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Ayalon Eliach

Upstanders in the Israel-Hamas Conflict: From Prophecy to Tokhahah

Destruction of Jerusalem
Destruction of the Temple of Jerusalem (oil on canvas) by Francesco Hayez (1791-1882)

As debates over the Israel-Hamas conflict continue to escalate, I’ve been thinking about what Rabbi Ḥanina said almost two millennia ago: “Jerusalem was destroyed because the people did not rebuke one another” (Shabbat 119b).

At first glance, it seems like almost everyone is consciously or unconsciously trying to heed Rabbi Ḥanina’s warning. We see silence in the face of wrongdoing as complicity. And such complicity can have horrible ramifications. We desperately want to avoid repeating the type of calamitous destruction that befell Jerusalem 2,000 years ago (Roman historian Suetonius numbered the Jewish dead at 600,000, while Josephus put the number at 1.1 million), so when we see something we believe is going terribly wrong, we jump at the opportunity to stand up and say something. 

But I’m afraid we haven’t been paying close enough attention to Rabbi Ḥanina’s warning. His specific assessment was that Jerusalem was destroyed because people didn’t give each other tokhaḥah. While this word is often translated as “rebuke,” it refers to a whole corpus of halakhot (ways to walk through life) that are very specific in how and when to give feedback. Read this way, Rabbi Ḥanina’s real charge is not to simply critique those we disagree with, but to do so guided by the wisdom of tokhaḥah.

Many of the halakhot around tokhaḥah fall under the general framing offered by the Talmudic chain of Rabbi Ile’a in the name of Rabbi Elazar son of Rabbi Shimon: “Just as it is a mitzvah for a person to say that which will be heeded, so is it a mitzvah for a person not to say that which will not be heeded” (Yevamot 65b). At its core, tokhaḥah is about saying things in a way that can be heard, and not saying them at all if they cannot be heard. The emphasis is on relationship and efficacy of feedback, not on being as loud as possible.

Just as importantly, tokhaḥah demands an incredibly high level of certainty before critiquing others’ decisions. In the Talmud, the Third Century rabbi Reish Lakish suggests that the reason Miriam was afflicted with the skin disease of tzara’at in the book of Numbers was because she unfairly accused Moses of wrongdoing (Shabbat 97a). Whether taken literally or metaphorically, the message is clear: we betray our own bodies when we make unfair accusations.

I think it’s hard for us to take this orientation to heart because we live in an era that implicitly, and sometimes explicitly, advocates speaking our minds regardless of whether we’re listened to or how much time we’ve spent researching the issue at hand. We can blame social media and other technological advances, but this is not a new phenomenon. In Jewish tradition, this is the approach of prophecy. 

Tanakh (the Hebrew bible) is full of prophets who boldly proclaimed their moral outrage without relationally tailoring it to their audiences. The result? Almost nobody listened to them. Tanakh can largely be summed up as a book of moralistic warnings followed by total apathy. One way to make sense of this is that those who were rebuked were stuck in their errant ways. Another, however, is that the prophetic rebukers were terribly misguided.

I believe this is a significant reason that the Third Century Rabbi Yoḥanan (Reish Lakish’s teacher and study partner) said that when the Second Temple was destroyed — a destruction that was brought about because people did not give each other tokhaḥah — “prophecy was taken from the prophets and given to imbeciles and children” (Bava Batra 12b). I don’t think this is descriptive. Instead, Rabbi Yoḥanan is begging us to move from a paradigm of “prophetic voice,” boldness, and moral outrage to one of tokhaḥah, relational sensitivity, and humility.

As we continue to navigate and watch this painful conflict unfold, I hope that more of us can make this paradigm shift as well.

About the Author
Ayalon Eliach is a rabbi and lawyer who loves to make complex ideas digestible, relevant, and useful.
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