Losing a Mitzvah, Losing Ourselves

When the Jewish people lose a mitzvah, we do not always stop to notice the ramifications of that loss. To take an obvious example, we have struggled without a Beit HaMikdash for just about two thousand years. We all know it, and speak of our yearning to get it back. But I often see ways in which we don’t actually realize what we’re missing.

That is more of a Tish’a B’Av conversation; I raise it here because we have similarly lost, and similarly fail to see the consequences of that loss, the mitzvah of תוכחה, the obligation in the Torah for Jews to remonstrate with each other.  For better and worse reasons, halachah has found room to mostly relieve us of the obligation. That hurts us in two ways I think we don’t notice.  To see how, let’s review the mitzvah as Rambam codified it, to compare to our current situation.

Remonstration Starts with the Mitzvot to Love Our Fellow Jews

In חלכות דעות ו, Laws of Character 6, Rambam comes to discuss the obligation to love our fellow Jews (halachah 3), to love converts (halachah 4), and the prohibition against hating other Jews (halachah 5).  In Halachah 6, Rambam sees remonstration as an extension of that—since we are prohibited to hate other Jews, the Torah tells us that if another Jew harms us, we should remonstrate with that person, not let the hatred fester and grow (unaddressed emotions, especially those that start with hurt or insult, generally do not simply go away. Suppressed, they linger in the shadows, eventually bursting out more damagingly than if they had been addressed at the time. Bringing them into the light, hashing them out, feels more painful in the short term, but is often healthier and less likely to lead to escalation).

Any such remonstration has to be offered as a way to find reconciliation, with the injured party prepared to accept a sincere apology and attempt to make amends. In Halachot 9 and 10, Rambam adds that if we are able to forgive the other person without remonstrating, that’s even better (but only if we can really forgive them).

Remembering the Motivation

All that is important context for the other aspect of the mitzvah Rambam slides in in Halachah 7-8. In addition to interpersonal remonstration, a Jew who sees another Jew sinning or following an unfortunate path (implying there has not yet been any specific sin) is obligated to work to bring the straying Jew back to a good course.

We no longer fulfill the mitzvah the way Rambam codifies it, and Rambam’s placement of it tells us that we must recognize that the motivation is to help. Just as we’d try to help a loved one avoid hurting themselves physically or financially, the Torah wanted us to help our fellow Jews (and to recognize that a fellow Jew is looking to help us) when remonstration happens.

That can be difficult, and likely contributed to the mitzvah’s falling into disuse. The value in reading Rambam’s presentation is that it reminds us of how our Jewish world was supposed to look, which helps us see how we hurt ourselves when we don’t or can’t do it.

Starting Soft, Moving Harsher

Rambam writes that the remonstrating Jew should emphasize that the straying Jew is hurting him/herself, should say it in private, calmly, soft in tone and language, and emphasize that the point is only to help the other person achieve/retain their share in the World to Come.

Today, by and large, most such attempts are likely to be seen (in my experience) as arrogant and supercilious, even condescending (who is s/he to tell me I shouldn’t talk in shul, live ostentatiously, speak lashon hara, etc.?). In contrast, if someone pointed out that we had parked in an illegal spot and were likely to get ticketed, we would thank them and move our car.  If a doctor told a patient s/he needed to have a tumor removed, the patient wouldn’t get angry at the doctor. But if one Jew tells another of a serious lacuna in their relationship with Hashem, those become fighting words.

Reacting to Repeat Refusal

Rambam rules that the remonstrator has to try over and over, until the other person hits him (this is the opinion of R. Eliezer in Arachin 16b; R. Yehoshua thinks it is enough for the addressee to curse the remonstrator, and Ben Azai is satisfied with נזיפה, rebuke).

Whatever the standard, halachah is telling us that we are not allowed to remonstrate once and give up. Rambam adds, based on a Shabbat 156, that anyone who could remonstrate and fails to do so incurs some of the culpability. In Halachah 8, he adds that for sins towards Hashem (not “merely” interpersonal matters), if private remonstration does not work, the sinner should be embarrassed in public, his or her sins made known to all, and reviled, denigrated, and cursed, until s/he returns to the proper way of acting. As, Rambam says, all the prophets did.

Like I’ve said, that’s not our practice today, nor is it the thrust of what I want to get to, but let’s pause to notice Rambam’s vision of Jewish society. It’s a collection of people with strong bonds of love and affection, who work to tell each other when hiccups, bumps, or roadblocks arrive in the relationship. But that same people has enough of a commitment to service of Hashem that seeing someone leave that path is as bad as crimes we today would have no problem calling out in public.

Just as we would expect someone to speak up about domestic abuse or embezzlement or murder, the Torah wants us to know that we are supposed to speak up when we see people straying or failing in their relationship with Hashem. And insistent violation of the Torah was supposed to bring consequences, just as happens with stubborn refusal to adhere to other social norms (like murder, robbery, and other violent or sexual crimes).

Reasons Not To Remonstrate

No one rejects Rambam’s view, but later authorities complicated the picture sufficiently that it’s rare we remonstrate with fellow Jews today. We are still obligated to remonstrate with others who sin, but we generally only do so if the sinner is an otherwise observant Jew who is likely to be open to our remonstration, and we would need to feel we had a productive and effective way of making our point.

But with Jews who have left observance, or groups of observant Jews, the odds against being effective give ample halachic room to excuse ourselves of the obligation.

We could discuss that at length; personally, I think there is more room to remonstrate than many of us admit, but that is not my main interest. Instead, I am more interested in two other comments of Rambam’s which our lack of remonstration make harder to fulfill.

It’s Still Peer Pressure

The chapter of הלכות דעות, Laws of Character, in which these rulings appeared starts out with a reminder of what we knew in high school but often forget, that all of us are affected by our friends and neighbors, by the mores of the society in which we live. People whose company we enjoy, with whom we spend time, will impact our ideas about morality. If they adhere to a certain worldview, that will gain some legitimacy in our eyes by virtue of our connection to them.

That being true, whom we choose as friends and neighbors, what cities or countries we choose to live in, will shape who we become, and how we understand the world. A Jew who lives in Boro Park is likely to develop a very different view of how to be a good Jew from one who lives in Riverdale or Teaneck; a Jew who lives in the United States will have a different sense of the world from one who lives in France or Sweden. And that’s even more so for friends, with whom we share our lives.

Obviously, then, we should pick righteous friends, and avoid friendships with evildoers. Few people are all or nothing, so it’s probably more accurate to say we should choose friends who are more righteous and avoid those who are less so. (Or that we should choose friends who have righteous qualities we hope to model, and avoid those who are likely to influence us negatively).

Rambam rules that if we live in an evil society—let’s say, one that has made a moral principle out of that which the Torah deems immoral—we should leave. If we cannot (the borders are closed, we are too aged or infirm, or there are no better options anywhere), we should shun social life in order to avoid being affected by it. He quotes Eichah 3;28, ישב בדד וידם, כי נטל עליו, he should sit alone and be silent, and will be rewarded for it.

We know that from Avot, where the Mishnah speaks of a person who studies Torah alone; Rambam is applying it to a person who refrains or limits their social circle, in the hopes of avoiding being influenced inappropriately.

The Disappearance of Tochacha as an Added Degree of Difficulty

Our difficulties with remonstration complicate our adherence to this standard. Granting that we live in a world where we have to witness lack of observance without responding, have to retain our awareness that many around us are not culpable for the sins we see, and be polite and understanding to all, that cannot shade over into losing sight of the fact that these are people whose worldview and approach to life is far from that of Hashem and the Torah.

We may see value in maintaining relationships with such people—they may be models of behavior of which the Torah would approve in other areas; we may hope that we might influence them positively, over time; and/or we might gain in other ways that outweigh these concerns—but Rambam reminds us that we need to be careful to avoid letting their wrong worldview seep into ours. If we know a nonobservant Jew whose honesty in business is remarkable, that is something to applaud and learn from. But we would have to always be careful not to let the other parts of that person’s moral system affect our commitment to our own.

That’s hard enough when we are articulating our own views often, to ourselves and to others, and others are helping us keep to that standard as well. But when we have mostly adopted a live and let live policy, we also have made it harder to stay in good touch with what we believe and value, as opposed to what they do.

Finding People with the Wisdom of Torah to Whom To Cling

That seems to me at least as true for the next paragraph, where Rambam records the obligation to build a close relationship with those who are wise in the ways of Torah. Rambam uses the word חכמים, which is sometimes translated as Torah scholars and/or rabbis. Aside from the increasingly untrue gender limitation—today, more and more women are also wise in the ways of Torah— there are also, sadly, many Torah scholars and rabbis who are not.

Whether by their character or their actions, I see functioning rabbis and/or leaders in other Torah positions who are clearly unfit to serve in that role, at least until they go through some sort of rehabilitative process. I know more than a few such rabbis whose well-known conduct (sometimes intolerably incompetent for their job; sometimes failing to show up to attempt to do their job; sometimes displaying character flaws that are incompatible with their communal role; sometimes being abusive, verbally, emotionally, sexually or physically) would require them to leave a job in the corporate world; they might later land another job, but they could not just apologize and stay in that job. And they certainly could not, once their conduct was known, stay in that job without addressing their conduct.

With Torah leaders, often none of that is required. Part of it, I have come to believe, is our comfort with not remonstrating. Our lost connection to declaring wrong when we see it leads us to lose sight of what is actually wrong. So if a rabbi lies in public, or takes a salary for work he does not do, or is dogged by rumors about his personal conduct, we let it lie, because we no longer feel the obligation to protest that which is wrong.

Some of us, I worry, also do it because it lets us off the hook. If my rabbi (or wise person of Torah) is someone to whom I have to listen, because s/he is actually connected carefully with what Hashem wants of us, that might mean I have to change in ways I don’t want to. I might have to handle my business or personal life differently (which is, of course, the point of developing a relationship with such people). Once we can reject them as no better than us, because of their glaring flaws, we can also ignore their messages.

Remonstration: It’s About Us, Not Just the Other Person

We tend to think of remonstration as an outward-directed activity, so its’ loss isn’t that big a deal for us; the other person has lost an opening to self-improvement, but the costs are too high. My point here is that the costs aren’t only to that other person, the costs are to us as well. Because when we don’t remonstrate, we make it harder on ourselves to know who are the kinds of good people with whom to be friends, and also harder to identify the Torah leaders we should be following, whose expertise in what Hashem wants of us is greater than our own, with all the ramifications of recognizing that.

I have no ideas for how we can increase our remonstrations with each other, because the reasons not to are solidly grounded. I hope that by pointing out this aspect of the problem, we can approach Yom Kippur and the coming year with greater dedication to not allowing that to dim our awareness of the lifestyle Hashem wants us to live, and that we pick associates, neighbors, friends and—to me, maybe most crucially—Torah leaders who will help us in our continuing journey to making ourselves the kind of people Hashem hopes and wants us to be.

About the Author
Rabbi Dr. Gidon Rothstein has served in the community rabbinate and in educational roles at the high school and adult level. He is an author of Jewish fiction and non-fiction, most recently "We're Missing the Point: What's Wrong with the Orthodox Jewish Community and How to Fix It." He lives in Bronx, NY with his wife and three children.