Seeing Criticism as Critical: The Art of Rebuke in Judaism

Posted on November 14, 2019

By Rabbi Michael Schwab

“You shall not hate your kinsfolk in your heart. Reprove your kin but incur no guilt on their account” (Leviticus 19:17). 

Very few of us like being criticized.  It often hurts to know that we didn’t do everything 100% correctly and that we were not always at our best.

However, without critical feedback, how can we improve?  Without someone pointing out our mistakes or sharing why our perspective is flawed, how will we make better choices in the future? 

Generally, in our society today we have become incredibly sensitive to criticism and most people like to avoid giving it or getting it.  According to Judaism, this mindset is short-sighted.  As the Sages lamented way back at the beginning of the millennium, “Rabbi Elazar ben Azariah said, ‘I swear that there is none in our generation who is able to accept rebuke! If one says, “Take the splinter out of your teeth,” the other retorts, “Take the beam out of your eyes!”’” In other words, even then the Sages were discouraged that when one gave critical feedback to another, instead of taking it in and using it constructively, the other became defensive and counter-attacked the one who delivered the criticism. 

The truth is that we need to be able to hear criticism about our actions and choices in order to keep away from mistakes as well as to heal relationships we might not have realized we tarnished by our behavior.  As the midrash says, “Rabbi Jose said, ‘A love without reproof is no love.’ Resh Lakish said, ‘Reproof leads to peace; a peace where there has been no reproof is no peace.’”

Yet, how we deliver critical feedback is just as important.  There is way to rebuke and a way not to rebuke.  As the Rambam codified in his Mishneh Torah law code, “He who rebukes another . . . should administer the rebuke in private, speak to the offender gently and tenderly, and point out that he is only speaking for the wrongdoer’s own good.” 

In other words, criticism should be leveled only when it is constructive, done for the benefit of the person or the people for whom they are responsible and should not embarrass the person. 

According to Judaism, being a fellow community member means that we need to be able to deliver criticism and receive it.  And when doing so, we need to uphold the highest level of menschlekite possible.  Otherwise the act of criticizing might do even more harm than good.

Shabbat Shalom!