“Have you lost weight?” No, I haven’t. Not recently. But, when someone I hadn’t seen in a while asked me that on Saturday night, I felt good. Hey, even if I’d like to shed a few kilos, I had a warm fuzzy from someone complimenting the “trim me” that isn’t.
I didn’t overthink it at the time, but I’ve been thinking about it since. Does that fellow really believe that I look thinner, or was his comment one of those social platitudes we dispense without thinking? I learned long ago that “Rabbi, that was the best wedding ceremony I’ve ever attended” isn’t necessarily scientific fact. We all like to feel good, and we assume that people will appreciate us making them feel good too.
Chewing it over, I decided to see what other people felt. I posted on social media: “Which do you prefer, people who are blunt and honest or people who make you feel good?” I was surprised when most people replied that they preferred directness over sweet-talk. Feel-good compliments only feel good for a while. Honest feedback enriches you.
Our Torah teaches us to avoid dishonesty at all costs. You’d expect that it would advocate forthrightness over flattery. Yet, a very respected group of ancient sages seemed to think differently. The schools of Hillel and Shammai debated just about every Torah topic, including how to compliment a groom on his new bride. Shammai scholars recommend sticking with the facts. If the woman isn’t beautiful, don’t compliment her appearance. Hillel scholars suggest that you should always tell a groom that his wife is “beautiful and graceful”.
He’s newlywed, with rose-tinted glasses. Of course, he thinks he’s married “The One”. But, surely that doesn’t mean we should share contrived compliments just to make him feel good. Shammai’s students insist that honesty is always best, even at weddings. You can imagine the Shammaiesque take on “does this outfit make me look fat?”
Almost every Hillel-Shammai debate ends with us following the Hillel approach. That implies we should ramp up the compliments- especially at a chuppah. That doesn’t mean that we should be insincere.
A thorough study of Hillel/ Shammai debates across the Talmud reveals two contrasting universal outlooks on Jewish law. Shammai’s view is WYSIWYG; decide the Halachic outcome based on the facts as you see them. When a prospective convert insists that Shammai teach him the whole Torah as he balances on one foot, Shammai sees a provocateur and sends him packing.
Hillel recommends we consider context and nuance before deciding on a case. When that convert challenges Hillel to summarise Judaism, Hillel realizes that he wants to understand the core of Jewish faith before committing to its strictures. So, he sums it up in a line and then guides him through a healthy conversion process.
Shammai wants us to compliment people only on what is obviously praiseworthy. Hillel expects us to look deeper and find something to admire within every person. You don’t have to like someone else’s wife, but you should appreciate that he sees something special in her. No matter your personal views, says Hillel, applaud his happiness.
Hillel provides us with a great lesson in relationships. Every person has value. If we can’t see it, it means we haven’t looked deep enough. That groom loves that woman enough to have dedicated the rest of his life to her. Acknowledge that. Likewise, G-d loves the next person enough to have placed them on this Earth. Acknowledge that too. If you can’t understand why, you might need to look harder.
Inspired by a talk of the Lubavitcher Rebbe on Parshat Terumah