On the roof of the Aish center looking down at the Western Wall with Chevra & Davai in 2011

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Sunday, December 4, 2011

Jewish Law Question: When is it OK to rebuke someone?

When I met my wife, I had been learning for about a year or two and had just started keeping the Shabbas.  I was about 29 at the time.  She was 24 at the time and just got back from a year of learning in Israel.  Unlike me, she was raised in an orthodox synagogue and with the exception of some of her teenage years after he parents divorce, she was a Shomer Shabbas her whole life.  Our perspectives were very different.  Given the synagogue she grew up in and her year if learning in seminary, her level of knowledge about Judaism was leaps and bounds ahead of me.

There was another difference in our approach to Judaism, which was even more striking.  Her feelings towards Judaism and observance were very grounded.  While she was always open to learning more and taking on more mitzvahs, as she grew, it was very methodical growth.  I, on the other hand, was like a young adult on his 21st birthday who finally can get into a bar for the first time.  I had uncontrollable enthusiasm, an unquenchable thirst and an unstoppable desire to share my new found knowledge with anyone who I encountered.  And if they didn’t share my enthusiasm… I was beside myself.  I felt like I had just discovered the secrets of the world and insisted on sharing them with those close to me.  I was suffering from something that I later found out was called “The Baal Teshuva High.”  It’s a miracle she stayed with me.

The Baal Teshuva High is a combination of the following:
  1. Enthusiasm about ones learning.
  2. Desire to share that learning with others whether they wish to hear it or not.
  3. Belief that ones knowledge as far greater that it actually is.

This combination, while beautiful and inspiring, can be annoying and a turn off to those around us.  Since my initial learning was partially inspired by Chassidic Rabbis, I was full of Chassidic stories.  I distinctly remember my wife (then girlfriend) telling me to please limit myself to only one Chassidic story per date.  When I look back, I have no idea what I was talking about.  I don’t even know that many Chassidic stories to be able to tell more than one in a sitting, but apparently I did then, or at least thought that I did.

I also remember being at Shabbaton.  It was late Friday night and I had participated in the custom of making L’Chaim and I remember lecturing a Rabbi on why I was on a higher level then he was because I had learned the verse “Baal Teshuvas stand in a place that even the righteous can not stand.”   Here I am.  I barely know anything and I’m telling a guy that’s spent his whole life learning that I’m on a higher level than he was.  It’s a wonder that he didn’t smack me.

I also remember trying to share this new found knowledge with my family.  Since I grew up eating bacon on Yom Kippur without even realizing what day it was, this didn’t go over so well.  I was acting with the honest assumption that if I just phrased what I had to say properly, my family would throw out all of their shrimp, and start observing a kosher life style.  In reality, I was probably condescending and self righteous and probably ended up doing more harm then good.

This brings me to the topic at hand… Rebuke.

When and how can it be done?

This is a very slippery slope.  The Talmud tells us that we are required to rebuke someone when they’re doing something against Jewish law if we believe that they will listen to us and change their actions.  However… and this is just as important… it also tells us that it is as equally important to NOT rebuke someone if we don’t believe that they will listen to us and change their actions.

If you meet up with your friend in the park for lunch and he whips out a ham & cheese sandwich, you need to ask yourself several questions before you say something…
  1. Will he listen to what I’m saying and immediately stop eating it?
  2. Will he listen to what I’m saying, continue to eat, but maybe later change his ways?
  3. Will he think I’m a condescending jerk and stop meeting up with me for lunch?

If you get yes’s to 1 & 2, you should gently point out to him that there is a kosher food at a near by store and you’ll gladly treat him to lunch if he wants to feed his current sandwich to the birds…. Or something like that.  If you only get a yes to question 3, keep your mouth shut.

What can you do then? 

You can still do several things.  You can ask him to go to a class with you.  You can invite him over or to go somewhere for Shabbas.  You can pray that G-d brings him clarity.  You can also pray that G-d gives you the wisdom to know what to do in these situations.

My main point is, if the person is not at a point in their life to hear what you have to say, then maybe they will be in the future.  If you rebuke them and turn them off, they may cut you out of their lives and then even if they ever reach a point where they’d be open to learning, you won’t be there to help them.

Choose your words carefully and remember that the best way to inspire someone isn’t with words… it’s to become an inspiration.

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