Parshiyot Aharei Mot-Kedoshim 5783

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Tokhehah: The Critical Feedback Dance
A D’var Torah for Parshiyot Aharei-Mot / Kedoshim 
By Rabbi Rob Scheinberg

“Hokheiah tokhiah et amitekha.” “You shall surely reprove your fellow.” (Leviticus 19:17) Giving critical feedback, or tokhehah (often translated as “reproof” or “rebuke”), is a positive mitzvah in the Torah.

Perhaps this shouldn’t surprise us, as constructive critique and feedback is a primary way that we learn and grow. And yet, already in the time of the Talmud, two of the greatest sages of their generation indicated that almost everyone who attempts to fulfill this mitzvah is doing it wrong.

In the Babylonian Talmud, Arakhin 16b, Rabbi Tarfon and Rabbi Elazar ben Azariah differ about why the system of tokhehah seems to be broken. According to Rabbi Tarfon, “I would be surprised if there is anyone in this generation who can receive rebuke. If the one rebuking says ‘Remove the splinter from between your eyes,’ the other responds: ‘Remove the beam from between your eyes!’” In other words, the experience of receiving criticism, even when generously offered, tends to activate the hearer’s defensiveness, which in turn makes the hearer especially attentive to the critic’s flaws. Rabbi Tarfon suggests that this is a nearly intractable problem of human nature; it can be solved only if everyone gets a thicker skin.

Rabbi Elazar ben Azariah, however, thinks that the problem is not with the hearer, but with the speaker: “I would be surprised if there is anyone in this generation who knows how to rebuke.” Rabbi Elazar ben Azariah thinks that the problem is not that people are oversensitive when they hear criticism, but that offering criticism is a delicate and careful art, in which too few of us are skilled. If we all knew how to give criticism in a sensitive enough way, people would be able to receive it appropriately.

The formulation used by both of these sages, “I would be surprised if there is anyone in this generation who…”, implies that they were including themselves in their critiques. Presumably Rabbi Tarfon knew that he himself had a tendency to focus on the flaws of the person who was criticizing him, and Rabbi Elazar ben Azariah knew that his delivery of critical feedback often got in the way of others accepting it — maybe like many of us. These problems cause many simply to give up on tokhehah, having been burned by it (having received criticism that was perceived as hurtful, or having given criticism that was perceived as hurtful).

Interestingly, though, Rabbi Tarfon and Rabbi Elazar ben Azariah do not suggest that the system of tokhehah is irrevocably broken — merely that people are not very good at it.

Two other comments from our sages may lead us out of this predicament. First, a provocative passage in the Midrash tells us: “Rabbi Yosi ben Hanina taught: love is not truly love without reproof.” (Bereishit Rabbah 54:3) The system of tokhehah is still essential even when it does not work optimally. People who are unable ever to give critical feedback to each other, or who get angry whenever they receive critical feedback, are not going to be able to sustain a truly loving relationship, which presupposes that they care enough about each other that they value each other’s opinion and are willing to be honest and open with each other. Rabbi Yosi’s teaching may incline us to be more tolerant in receiving tokhehah that is dispensed imperfectly.

Second, a passage from the Talmud (Yevamot 65b) tells us: “Rabbi Ile’a said 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.” In other words, the best context for tokhehah is in a loving relationship, because it’s in a loving relationship in which the speaker knows the hearer well enough to know how to speak in a way that maximizes the chances that the hearer will listen.

Successful tokhehah is a dance that involves both people stretching towards each other. The person who wants to give tokhehah has to stretch to say it in the best possible way. And the person who is hearing it also has to stretch, to listen to and absorb the tokhehah even when it is not said in the best possible way.

Sometimes the two partners stretch towards each other but they don’t connect. But hopefully, often enough, they do connect, and grow.
Rabbi Robert Scheinberg, Ph.D., is the Interim Rabbi in Residence at the Academy for Jewish Religion, where he teaches courses in Jewish Liturgy, as well as the Rabbi of the United Synagogue of Hoboken. Rabbi Scheinberg was a member of the editorial committees for Mahzor Lev Shalem and Siddur Lev Shalem, the prayer books used in many Conservative congregations.