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Dear JVP,

For the last several weeks, I have been pondering what to write next.  Then I noticed an article by Prof. David Biale in the JWeekly of Northern California criticizing the denial of membership by the Jewish Student Union of the UC Berkeley chapter of JStreet U.  (For an opposing view see here.)  My focus is not on that issue, but rather on how this subject was discussed in the talk-back section at the bottom of Biale’s article.  There people on opposing sides became hateful in their mutual ad hominem rebukes.

So, for this post I decided to leave behind the polemics and arguments.  I believe it would be useful to return to our public discussion of the Israeli–Palestinian-Arab conflict, but for now, I would like to explore what our tradition says about Jews rebuking other Jews.

As a reminder, in my original posting, “Open questions to Jewish Voice for Peace”, I wrote:

“I do not question your right, moral or civil, as a diaspora Jewish organization to criticize — even harshly — the policies of Israel’s government.  No government is above criticism, no politician is above the law.  The issue of how to criticize, however, is a legitimate one for honest debate.”

Further, I wish to add that JVP’s pursuit and demand for justice is admirable and, by the way, very Jewish.  Demanding justice requires criticism and rebuke, something our very argumentative tradition calls upon us to do.  At the same time, however, our tradition also has much to say about how Jews should rebuke other Jews.  I emphasize our tradition because I am speaking to you, Jews who formed a specifically Jewish organization whose literature often appeals to Jewish sources for inspiration and ethical guidance.

The fact is rebuke is a mitzvah, an ethical commandment.  It is called tokhachah (תוכחה) and comes from the Torah in Vayikra (Leviticus) 19:17 as both an expression of mutual concern and responsibility.  The mitzvah calls upon every Jew to assist one another with constructive criticism based on love.  Specifically, it states:

לא-תִשְׂנָא אֶת-אָחִיךָ, בִּלְבָבֶךָ; הוֹכֵחַ תּוֹכִיחַ אֶת-עֲמִיתֶךָ, וְלא-תִשָּׂא עָלָיו חֵטְא

Hate not your brother (sister) in your heart; you shall surely rebuke your neighbor and not bear sin (because of him/her).

Delving further into our tradition, Sifra Kedoshim (II 4:8) explores the text thus:

“Perhaps the verse ‘Do not hate your brother’ means not to strike him, not to slap him, or not to curse him?  (Further) the verse says, ‘in your heart’ (meaning) it refers to hatred in the heart.”

This verse deals with our attitude toward those we believe have behaved wrongly as much as with the act of the “sinner.”  Yes, rebuke them, but be sure our actions are not motivated by hatred.

The mitzvah could easily have started with, “You shall surely rebuke your neighbor.”  However, it starts with, “Hate not your brother in your heart.”  Why? To remind us first to check ourselves for hatred in our hearts, and to remove it if it is there.  This is a demanding requirement calling for both intellectual and emotional honesty, something that does not come easily to most humans.  So, before issuing a rebuke the mitzvah requires that hate not be the motivation.  Why?  First, hate creates communal strife and disintegration.  When we look at each other with hatred, we are polarized and divided.  In a worst-case scenario, this may also lead to violence.  Secondly, if our rebuke is perceived by the “rebukee” as being hateful, what is heard is hate and anger while the message gets lost.  To prevent that, the mitzvah calls upon us to be compassionate when we turn to our fellow Jews with a criticism of their behavior.

This goes in every direction, of course.  My criticisms of JVP are rebukes, and JVP’s criticisms of Israel, and the organized Jewish community, are rebukes.  There’s a whole lot of rebukin’ going on ‘round here!  Not surprising as we have always been an argumentative people.  Perhaps that is why our tradition teaches us how to admonish ethically.

Allow me to play the role of messenger by conveying my own personal experience of how your rebukes are perceived as coming from a place of hate.  This may not be true, and I am positive you would dispute this.  For years, however, that is how I perceived your sharp and angry critiques of Israel.  I personally experienced JVPers’ rebukes of Israel and the organized Jewish community as coming from a place of rage, and interpreted that as hate.   But, I now wonder, does this anger in fact come from a hatred in your hearts?  I do not know.  That is something only you can answer.

Is your anger the expression of Jews who at some point in their lives have come to feel betrayed, let down, frustrated, or disappointed by Israel, Judaism and/or Jewish communal leaders?  Does that question in any way speak to you?  Am I close?  If so, such emotions may ultimately be expressed as resentment, which is then perceived as hateful to those on the receiving end.  Moreover, I have no doubt that when you hear criticisms of your positions and activities you experience that as coming from hatred, too.  This is the problem we are having as a community.

Lest we think this is a new issue among Jews, let’s look at a Talmudic “conversation” recorded some nineteen centuries ago here in Israel:

Rabbi Tarfon said, “I doubt if there is anyone in this generation who is fit to rebuke others.”

Rabbi Eleazar ben Azariah said, “I doubt if there is anyone in this generation who is able to receive rebuke.”

Rabbi Akiva said. “I doubt if there is anyone in this generation who knows how to rebuke.”

My interpretation:

Fit to rebuke is someone who does so with humility and without hate.

Able to receive rebuke is someone who can do so with equanimity.

How to rebuke is someone who can do so from a place of love and compassion.

From this point forward may I invite our conversation to be guided by another mitzvah central to Jewish thinking on how to build and maintain community: ahavat yisrael אהבת ישראל.  This is a positive commandment calling for Jews to love other Jews despite our often-sharp differences.  I love the explanation given at the website Ask Moses:

“It’s easy to show love to someone you love—Mom, Dad, spouse, sibling. Now take that love, and apply it to a fellow Jew you disagree with, or really can’t stand. Or worse.”

So, here is our mutual challenge:  May I open my heart to hear your rebukes?  In turn, may you open your hearts to hear my rebukes?  May we mutually receive each other’s rebukes with equanimity? May we at least try?

And, hearkening back to the complaints of Rabbis Tarfon, ben Azaria and Akiva, here is my prayer:  May we be the generation that learns how to rebuke, to receive rebuke, and be fit to rebuke.

Shabbat shalom. .שבת שלום