Parashat Acharei Mot-Kedoshim: How Much to Reproach?
We are responsible for each other and can’t remain aloof to the deviant and harmful things happening around us. How, though, are we to observe the commandment of rebuking others without offending them?
Rabbi David Brofsky is a Senior Faculty member of the Maria and Joel Finkle Overseas Program at Midreshet Lindenbaum
Parashat Kedoshim covers a series of commandments touching upon all facets of our lives. In this parasha, we find passages dealing with our encounters with people who behave differently than us. The Torah cautions us against despising others, as we read in Leviticus 19:17: “You shall not hate your brother in your heart”. In the next verse, the Torah adds that not only are we forbidden from hating other Jews – we are even commanded to love them (“And you shall love your fellow as yourself” – Lev. 19:18).
Our sages and biblical commentators struggled to completely understand the verse. Is there any connection between “You shall not hate your brother”, the next part of the verse, “Reprove your kinsman”, and the end of verse, “incur no guilt because of him”? The commentators suggested two main approaches to this issue, which we can study in order to discuss very relevant and important fundamentals tied to how we relate to people who behave and think differently than us.
The first approach (see Rashbam, Ibn Ezra, Nahmanides) sees a connection between the first part of the verse and the remainder. How are we to prevent hatred between brothers – “You shall not hate”? The answer is that we must talk. “You shall reprove…”. When people suspect that someone else has wronged them, they must clear up the facts and speak to that person, to avert a situation where they will resent that person in their hearts. This commandment helps us and teaches us to communicate with other people, and not to end up hating others.
In contrast, the second approach does not consider the second part of the verse a continuation of the prohibition of “… you shall not hate”, but rather, as a separate commandment: “Where do we learn that one who sees someone else do something reproachable must reproach them? For it is written: “You shall reprove…” (Tractate Arakhin 16b). Moreover, “Whenever one is able to protest and does not protest, that person is connected to those that sin, for not having protested (Maimonides, Hilchot De’ot 6, 8). If a person makes no effort to prevent another person from committing a crime or causing damage, the first person becomes an accomplice, and is even held (partially) responsible for the damage that was caused. The gemara also grapples with the question of when, under what circumstances, and how often a person must rebuke others for their evil actions. Naturally, in this context, we need to take another Talmudic rule into account here: “It is better that they be unwitting sinners rather than intentional sinners” (Tractate Beitza 30b), and another rabbinic treatise states as follows: “Just as it is a mitzva for a person to say that which will be heeded, so is it a mitzva for a person not to say that which will not be heeded.” (Tractate Yevamot 65b).
Several very important principles form the underpinning for the commandment of rebuking others. First, “All of Israel is responsible for each other”. A Jew must help another Jew improve his or her ways. Furthermore, Jews aren’t allowed to remain indifferent. We may not witness questionable behavior without reacting. Of course, there are many other considerations that come into play, and it isn’t always proper or possible to rebuke others, particularly, as Rabi Elazar Ben Azariah commented, “I would be surprised if there is anyone in this generation who knows how to rebuke correctly” (Tractate Eruvin, ibid.). Nonetheless, we recoil at the sight of behavior that is against the principles of the Torah, especially if that behavior is violent and destructive. On the other hand, we also need to communicate, to talk, and to listen to others.
We are living at a time when these principles aren’t always clear. First of all, a Jew must feel responsible for the wellbeing of others and seek out ways of helping others live better and more meaningful lives. Moreover, there are values that we believe in, and we can’t remain aloof when many of our compatriots do not observe the Torah. Yet we are required to maintain good communication with our brothers and be careful not to end up, God forbid, hating others.
Parashat Kedoshim challenges us to find the right way to cope with a diverse society, while maintaining key central values. We must know how to communicate with those that are different than us, without, God forbid, transgressing the prohibition of hating our brothers.