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Are We Allowed to Rebuke Any Jew We Meet?

Are We Allowed to Rebuke Any Jew We Meet?


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Dear Jew in the City-

I know a woman who believes because of kol Yisrael arevim zeh l’zeh (all Jews are responsible for one another) she should approach any Jewish person – a stranger even – and tell them what they’re doing wrong. This seems so outrageous to me and against Judaism but I’m curious, what do the sources say?

Sincerely,
Talia

Dear Talia-

Thanks for your question. I’d say that you’re half-right. I’ll explain.

The source to rebuke others is Leviticus 19:17. This verse says, “Do not hate your brother in your heart. You shall surely rebuke your neighbor and not bear a sin because of him.” Let’s break that down.

Why would we hate someone in our hearts? Because of resentment against them for the misdeeds that they perform. So what’s the solution? To tell them what they’re doing wrong so that they can clean up their acts. This we are instructed to do even repeatedly, as the Torah’s words “hochei’ach tochiach” – often translated as “you shall surely rebuke,” as we have done here – can also be understood as “you shall repeatedly rebuke” (Baba Metzia 31a).

The verse continues that we should “not bear a sin because of him.” How would we bear a sin? There are several ways:

(1) First of all, there’s the prohibition against hating others in our hearts, which the mitzvah to rebuke is meant to avoid;

(2) If one has the ability to correct another’s behavior and fails to do so, he bears partial responsibility for any misdeeds he could have prevented. We see this from the story of the “cow of Rabbi Elazar ben Azariah.” The Talmud in Shabbos (54b) discusses how the cow belonging to Rabbi Elazar’s neighbor used to go out on Shabbos wearing a forbidden type of strap. The cow was called by Rabbi Elazar’s name because he never tried to correct his neighbor’s behavior;

(3) Perhaps most important for our purposes, one would bear a sin by rebuking others improperly. While it is a mitzvah to properly help others to improve, it is a sin to needlessly embarrass someone. So, right off the bat, publicly rebuking someone is not permitted. Similarly, while it is a mitzvah to correct someone’s behavior even repeatedly, it is a sin if doing so causes the other person’s face to change color from shame (Sifra).

In Genesis chapter 38, Tamar was willing to be burned rather than to shame Yehuda. The Talmud (Baba Metzia 59a) derives from this that it would be better for a one to allow himself to be tossed into a furnace than to willingly embarrass another person. On the previous page (58b), the Talmud says that one who shames another in public, causing the blood to drain from his face, is comparable to a murderer. So this is something we really want to avoid.

Obviously, no one likes to be embarrassed but there’s more to it than that. In the context of rebuke, embarrassing someone can also make a huge difference on the outcome. If a person is properly corrected, he might change his ways. This is good for the person and it’s good for society. But if someone is called out in public, he’ll be embarrassed, angry, and resentful. He’ll hate the one who rebuked him and probably become more stubborn in his ways out of spite. It’s counterproductive. In fact, if one suspects that another person will be unreceptive to correction, it may be advisable not to inform them that their behavior is wrong. In this way, they will remain unwitting violators rather than becoming intentional sinners, which would be worse (Orach Chaim 608:2 and Rema there).

Don’t underestimate the value of rebuke! We talk about sinas chinam (baseless hatred) as the reason the second Temple was destroyed but there are other opinions. One of these is that the people failed to correct one another for their bad behavior, preferring to metaphorically bury their heads in the sand and pretend they didn’t see anything wrong (Shabbos 119b). The Rambam codifies an obligation for every community to appoint a wise, pious and well-loved individual for the purpose of chastising the people and encouraging correction (Hilchos Teshuvah 4:2). (Of course, such a person is more likely to be heeded than a random busybody.)

Bottom line, it is a mitzvah to correct others when we think the other person might listen but if we know that the rebuke will be ignored, one should keep it to himself. Proverbs 9:8 tells us, “Don’t rebuke a scoffer; he’ll only hate you for it. But if you rebuke a wise person, he’ll love you for it.” (See Talmud Yevamos 65b.) Of course, when our own behavior is corrected, we should strive to act like wise people and appreciate the intervention. The Talmud in Tamid (28a) tells us that we should love rebuke because – when done properly – it causes goodness and blessing to come into the world. So while your friend probably does overstep quite a bit, don’t sell rebuke short. It has its place. We should just be careful with how and when we distribute it (since, when done improperly, it can do more harm than good), and we should strive to embrace it when it’s directed at us.

Sincerely,
Rabbi Jack Abramowitz
JITC Educational Correspondent

Addendum:

Q. Thanks for your thoughtful response. I don’t think I crystallized what was wrong: this woman doesn’t just give rebuke for basic laws – she rebukes people for not following stringencies and even community norms that aren’t based in sources (that she follows). Worse, she does this indiscriminately, including to people who grew up with a bad taste in their mouth when it comes to observance. They’re not bad people or bad Jews, just people who were never given a positive exposure to Torah and mitzvos. And what about what Rav Yisrael Salanter said “my spirituality is my neighbor’s physical needs.” Like, I get when we know that a friend wants to do the right thing and makes a mistake and appreciates having a halacha clarified. But when someone is walking around holier than thou, it seems like such a turn-off.

A. Okay, so that there does seem excessive. You cite a famous dictum attributed to Rabbi Yisroel Salanter; I once heard a similar thing. (I don’t know the source for this. Perhaps the person was freely adapting Rav Salanter. If a reader know another source, please let me know.) I heard, “Everyone worries about what’s in their own pocket and the other guy’s soul. They should be worried about what’s in the other guy’s pocket and their own souls.” In other words, we should make sure one another’s physical needs are met are not be so concerned with others’ spiritual issues, which are between them and God. (This doesn’t mean that Jewish schools shouldn’t have rules and standards or that outreach organizations shouldn’t exist, just that well-meaning busybodies shouldn’t meddle uninvited in others’ affairs.)

Rabbeinu Avraham ben HaRambam authored a work entitled HaMaspik l’Ovdei Hashem, in which he discusses the “path of Torah.” This path is made up of two smaller paths: that of the nation and that of the individual. If one keeps the mitzvos, he is adhering to path of the nation; this is sufficient for him to be considered an upstanding member of the community. The path of the individual focuses on internalizing the spirit of the law beyond the letter of the law. The individual path is optional. Keeping kosher is an example of “path of the nation.” Reducing one’s intake of kosher food to only what is necessary is “path of the individual.” “Path of the nation” is black-and-white – one either keeps a mitzvah or he doesn’t. “Path of the individual” has many shades of gray, as each individual forges his own unique way.

You probably see where this is going. The obligation to rebuke only applies to the “path of the nation” standard. The “path of the individual” is by definition up to the individual. It is inappropriate to try to coerce someone into adhering to “individual” behaviors because, simply put, that person may not be in that place, spiritually-speaking.

So, yes, if this woman is in fact acting as you describe, then she is wrong. It would be great if someone (probably not you) could inform her of this but, again, using the guidelines for appropriate correction that we discuss above.

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Rabbi Jack Abramowitz

Rabbi Jack Abramowitz, Jew in the City's Educational Correspondent, is the editor of OU Torah (www.ou.org/torah) . He is the author of six books including The Taryag Companion and The God Book.