Thursday, November 11, 2010

The Violence of Silence! v.s. Golden Silence - Rebuke in Vayetze

Ipswich, QLD has not always been known for its tolerance, this was the area that was represented in parliament by Pauline “we will be swamped by Asian's”- Hanson MP. It is argued that the fact that Hanson was not strongly repudiated by the Prime Minister of the day signalled to bigots that it was ok to discriminate and contributed to increased prejudice in the community. Yesterday I was in Ipswich for bridge building work alongside Mr. Shayne Neumann the local Member of Parliament, and while grabbing some Kosher lunch in the local supermarket I got a call about yet another Government decision that would limit religious freedom, mainly impact on Muslims and I fear will send another signal that the “real-White” Australians are taking back “their country.” How should I respond? More broadly, the following is a general (but incomplete) consideration of the issue of rebuke, especially as it relates to the section of the Torah being read this week.

Do not rebuke the scoffer, lest he hate you, rebuke a wise person and he will love you1.

Problems with silence and with speaking out
If we are silent in the face of apparent injustice, we could seen as complicit in it. Talking about our grievances, might result in resolution, or at least give us the feeling that we did what we can. The negatives of silence, need to be considered against the problems arising out of speaking out. In some situations, our critique can be ill-informed, driven by unconscious and unsavoury motives, cause unnecessary embarrassment, or fail to achieve anything apart from defensiveness, hostility or even escalated offending behaviour and “push-back”. The Talmud comments about the people in it's own time2, there was no longer anyone with either the ability to offer or accept criticism3.

Style. Wording, tone, privacy/audience etc.
It's not what you say, but how you say it”- is a view that I don't think is true all the time, but it does have some merit. The commandment in Leviticus (19:17) to rebuke, rebuke your fellow4”, is followed with a caution “and do not bear sin because of him” which is interpreted as demanding concern, in some circumstances, about humiliating the person being criticised.

Motive- "uhn negl" (no fingernails) & Permission
Chassidim have a tradition of offering criticism to each other. This would usually be done in the context of a “Farbrengen”, an informal group sitting together, eating herring, pickles, drinking vodka (usually but not always in strict moderation), for the purpose of storytelling, singing and reflection. The setting and the fact of the participants sitting down together already provides implied permission for being given negative feedback. An important principle for the critic was to ensure he did not do it with “fingernails”, meaning he had to search his own heart to see if there were other motives at work, eg. Anger, hostility, desire to put the other down, rather than pure desire to help the listener improve.

Being wrong – asking a question
If we approach what appears to be a problematic situation with a recognition that we might not have all the facts, we can carry our responsibility to stand up for justice without judging other unfairly. Jacob, sets a friendly tone and uses the approach of asking a question of a group of shepherds that seems to be workers, idle on the job. “My brothers, where are you from?” Jacob begins, after some small talk he observes “The day is still long, it is not time to gather the flocks, give your sheep some drink and go take your sheep to pasture5.” They explain explain that they are unable to carry out their next task without more help because there is a big stone on top of the well, that can only be moved when their colleagues arrive so they can all give water to their sheep. No harm done.

Unresolved issues- One cost of silence
A sad, but rarely discussed episode in the lives of the biblical Rachel and Leah occurs when their brothers and father (Laban) become resentful of Jacob's prosperity. Their brothers are heard saying to anyone, but the accused party “Jacob took (stole) everything that belonged to our father , and from what belonged to our father he created all this honour6”. Jacob notices, Laban's face, “and it is clearly not the same as it was yesterday, and the day before that”. He had accepted the slander (Lashon Harah- evil tongue) against Jacob7 without bothering to check with Jacob about his side of the story. The opposite of “when a man sins against another man, he should not hate him and be is a Mitzvah to notify him and say, why did you do this to me?”8

Jacob and his wives, Rachel and Leah discuss the need to leave the employ and town of Laban over his on-going financial mistreatment on the part of their father. The two daughters/wives reply, “Do we still have any part or inheritance in our fathers house? Did he not consider us as strangers to him, selling us and eating our money”. I find it very significant, that neither sister ever said anything to Laban about their hurt feelings or anger about being sold to Jacob. Jacob also does not talk to Laban about his complains about the financial dealings, instead explaining only to his wives that Laban changed “my wages, 10 times”.

Unlikely to be heard
To rebuke someone involves some hope that it might help. The Talmud states that just as we should say words of rebuke that will be heard, it is a Mitzvah (Commandment) not to say that which will not be heard9. As Shayne Neummann pointed out to me yesterday in Ipswich, it is hard to imagine Jacob having any confidence in talking to Laban after he substituted his beloved Rachel with Leah. Especially, considering that when Jacob first protests to Laban “Why did you deceive me”, instead of an apology, Laban attacks Jacob cleverly saying “it is not done thus in our place, the younger before the older”, implying like you who usurped the right of your older brother Esau. Clearly, Laban's rebuke of Jacob is driven by an ulterior motive, seeking to justify his own wrong doing. On the other hand, in cases where our silence can be seen as acquiescence, we need to consider the wider audience, not just the perpetrator.

Judging too favourably
While avoiding a rush to judgement is generally admirable. There are times when there is a need to speak out in defence of justice. As the saying goes, “If someone is spitting in your face, don't say it's raining”. A talmudic story about the gangster-turned sage Resh Lakish travelling with two rabbis to see the process for deciding whether to add an extra month to a particular Jewish Sabbatical year, when the land was not meant to be worked. On their way, they repeatedly see members of the priestly clan, the Cohanim, first ploughing, then working in a vineyard. Resh Lakish is outraged but his companions, rationalise it with various excuses. When they arrive to the attic where the meeting was to be held, they offered Resh Lakish to go up the ladder first, then promptly removed the ladder stranding him upstairs. They held the meeting downstairs without him, obviously frustrated with his unwillingness to turn a blind eye10. The funny thing is that the two other sages have been forgotten, while Resh Lakish is still greatly respected today.

There are more sources and further evidence that I have not included in this. I think on balance, there are times for speaking out and times for silence, in the case of the Government decision today, the right thing to do is to speak out about religious freedom and the need for responsible leadership giving no support to bigotry. Anyone who could have stopped another person from committing a sin by rebuking but failed to do so is held accountable for that sin.11

1Proverbs 9:8
2The content of the Talmud was developed between approximately 100 bc to the year 300 CE.
3Arachin 16b. Also discussed on
4The commandment in Leviticus (19:17) to rebuke, rebuke your fellow, and do not bear sin because of him
5Genesis 29:7
6Genesis 31:1
8Mimonedes, Yad, hilchot Deot, 6:6
9Talmud, Yevamot 65b)
10Talmud Sanhedrin, 26a. For the rest of this story,
11Maimonedes, Yad, Laws of Deot, 6:7.

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