The Art of Criticism

When I was a young rabbi in Auckland, I received a great piece of advice from one of the elder statesmen of the community, David Pezaro. David was a JP, Board member and President of the Congregation (and many other organisations), but most of all he was an incredible ba’al chesed, a mentsch who helped countless people in his quiet and unassuming (and often invisible) way. He counselled: “When you have to criticise someone, always begin with praise; first point out something good or complimentary about them”. I remember thinking at the time that it was a very nice sentiment, a little twee, but probably worthwhile. Over the years, I’ve learned to appreciate the sensible wisdom of these simple words, and recently came across Judith Martin’s version of them: “When virtues are pointed out first, flaws seem less insurmountable”.

Hearing criticism doesn’t come easy to the human ear. We are so frail and fragile; as Shakespeare reminds us we may be “noble in reason, infinite in faculty” but ultimately “quintessence of dust”, insecure and vulnerable in our brief passage through time. Even the strongest and most resilient of us will often find criticism hard to take. Perhaps it’s because it reminds us of the failures and weaknesses we prefer to hide; it causes discomfort. Of course it does depend on who is giving the criticism and what their motivation is.

There’s a word for and mitzvah associated with criticism in Judaism. It’s called תוכחה –tochecha, so the Torah says: “You shall not hate your brother in your heart; you shall reprove your fellow human being” (Leviticus 19:17). The verse is explicit: don’t harbour your anger and resentment at another’s behaviour, but let them know, point out that important truth, speak frankly. Interestingly, this verse is followed by one of the most well-known in the Torah: “Don’t bear a grudge, you shall love your neighbour like yourself” (Ibid:18). In other words, when you’re giving criticism, it needs to come from a place of love and give it not to hurt needlessly, to settle a score or to make yourself feel better. One of the earliest recorded critics is Moses. At the beginning of his majestic final oration (in this weeks Parasha – Devarim) to the people of Israel, he prefaces his remarks with stern comments about their failures:

“You rebelled against the command of your God. You grumbled in your tents….. you did not trust in your God…” (Deuteronomy 1,26)

This is direct, unflinching, harsh but importantly it’s preceded by softer and more considered comments. The way the rabbis read Moshe’s initial comments is that he was, at first, more subtle and indirect, only alluding to their wrongdoings, wishing to “uphold the dignity – kvodo –of Israel” (Rashi on 1:1). He also chose to criticise directly only when he was about to die so that his words wouldn’t be perceived as self-serving or ego-driven and therefore had more chance of being listened to. He further points out exactly where they went wrong so that they could find a way of repairing the cracks. The word for criticism and proving something is the same; in other words when reproving show the other (“prove it”) how they went awry, let them see where they went wrong. Abraham Lincoln was fond of saying: “He has a right to criticise, who has a heart to help”.

Jewish thought adds another important piece of wisdom for the criticisers especially when it comes to giving unsolicited advice. Don’t give advice unless it will be heeded or more colloquially – quit giving advice to people who won’t listen to it! When it’s obvious that the other cannot or will not learn from what you’re saying, it’s better to be silent because a failure to do so could actually exacerbate the situation causing grief, anger or resentment…

Receiving honest and constructive criticism is essential for personal growth. We need it in our closest relationship, we need it in our business decisions. In a marriage having an open, direct partner ensures a rich relationship. That’s why Eve is called Adam’s ‘opposite’ or even ‘opposing’ partner, – she was someone capable of adopting a challenging viewpoint. There’s an art to receiving advice. Ralph Waldo Emmerson lamented: “Let me never fall into the vulgar mistake of dreaming that I am persecuted whenever I am contradicted”. Criticism can well draw our attention to an unhealthy condition. In this context the Baal Shem Tov astutely observed that sometimes when we judge others about a particular character fault we might actually and unwittingly be referring to a failing of our own (in psychology it’s referred to as projection). His words are echoed in a contemporary observation that people most loudly criticise their spouses in areas where they have the deepest emotional need.

The Harvard Business Review (Jan. Feb 2015) published a marvellous article entitled The Art of Giving and Receiving Advice, noting that when the exchange is well done people on both sides of the table benefit. They suggest that those offering judgement on an issue should have the best interests of the other at heart as well as having a track record of being really ready to tell them what they don’t want to hear… Moshe did this in an exemplary manner and that’s why he’s also our greatest teacher, our Moshe Rabeinu.

David Pezare wasn’t a Harvard graduate. He was a hard-working businessman and a down-to-earth, ‘heart-working’ individual but he would have surely have embraced the sage words of Frank A Clark:

“Criticism like rain, should be gentle enough to nourish a man’s growth without destroying his roots”

Shabbat Shalom

Rabbi Ralph

About the Author
Rabbi Genende recently retired as the Senior Rabbi of Melbourne’s premier Caulfield Shule and took up the position of Senior Rabbi and Manager to Jewish Care Victoria, Melbourne’s largest Jewish organisation. He was a senior Reserve Chaplain in the South African Defence Force and is now Principal Rabbi to the Australian Defence Force, Member of the Religious Advisory Council to the Minister of Defence (RACS), board member of AIJAC (Australian Israel Jewish Affairs Council) and member of the Premier's Mulitifaith Advisory Group. He was President of JCMA (Jewish Christian Muslim Association) and a long time executive member of the Rabbinical Association of Victoria. He also oversees Yad BeYad a premarital relationship program, is a member of Swinburne University’s Research Ethics Committee and of the DHHS ,Department of Health Ethics Committee and sits on the Glen Eira City Council’s Committee responsible for its Reconciliation Action Plan for recognition and integration of our first peoples. Ralph has a passion for social justice and creating bridges between different cultures and faiths. For him the purpose of religion is to create a better society for all people and to engage with the critical issues facing Australian society. The role of the rabbi is, in his words, to challenge the comfortable and comfort the challenged. In 2018 Rabbi Genende was awarded an OAM for his services to multi-faith relations, and to the Jewish community of Victoria. Rabbi Genende is a trained counsellor with a Masters degree from Auckland University. He is married to Caron, a psychologist, and they have three children and two grandchildren.
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