"Our treatment of [these] passages will assume that we have much to learn from the Torah, even though we do not accept its authority blindly and without question" (Bamberger in Plaut Revised Edition, 643).
Parashah - K'doshim
This parashah, meaning "holiness," contains part of what is commonly known as Holiness Code (Leviticus 17-26). This section of Torah issues directives to the children of Israel designed to differentiate them from other peoples, i.e., to make them holy. Chapter 19 makes it clear that holiness is not an abstract concept; it is rooted in explicit interpersonal behaviors culminating with the words Love your fellow as yourself: I am the Eternal (19:18).
Aliyah - Second aliyah: Leviticus 19:15-22
The laws regarding holiness include standards of accountability.
You shall not hate your kinsfolk in your heart. Reprove your kin but incur no guilt on their account (19:17).
What is holy about reproof? Many of us were raised to question authority, and the mandate to speak truth to power is made clear by the prophets, ancient and modern. The freedom to speak our minds is one of our fundamental rights-some say responsibilities, as people in general and as Jews in particular. According to the Talmud, "Whoever can stop the members of his household from committing a sin, but does not, is held responsible for the sins of his household. If he can stop the people of his city from sinning, but does not, he is held responsible for the sins of the people of his city. If he can stop the whole world from sinning, and does not, he is held responsible for the sins of the whole world" (Shabbat 54b).
Some people seem to find the mitzvah of rebuke an easy one to fulfill; they are quick to offer criticism or reprimand. In today's day and age, we might find it easy to fire off an e-mail than to engage in a potentially uncomfortable conversation. TV shows encourage us to vote our opinion with our cell phones or present audiences who react to guests with boos and hisses. These impersonal, indirect forms of rebuke may be easy, but they fail to engage us in serious intrapersonal dialogue about the consequences we face when we try to prevent a wrong.
Our tradition teaches us that rebuke, though mandatory, is forbidden when it causes embarrassment. Rabbi Joseph Telushkin, in his book Words that Hurt, Words that Heal, explains, "f you're reproving someone about a less significant matter…you're never justified in shaming that person. In this case, trying to eliminate a minor wrong causes you to commit a major one" (94). Maimonides specifies that reproof should be given calmly, gently and in private (Hilchot De'ot 6:8). Telushkin suggests three questions one might ask one's self before offering reproof: "First: How do I feel about offering this criticism? Does it give me pleasure or pain?" explaining, "If your motives are pure (you really wish you didn't have to offer this criticism, but feel morally obligated to do so), this will shine through in the encounter" (96). "Second: Does my criticism offer specific ways to change?" (96) and "Finally, Are my words nonthreatening and reassuring?" (97). In addition, receiving criticism even (or perhaps especially) from a loved one can be painful. And so the medium, not only the message, must be chosen with care.
All reproof is not good. K'doshim affirms our responsibility to speak to someone close to us when our grievance is justified, when our concern is genuine and when we will not pay a heavy price for doing so. We are challenged by Torah to use our free will to choose life and blessing, to act kindly and sometimes to behave out of step with conventional norms. The ways in which we do this are subtle and nuanced. Following the mitzvah to reprove one's kin requires the proper intention of care and good will in order for it to be a holy act.
In his essay The Common Life, Russel Sanders writes, "We [Americans] have understood freedom for the most part negatively rather than positively, as release from constraints rather than as the condition for making a decent life in common" (Georgia Quarterly, Spring 1994). K'doshim is a centerpiece in a lengthy, multi-book biblical narrative describing the challenge of building an uncommonly decent life. The holiness comes from the code, that is, both the rules and the understanding of the intent of holiness behind them. Ironically, there may be no greater sense of liberation than freely following mitzvot, God's commands. In Egypt, the Israelites were slaves to a human master. In the land of promise, they strove to become servants of a divine master. We are still striving.
- Have you even been in a situation where you were embarrassed by someone in front of other people? Did being in public make the embarrassment worse? How?
- How might you rebuke someone without "incurring guilt" of shaming them? Is there anything you would add to Telushkin's three questions?
- Which is harder for you: giving criticism or accepting it? Why? Can saying "You're right" when someone criticizes you help you follow the Torah's advice to "not hate your kinsfolk in your heart?" How?
For Further Learning
The Talmud expands on the discussion about public embarrassment in Bava M'tzia where it teaches "Whoever whitens the face of his friend in public, it is as if he spilled the other's blood, because we see that the blood goes from his face and he becomes pale (58b)." Why do you think Jewish tradition considers embarrassing another such a grave offense?
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