You Shall Pursue

February 19, 2014

On Calling in and Service

Filed under: Social Justice — Tags: , , — marleyweiner @ 4:28 pm

A while ago, I read this fabulous article about engaging and building community with people even when they perpetuate oppression, and how we can build towards a less oppressive world in a loving way. The author, Ngọc Loan Trần, speaks movingly of the human cost that both oppressive speech and shutting down loving bonds as a result of speech can bring, and how to maintain loving relationships without sacrificing the dignity that comes from speaking truth to power.

This is something that I struggle with a lot as a rabbi. Part of my duty and service to my community is to stand as a moral exemplar, and I see part of my moral example is as an ally against oppression both outside of my community and (especially) inside of it. But another part of standing as a moral exemplar is loving, in a powerful and practical way, all of the members in my community, even when they hold opinions that are contrary to my own beliefs. Certainly there are certain behaviors that are beyond the pale, but most of the time, it is my duty to engage with people whose views I find oppressive with both justice and love.

A few weeks ago, the RRC student community studied on the concept of tochecha, which means rebuke. As rabbis, we are taught that it is our duty to reprimand with love in order to bring people’s behavior back in line with the values that they espouse. I will repeat here the text that we studied in full.

From Mishneh Torah Hilchot De’ot 6:6 (translated by Eliyahu Touger off

When one person wrongs another, the latter should not remain silent and despise him as II Samuel 13:22 states concerning the wicked: “And Avshalom did not speak to Amnon neither good, nor bad for Avshalom hated Amnon.”

Rather, he is commanded to make the matter known and ask him: “Why did you do this to me?”, “Why did you wrong me regarding that matter?” as Leviticus 19:17 states: “You shall surely admonish your colleague.”

If, afterwards, [the person who committed the wrong] asks [his colleague] to forgive him, he must do so. A person should not be cruel when forgiving (as implied by Genesis 20:17): “And Abraham prayed to God…”

Some points, regarding the Jewish notion of tochecha. First of all, one is expected to rebuke one’s fellow. It is law, and the one who does not do it has committed an injustice.

However, the word “fellow” is really important here. In the proof text, from the horrific story of the rape of Tamar, it is not Tamar who is expected to rebuke, but rather her brother Avshalom, who is the social equal of Amnon. I would argue that this piece teaches us that true tochecha is only possible  between those in a relationship of mutual respect. While structural inequality may prove a real systemic barrier to the empathy necessary to allow for true education and rebuke, challenge and education that comes from a place of love and empathy has a much better chance of succeeding.

This means that it is up to us to create the spaces where rebuke is possible. To serve as allies, as much as possible, to those for whom, because of a variety of reasons, rebuke is difficult or dangerous. And to actively build spaces where people feel, as much as is possible, that they can engage in rebuke and that it will be met in a loving and gentle way.

Part of that is offering critique consistently, to stand up and speak out against oppression wherever we see it. But part of that is also making a space for people who are ignorant, or growing, or asking questions, or having difficulty seeing beyond their privilege to be held accountable in a gentle and loving way. The important phrase here is “being held accountable.” Holding people who are working on their privilege in love does not mean that we don’t rebuke them. Tradition teaches us that we have that duty. And certainly we don’t back down from rebuke. That is also our duty. The challenge is creating a space for people to work out why their behavior was oppressive and feel like they can still be contributing members (Jay Smooth has one potential really excellent guide to this).

Certainly this isn’t work for every activist to do. But as clergy, it’s the work that I’ve chosen to take on, and a very particular way of doing it. And I find it helpful to know that other people are thinking about and creating guides to build communities that are both loving and accountable to each other.


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