Dr. Elliot Resnick
Dr. Elliot ResnickCourtesy

Many people hail self-esteem as the most important trait a child can possess. But is it?

Psychologist Abraham Maslow, who’s partially responsible for inspiring the self-esteem movement, began harboring doubts about it in his later years when, among other things, he observed in his research that people with high self-esteem “were more apt to come late to appointments with the experimenter, to be less respectful, more casual, more forward, more condescending.”

Rabbi Jonathan Sacks shares this anecdote in his book Morality: Restoring the Common Good in Divided Times and adds that, according to researchers Jean Twenge and W. Keith Campbell, the self-esteem movement has “led to an epidemic of narcissism, and that ‘narcissism causes almost all of the things that Americans hoped high self-esteem would prevent, including aggression, materialism, lack of caring for others, and shallow values.’”

Some studies, for example, link criminal behavior to high levels of self-esteem. After all, if you think you’re the greatest thing since sliced bread, why shouldn’t you commit a crime to get what you want? Don’t you deserve it? Other studies show that high self-esteem doesn’t even necessarily help people succeed. One survey, for example, found that young South Korean teenagers professed to be terrible at math yet scored higher than any other group in the survey while young American teenagers professed to be great at math yet scored lower than any other group in the survey.

When confronted by evidence of this kind, self-esteem proponents tend to respond, “These people have unhealthy self-esteem. We champion healthy self-esteem.” Well, that’s a tricky move and one that’s rarely needed to justify traditional virtues. How often, for example, do we have to account for criminals who are just too kind or too pious?

But if we’re going to play this game, why play it with self-esteem? Why not play it with humility instead and make humility the center of our educational efforts? Naturally, self-esteem enthusiasts will argue that excessive humility is harmful because people who possess it wrongfully allow themselves to be stepped on. That might be true – and I say might because the Gemara actually lauds Dama ben Nesina for letting his mother strike and spit at him in public. But even if it is true, the response to this argument is simple: “What you’re referring to is unhealthy humility. We champion healthy humility.”

What’s the difference between promoting self-esteem and promoting humility if a caveat needs to be added either way?

The difference is that humility is a middah that’s extolled in virtually every single Jewish ethical work ever written whereas self-esteem appears as a virtue in almost no Jewish ethical work at all.

The Rambam famously writes that humility is one of two character traits concerning which a person should strive to be an “extremist” (the other is avoiding anger). Pirkei Avos says that humility – remembering that you were born from a “putrid drop” and will be buried among “worms and maggots” – will keep you from sinning. The Jewish people’s greatest leader, Moshe Rabbeinu, is praised for being the humblest of men, not the one with the greatest self-esteem. Thrice daily in Shemoneh Esrei, we pray that our “soul be like dust to all.” Think about that: “dust to all.”

In all of Jewish literature, one would be hard-pressed to find a single statement glorifying self-esteem. (Indeed, classical Hebrew doesn’t even have a term for it.) And it’s no wonder. To paraphrase remarks from Rabbi Jonathan Sacks’ celebrated TED Talk in 2017, the Torah tells us to be other-centered, not self-centered, to possess other-esteem, not self-esteem.

Think about the rising divorce rate. What factor is to blame? Too much humility or too much self-esteem? “This marriage isn’t working for me.” Does that statement emanate from a person with too much humility or too much self-esteem?

Frum self-esteem proponents – desperate for legitimacy – comb through all of Torah literature and manage to come up with a smattering of sources to support their position. For example, the Gemara says that a person should think, “For me alone the world was created.” Rav Tzadok HaKohen writes that a person should believe in himself. The Alter of Slabodka would often stress that man is great.

Yet, all these statements are clearly only prologues to unspoken conclusions.

“For me alone the world was created” – and therefore I have to fulfill my destiny.

Man is great – and therefore I have a responsibility to develop myself and serve Hashem to the best of my ability. An implicit “therefore” always follows.

The Torah doesn’t sanction feeling good about oneself as an independent value (which is what the self-esteem movement promotes). It may believe in feeling good about one’s potential or one’s pure soul so that one lives up to that potential and one does credit to that soul. But this attitude is a means to an end, not an end unto itself.

If that’s true, though – and since “self-esteem” has to be qualified in any event as “healthy” as opposed to “unhealthy” – far better to forget about self-esteem altogether and promote humility instead – or emunah, yiras shamayim, or zerizus for that matter. An educational system revolving around any of these virtues – as opposed to self-esteem – will not only be more faithful to our tradition; it will also produce a much kinder, happier, and holier society.

Elliot Resnick, PhD,is the editor-in-chief of www.1vs450.com and the author or editor of five books, including, most recently, “Movers & Shakers, Vol. 3: On American Glory, Jewish Destiny, Rare Integrity, and More.”