You shall not hate your kinsfolk in your heart. You shall surely rebuke your kinsman…(Lev. 19:17)
In the heart of Parashat K’doshim, we find a recipe for holiness written into behavior. Love your neighbor as yourself, leave gleanings for the poor, care for the stranger, protect the disabled. Many of these ethical epithets form the backbone of moral society, and resonate across religious and national lines. But the above verse feels oddly off: I pause seeing a positive command to rebuke as somehow linked to an absence of heartfelt hate. Surely rebuke forms a steep road toward enmity, not away from it! As Dr. John Gottman tells us, criticism and rebuke is the first step toward the decline of a relationship (see Why Marriages Succeed or Fail (London: Bloomsbury, 2007), p. 166).
A number of our early Sages sought clarity in the command to criticize. From our verse above they expound on the infinitive absolute, “You shall surely rebuke” (hochei-acḥ tochi-acḥ), as illuminating qualities of constructive feedback:
One of the Rabbis said to Rava: Say that from hochei-acḥ one derives the obligation to rebuke another once, and from tochi-ach one derives the obligation to rebuke another twice, and beyond that there is no obligation. Rava said to him: Hochei-acḥ indicates that one must rebuke another even one hundred times. Tochi-acḥ teaches another matter: I have derived only the obligation of a teacher to rebuke a student. With regard to the obligation for a student to rebuke a teacher, from where is it derived? The verse states: “hochei-acḥ tochi-acḥ” to teach that one is obligated to rebuke another in any case that warrants rebuke. (Babylonian Talmud, Bava Metzia 31a)
In the Talmud, teachers are obligated to rebuke students: students, in turn, are required to rebuke their teachers, without limit! In the dynamics of learning, such critical feedback was seen as the necessary path not only to truth, but also to love.
Elsewhere, we also read of Rabbinic discourse on the rarity of true rebuke:
Rabbi Tarfon said: I wonder if there is anyone in this generation who accepts rebuke, for if one says to him [Tarfon] Remove the mote from between your eyes, he would answer: Remove the beam from between your eyes!
Rabbi Elazar ben Azariah said: I wonder if there is one in this generation who knows how to reprove! Rabbi Yochanan said, I call heaven and earth as my witness that because of me Akiva was punished, because I used to complain about him before Rabban Gamliel, and all the more so Akiva showered me with love. This proves true the quote (Proverbs 9:8): “Do not criticize a scorner, lest he hate you. Criticize a wise man, and he will love you.” (Babylonian Talmud, Arachin 16b)
The wise are seekers of criticism, and rebuke is an expression of love. However, we also see an awareness of the natural human tendency upon receiving critical feedback — rarely will we accept it, and more likely will we express the defensiveness noted by Rabbi Tarfon. We will find cause to either undermine the validity of the criticism or of the person delivering the criticism.
Douglas Stone and Sheila Heen spent years exploring both the psychological research behind criticism as well as the myriad examples of it in personal and professional settings. We swim in an ocean of feedback, from standardized testing to failed entrepreneurship, from marriages to mergers, from divorces to divestments. Across the globe nearly one billion work-hours are spent annually on employee evaluations. We all have ample access to feedback every day. Stone and Heen found that rarely did such evaluation actually motivate growth and change:
It doesn’t matter how much authority or power a feedback giver has; the receivers are in control of what they do and don’t let in, how they make sense of what they’re hearing, and whether they choose to change. Pushing harder rarely opens the door to genuine learning. The focus should not be on teaching feedback givers to give. The focus — at work and at home — should be on feedback receivers, helping us all to become more skillful learners. The real leverage is creating pull. Creating pull is about mastering the skills required to drive our own learning; it’s about how to recognize and manage our resistance, how to engage in feedback conversations with confidence and curiosity, and even when the feedback seems wrong, how to find insight that might help us grow. It’s also about how to stand up for who we are and how we see the world, and ask for what we need. It’s about how to learn from feedback — yes, even when it is off base, unfair, poorly delivered, and frankly, you’re not in the mood. (Thanks for the Feedback [NY: Penguin Books, 2014] pp. 5-6)
In an ideal world, every person would be well-schooled in the art of constructive feedback. Each person’s totality of being, experiences, pain points, and insecurities would be carefully weighed, and a strategy for criticism deployed to maximize motivation. In reality, we often receive feedback at times and in ways that seem immediately unhelpful, and may even feel destructive and malicious. As a result, many of us are inclined to dismiss such rebuke for one reason or another.
Drawing upon biblical and Rabbinic wisdom and borrowing the more modern language of Stone and Heen, all feedback may be seen as an act of love when we choose to use it for growth. For those of us who have experienced the horrors of an abusive relationship or a difficult supervisor, it is impossible to eradicate from our lives the triggers of feedback that may shatter heart and soul. But we can control the degree to which we shape a growth-identity that sees such feedback as simply the stimuli for self-improvement. When we welcome input and see it as such, rather than an upsetting verdict, we accomplish two things: we empower ourselves towards greater wisdom and we diminish the ability for the words of another to tether us to any fixed definition. In this way, we may powerfully reshape rebuke into potent offerings of love and feedback that may make us better people and professionals. This may enable a dynamic that can draw even our greatest critics into a context of relationship. For at the end of the day, regardless of intent, these critics give us the fertile feedback for growth — the greatest of gifts.
As our Sages offered, “A love without criticism is no love. … Reproof leads to peace; a peace where there has been no reproof is no peace” (B’reishit Rabbah 54:3).
Rabbi Ben Spratt is the senior associate rabbi of Congregation Rodeph Sholom in New York, NY. His passion continues to be building community beyond existent walls and boundaries and, in partnership with many others, has sparked Shireinu, Tribe, New Day Fellowship, and Minyan.
The classical halachic midrash to the Book of Leviticus offers a very early critique of the Torah’s commandment to rebuke. Challenged by what is required in the Torah’s vision of “rebuke,” Rabbi Tarfon argues: “I swear! There is no one in this generation who is able to rebuke.” Taking up the critique, Rabbi Elazar ben Azariah suggests that the blame lies within the recipient of the rebuking: I swear! There is no one in this generation who is able to accept rebuke!” Rabbi Akiva adds to the debate: “I swear! There is no one in this generation who knows how to rebuke!” (Sifra K’doshim, 4:9).
Rabbi Elazar ben Azariah’s unease in this midrash echoes that which we see reflected in the Babylonian Talmud, Arachin 16b (quoted by Rabbi Spratt, above). But here, Rabbis Tarfon and Akiva suggest a different challenge: it is not that people are often unable to accept rebuke, but that most are unable to do the (constructive) rebuking itself. Of course, as Rabbi Spratt points out, it is often difficult to hear criticism and feedback. Our default stance is frequently the kind of defensiveness that is highlighted in the Talmudic passage.
But as the Rabbis advise in the midrash, we also need to be cognizant of how we offer rebuke in the first place. We can log on to any social media platform or read the comments section on any news site and find more than enough evidence of how we are so quick to rebuke thoughtlessly, questioning the behavior and decisions of others.
The Rabbis Tarfon and Akiva raise important issues regarding relationship and personal growth. Inspired by their example, I want to challenge myself with the same questions: “Do I know how to rebuke?” “Am I able to offer a rebuke that is worthy of the Torah’s mandate?” Their charge pushes me to ask myself: “Do I know enough about the circumstances surrounding this behavior I rush to critique?” “Is it possible that I am I guilty of the very same actions I condemn?”
Criticism — even compassionate, constructive criticism — requires judgement. Rabbi Hillel anticipates the Rabbinic version of the adage “walk a mile in someone else’s shoes” with his instruction: “Do not judge your fellow until you have come to their place” (Pirkei Avot 2:4). And Rabbi Ovadia of Bartenura offers this piercing commentary on Hillel’s teaching: “If you see your fellow come to a test and fail, do not judge him unfavorably until a test like it comes to you and you overcome [it]” (Bartenura on Pirkei Avot 2:4).
I believe that the very language of the Torah wants us to know this. It offers us a corrective, hidden in the grammar of the commandment. Our verse (Lev. 19:17), which reads hochei-ach tochi-ach et amitecha, includes a doubling of the verb meaning “rebuke.” In biblical grammar, this adds emphasis, and the verse is most commonly rendered in English as: “You shall surely rebuke your kinsfolk.”
But what if we read the two uses of the verb “rebuke” as two separate commands: “First, rebuke yourself, and only then may you offer a rebuke to your kinsfolk”?
A rebuke with this kind of mindfulness can address the prescient concerns of Rabbis Tarfon and Akiva. It gives us a model for how our concerns can be heard, received, and accepted, in a way that offers help and growth.
K’doshim, Leviticus 19:1−20:27
The Torah: A Modern Commentary, pp. 894−907; Revised Edition, pp. 797–813
The Torah: A Women’s Commentary, pp. 701–722
Haftarah, Amos 9:7−15
The Torah: A Modern Commentary, pp. 999−1,000; Revised Edition, pp. 814−815