way to say something. You can get your point across just as effectively, perhaps more effectively, in a way that doesn’t tear the person down or insult or degrade.
Even while in our Mount Vesuvius mode, ready to let ‘em have it, we cannot forget there is a human being created in the image of God at the other end. Neither can we disregard that we, the critics, are also created in the same image.
How do I know that this is a highly regarded and time-honored Jewish value? From where do we draw the imperative to deal with kindness and sensitivity, even when we seek to criticize and condemn?
In synagogues on Shabbat morning, when the Torah scroll has been paraded through the seats and is brought to its resting place in the Holy Ark, someone makes sure the Torah is secure in its spot and the silver accoutrements are straight, as befits the dignity of this scroll. Before the ark is closed, the congregation sings the following, with the cue being the Hebrew words Eitz Chaim Hee.
“It is a Tree of Life to those who grasp it, and those who support it are happy. Its ways are ways of pleasantness, and all its paths are peace.”
These are just a few words from the third chapter of the Biblical book of Proverbs. But they could easily form a book on their own.
The Jewish way, the way taught by the Torah, is pleasantness, and ALL its paths are peace. Not just when it’s easy and everyone is harmonious and on the same page; even more so when an issue has divided people, and each side is ready to tear into the other.
Let me share a few examples of the need to remember and engrave this teaching on our hearts and in our daily behaviors.
In the State of Israel currently, there is discussion related to matter of praying at the Kotel, the Western Wall, and the question of who has ultimate authority over valid conversions to Judaism. The dialogue has become debate and moved into shouting matches and raucous insults that should have no place in Jewish circles.
Without expressing my own personal views on issues related to spiritual life in the Holy Land, where I live, I can say this with absolute confidence: if you insist on being nasty, crude, malicious and denigrating when speaking of the other side, you are NOT grasping the Torah. In fact, you have let it go, and in doing so, have relinquished any assertion that you represent it. Why? Because its ways are ways of pleasantness and ALL its paths are peace. Even when you disagree, you have to be a mench.
When God imbued every being with His image, we have no right to ignore it and delete it. This is not the Torah way. It’s also not the way of Aaron, brother of Moses and High Priest of the Sanctuary in the desert, who is described in the Ethics of the Fathers as “a lover of peace and a pursuer of peace, who loved humanity and attracted them to the Torah.”
Anything Jewish must begin with sensitivity and humanity.
Many years ago, the revered and venerated Orthodox Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik, who taught at Yeshiva University for 40 years and who died on Passover of 1993, was asked a question, the answer to which is a perfect ending to this commentary.
Often, those reading the Torah in their Bar/Bat Mitzvah get nervous reading before their family, friends and an entire congregation. What they knew and prepared so perfectly can slowly unravel when there is intense anxiety. Words and tunes are forgotten, sometimes tears ensue, furthering a spiral of mistakes. Usually, the trustees of the Torah standing on either side of the Torah will correct mistakes, so the Torah may be read as perfectly as possible. But, on a Bar/Bat Mitzvah, correcting every mistake can devastate the celebrant. What should be done?
Rabbi Soloveitchik gave his response, which should be taught in every school and synagogue. He said you should try correcting once or twice, as the young person may wish to be credited in the end with a perfect reading. However, if the trustees see their corrections are taking a toll, they should stop, and even if the Bar/Bat Mitzvah is making many mistakes, we allow them to continue until the end.
Rabbi Soloveitchik’s ruling was met with surprise. “But isn’t the Torah supposed to be read without mistakes? Isn’t there a concept of Kavod HaTorah, honor due to the Torah?”
“Yes, absolutely,” he replied, “but there is a concept even higher than that, and it is called Kavod HaBriyot, honor due to the God-imaged human being. You can’t assert one at the expense of the other.”
If one grasps the Torah, and claims to be defending its honor, it must be done in ways of pleasantness and peace.
There’s ALWAYS a nice and decent way to say something.
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