Conflict and its Discontents: Revisiting the Mitzvah of Rebuke for the Therapy Generation

“Perpetrators, we can point ‘em out/So if you’ve got something on your mind, let it out!”

–Beastie Boys and Nas, “Too Many Rappers“, 2009

We find ourselves on the cusp of Tisha B’Av, our day of national grief and anger over homelessness, exile, and abandonment, and our day of painful soul-searching over our complicity in our plight.  The Shabbat before Tisha B’Av, we always read the beginning of the book of Devarim, which is, at its core, a book of educational rebuke of Israel as they prepare to enter the land and assume political responsibility and sovereignty.  The core midrashic work on Devarim, the Sifrei, glosses phrase after phrase of the first couple of chapters of the book with the explanation that the proper way to read or stage Moshe’s words is as words of rebuke – divrei tokhekha.  This moment is ripe, then, to explore one of the Torah’s most difficult commandments– the mitzvah of rebuking one’s neighbor.

“Do not hate your kinsfolk in your heart; rebuke – really rebuke your comrade; do not bear sin on their account.  Do not take vengeance or bear a grudge against your fellows; love your neighbor as yourself:  I am YHWH” (VaYikra 19:17-18)

We live in a conflict-averse world.  Progressive communities, especially, often put a premium on everyone being comfortable, sometimes using the language of “safe space” not to enable the voiceless to air their rebukes, but to prevent anyone from having to be rebuked.  In that context, we should be jarred by the Torah’s words:  true rebuke is necessary for the purpose of generating love, safety, and trust, of disengaging us from the hostility and distrust that produce alienation and violence.  The Sages highlighted how crucial it is to persist in this core mitzvah of confrontational peace-making, insisting that the doubled language (“rebuke, really rebuke/hokheach tokhiach“) teaches that one must continue to rebuke the person four, five, or however many times are necessary (Sifra Kedoshim 2/BT Arakhin 16b).  Lest we adopt a flip attitude, and think that rebuking is as simple as “saying what I have to say”, the Sages warn us gravely that we are not fulfilling the mitzvah if we humiliate the other person, and that this is what the Torah means by adding “do not bear sin on their account”.  If you feel hostility, rebuke them to make peace, but don’t embarrass them.

If only it were that easy.  The Sages, very early on, were all too aware that rebuke does not necessarily lead to reconciliation.  R. Tarfon said, “I could swear that no one in our generation can rebuke!” R. El’azar ben Azariah said, “I could swear that no one in our generation can receive rebuke!”  R. Akiva said, “I could swear that no one in our generation knows how to rebuke!”  We are all flawed people, afraid to be caught in hypocrisy.  We all have egos that get the best of us.  We are all awkward and unskilled in delicate confrontation.  And yet we are not let off the hook:  R. Yochanan ben Nuri said, “With the heavens and earth as my witnesses, more than four or five times, R. Akiva was lashed because of me before Rabban Gamaliel, on account of my accusations, and each time I knew that he loved me even more because of it.”  As the proverb says, “Don’t rebuke a scoffer, lest he hate you, but rebuke a wise person, and she will love you” (Proverbs 9:8).  R. Ilai, in the name of R. Elazar, son of R. Shimon put it differently:  “Just as a person is commanded to say something that can be heard, one is also commanded not to say something that can’t be heard” (BT Yevamot 65b)

This one’s a doozy:  If we feel hurt by someone and hold it in, things will get worse, as our bitterness festers, the relationship sours, and we risk succumbing to the temptation to revenge.  More likely, our conflict aversion is likely to lead to an unplanned, messy, explosive bigger confrontation later, because we passed up on the planned, controlled, calm, smaller confrontation now.  On the other hand, who knows?  Maybe it will blow over and if we bungle the delicate rebuke, we’re likely to make things worse.  What is a Jew to do?

Much of our communal logic tells us to err on the side of non-confrontation:  after all, maybe I’m even over-reacting in being upset in the first place.  Isn’t it better to forgive and release the anger?  But this, too, is slippery.  Think of all the deception we engage in to convince ourselves and others that we are being humble and magnanimous, when actually, we’re positioning ourselves for a status upgrade as “the bigger person”, to be noticed as impressively humble, or disrespecting our own dignity as we just want the person who has acted the bully from thinking badly of us?  “What’s better,” the gemara asks, “rebuke with the right intentions or humility with the wrong intentions?”  There is some dispute among the commentators as to how the Talmud resolves this question.

Where does this leave us?  We are the therapy generation; some of the younger Jewschoolers are even the second generation of people for whom therapy has no stigma, and is a core feature affecting their conversational culture.  Many of have participated in processing groups in work, school, social, or volunteer settings; some of us so many times that it is almost second nature how to hold space, listen actively, push back empathetically, speak in “I statements“, and find understanding through our differences.  We have been trained in Non-Violent Communication, or, even if we haven’t, we have likely encountered its guiding principles and integrated them into our own commitments and habits.

I am suggesting that this cultural shift bears spiritual responsibility and that one translation for this is that we need to be much more proactive about fulfilling the mitzvah of rebuke.  The Sages never question the importance of rebuke when done correctly, nor do they question the likely bad outcome of not fulfilling it; they just acknowledge that sometimes doing it incorrectly can be even worse.  However, if one had more confidence of a healthy context to rebuke properly, it is an undisputed mitzvah with no less at stake than human reconciliation, understanding, and productivity.  “It is a mitzvah to say something that can be heard.”  Why is it so hard for the Sages to thread that needle?  Listen to the Rambam, as a signature example:  “When one person sins against the other person…it’s a mitzvah to let them know, and to say to them, ‘Why did you do so-and-so to me?  Why did you sin against me in so-and-so?” (Hil. De’ot 6:6).  No “I statements” in sight.  Quite far from “I felt afraid when you did so-and-so” or the like.  No wonder only people of R. Akiva’s level of magnanimity could perform and receive it properly.

In a culture of processing groups, conflict aversion is not piety and not even always chastened caution:  It’s reckless abandonment and sometimes it’s even mean.   Recently I had a significant conflict with some very dear friends of mine that affected a large community of people.  They understood that there was hurt and made themselves available to talk about it and I talked to them, individually, with unrestrained honesty about why I felt that their choice had been hurtful and reckless, to me and to others.  It was confrontational, but we did not shout.  I felt listened to and heard and they achieved more understanding that will enable them to handle similar situations more constructively in the future.  There is still hurt and anger and the relationships need more healing, but we came out of the first round of rebuke with confidence that the friendships are stable and lasting and can grow through this conflict as well.

It has, therefore, been exasperating to me to have numerous conversations with other friends in the community who felt hurt or angry about the situation and alienated from these other friends, sharing that anger with me, as though it would make me feel better that they’re alienated from really good people.  To the extent that they shared their empathy with me, I have been most grateful to them; to the extent that they have vented to me about their anger at these other friends, I have counseled them:  If you’re feeling that way, I think you should really talk to them and work it out.  It has been heartbreaking how often I’ve heard, “If they could do such-and-such a thing, then they’re clearly clueless and there’s no point”, or “I don’t even want to bother with them”, or “It’s not my place; why would they listen to me?”  It’s your place because you’re hurt and angry.  The Torah gives us rare, clear guidance as to when this mitzvah becomes operative: “Do not hate your kinsfolk in your heart”.  If you feel hostility toward someone, you have a mitzvah to tell them.  Perhaps more than ever before, we have the emotional technology to do this properly.

My anecdotal impression is that a scourge among progressive people is the drive for ideological or emotional purity that plays itself out as a dismissal of anyone who doesn’t know something that I happen to know or even find easy or obvious.  You think it’s obvious that that person acted hurtfully?  Maybe you have been graced with experiences or natural gifts for perception with which not everyone has been blessed.  You can’t be angry at someone with any integrity if you’re not willing to do your part to hold them accountable by letting them know how you feel.  One of these friends with whom I had this conflict expressed genuine surprise when I told them that numerous people have complained about similar kinds of infractions.  They genuinely want to know, have shown true readiness to accept rebuke meaningfully and think about it, but other friends of theirs are withholding the information they seek to make improvement, as all of us need each other’s help to improve.  That leaves the aggrieved party alienated and festering, and the person who did the hurt feeling like a guilty failure, but having no tools to address it.  Not rebuking someone when you are angry and you can rebuke them is mean, it is cowardly, and it sells short on human dignity.  It will also likely ferment into something more bitter later, when a harder conflict becomes harder to avoid.

In our generation, we try to avoid catastrophic conflicts like that of Kamtza and Bar Kamtza by guiding them into group processing well before that point.  We are right; we have the tools to do it and it starts with ourselves.  If we feel hostility, we have to respect the person’s humanity enough to open up firm and empathetic rebuke.  When we do so, I believe, the situation will rarely get worse, and often it will get much, much better.  If so, then perhaps by next year, the prophecy (Zech. 8:19) will come to fruition that Tisha B’Av will be a day of rejoicing.

5 Responses to “Conflict and its Discontents: Revisiting the Mitzvah of Rebuke for the Therapy Generation”

  1. Very wise. Could you footnote all the texts you quote please?


    Bruce Eli Mosbacher · July 16th, 2013 at 10:33 pm
  2. Thanks, Bruce! Everything is cited there. The R. Tarfon/R. Elazar ben Azariah/R. Akiva passage and the passage pondering rebuke with the right intentions or humility with the wrong intentions are the continuations of the gemara in Arakhin 16b cited at the beginning.


    aryehbernstein · July 17th, 2013 at 10:28 am
  3. Great post Aryeh. I appreciate the you identify this as one of the most challenging mitzvot for our generation. I wonder if you want to follow up with some thoughts on the spiritual and personal work that you think needs to go into rebuke. That is to say, I would love to hear your thoughts on the place of anger, pain and the desire to protect one’s own (and the other’s) ego (among other issues) when discussing tokhekha. It would be great to really open up a much larger conversation on this important issue.


    Ariel F · July 23rd, 2013 at 10:01 am
  4. Aryeh,
    I have often taught this mitzvah and felt exactly as you have about the therapy generation but being a generation older I did not really know from within what you are describing. Thanks for the confrmation. Yishar koach. Noam


    noam zion · July 25th, 2013 at 1:00 pm
  5. Well done Aryeh. I have long been intrigued by the mitzvah of Tochecha and the wisdom of the rabbis who comment on it. It is exceedingly difficult to get ithe balance right of offering criticism in a menshlich way. A secular source that I have found helpful when I teach the Jewish sources is Difficult Conversations from the Harvard Negotiation Project. It helps people better understand the different levels of these conversations to help us deescalate conflict and improve relationships. Yasher Koach.


    Harold Kravitz · August 22nd, 2013 at 8:18 am

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"I may attack a certain point of view which I consider false, but I will never attack a person who preaches it. I have always a high regard for the individual who is honest and moral, even when I am not in agreement with him. Such a relation is in accord with the concept of kavod habriyot, for beloved is man for he is created in the image of God." —Rav Joseph Soloveitchik