Judaism: Ohr Torah: How to Instruct and Be Heard
"You shall not hate your brother in your heart; you shall surely instruct your fellow and do not bear a sin because of him." (Leviticus 19:17)
Soon after my aliya, I took a bus through downtown Jerusalem. I didn’t particularly notice a young woman in the back of the bus who sat down next to a pious-looking hareidi man. He, in his black hat, black coat and long beard, and she, in her sandals, skirt and sleeveless top were part of a typical Jerusalem scene.
When the young woman quietly asked the man to close the window, he turned to her rather matter-of-factly with the words, “Would you please lengthen your sleeves?”
“Mister,” the woman said, her voice rising to match her indignation, “the open window is bothering me!” “Madam, your bare arms are bothering me,” he responded.
Her face was now grim and determined as she shouted, “Are they my arms or your arms?” My stop was approaching and I was running late for a meeting, but I was also desperate to hear the outcome of this confrontation, and almost everyone on the bus, including the driver, voiced their position for or against the woman.
No one on the bus argued from a practical perspective – how could she lengthen her sleeves even if she wanted to? I, for one, found the intellectual and emotional exchange exhilarating until I overhead a man behind me cry hysterically to his wife, “I told you we have to leave the country. When they are in control, they will demand total religious conformity from all of us.”
By the time I got off the bus, the window had not been closed nor had the sleeves been lengthened. Still, for the first time, I began to sense the passion of secular Jews in Israel who are frightened of the future and view the growing religious trend as a movement toward repression and persecution. This incident wasn’t just another disagreement; it was part of a conflict that threatens to tear apart our nation.
The standard liberal position would regard the hareidi man in this incident as the villain, but what would be the position of our Jewish tradition? The verse cited above, “You shall surely instruct your fellow and do not bear a sin because of him,” seems to be a scriptural imperative.
Maimonides formulates the law “One who sees his friend sinning or following an improper path is commanded to restore him to the proper way of life…. Anyone who is able to instruct and does not do so becomes responsible for the sin of his friend.” (Laws of Proper Opinions 6,7). It seems that the hareidi man did exactly what he was supposed to do! A closer look at the texts, however, reveals a different reality. The Talmud (B.T. Yebamot 65b) states, “Just as one is commanded to say that which will be obeyed, so is one commanded not to say that which will not be obeyed.”
Maimonides teaches: “Should you rebuke someone to the point that his face changes color? The Torah states: ‘You should not bear a sin because of him’” (ibid).
Maimonides is teaching us that you must be certain that your manner of reproach will not cause you to sin, by publicly shaming someone and by turning them even farther away from Judaism.
Fascinatingly, the Vilna Gaon teaches that if someone declares himself to be a non-observant Jew, it is forbidden to attempt to instruct him because you will most likely alienate him even farther from our tradition (Shulhan Aruch Orah Haim 608, Biyur Halacha).
Let me briefly recount an incident that illustrates the proper way to instruct. Soon after my aliya, I conducted a seminar for 25 non-observant families on the topic of Shabbat. In the aftermath of the seminar, many of the children were switched from secular to religious schools.
The success of the seminar was not due to the presenters but rather to two participants, a husband and wife, who were both professors. They were deeply moved by all the learning, and after the seminar, they hosted a weekly class in their home, which the entire group enthusiastically attended. When I met with them to thank them, I asked what had initially caused them to respond to our ad.
They told me that they lived in a small apartment building in Ramat Gan whose inhabitants were all secular, except for one observant family. That family never complained when people held loud parties on Shabbat. Instead, they were always warm and friendly to everyone. On Friday nights, they kept the door of their apartment open. As the delicious aroma of the food and the sounds of their singing wafted through the building, children started gathering at the open doorway. The family welcomed them in, and soon adults followed and they, too, were warmly welcomed into the apartment.
“We were moved to tears when we saw our neighbors bless their sons and heard them singing together around the table,” the wife told me. “So when your advertisement appeared in the newspaper, my husband and I were more than ready to hear about the Sabbath and its observance.”