Mind Someone Else's Business

Rabbi Yitzchok Adlerstein"You Jews hate all the rest of us—and I can prove it!" A colleague of mine was quite taken aback by this challenge from an otherwise reasonable young Muslim. Prudently, my colleague simply asked him to explain himself.

"You Jews have been around longer as a religion than the rest of us. You believe you received the word of G-d. So why aren't you converting the rest of the world? Why would you deny them the gifts of Heaven and eternity, unless you hate them so much that you don't care about them?"

The guy was on to something. He happened to be wrong about Jews, who don't believe that you need to be a Member of the Tribe to get in. Conversion doesn't earn people Eternity. Living properly does. Rather, Judaism teaches that it is open to all people who adhere to a basic code of seven moral laws, known as the Noachide Code. Jews don't feel the need to convert others, because the stakes are not as high as they are in other faiths.

Our young friend was quite right in general, though, about people who keep their moral values to themselves. When we subscribe to the old saw of "Mind your own business," we easily give the impression that we don't care.

Believing that you know the truth will inspire contempt from those who see truth as something each person discovers by himself, and for himself. People love to mock the stereotypical fire-and-brimstone preacher who pulls up within inches of your face, wags his finger at it, and warns you of the hell-fires around the corner. Conscious of that, the rest of us run in the opposite direction, often into a cone of moral silence.

For many millions of people, however, belief in a set of rules authored by G-d is at the very core of their existence. Those who subscribe to the Judeo-Christian set of values might want to check the Good Book. The third book of the Bible says, "You shall surely rebuke your friend." For Jews who read the Torah as primarily a legal work, this is a matter of law. When you see someone about to act improperly, you are obligated to try to convince them not to. If they have already done the deed, you are obligated to reason with them, and attempt to guard against future reoccurrence of the improper behavior.

In other words, we are commanded to mind other people's business as well. Perhaps a better way of looking at it is that, sometimes, other people's business is our business.

To be sure, there are limits to this responsibility that are described in Jewish law. Not everyone is in a position to listen to rebuke; many people don't know how to do it tactfully. When the rebuke will make matters worse rather than better, Jewish law exempts people from the commandment.

Is there a middle path we can steer between a silence imposed by relativism, and a voice that others see as narrow and strident?

Chassidic tradition recalls the practice of two brothers, Rabbi Zishe and Rabbi Elimelech of Lizhensk, who both had large groups of followers. When one of them needed to rebuke one of his flock, he did not go directly to the malfeasor and accost him. He would wait for a moment that he was in earshot of the intended recipient of his remarks, and instead press his brother into service as a stand-in.

"My dear brother Zishe," Rabbi Elimelech would say, "I noticed that your prayer this morning was completely devoid of any real feeling. You rattled it off with no more enthusiasm than reading a tax code. Perhaps you failed to take a moment before prayer to compose your thoughts, and to truly turn your heart toward your Creator. You of course realize that prayer is a wonderful opportunity to speak directly with G-d, not a burden to be discharged." The sincerity and passion in Rabbi Elimelech's voice would penetrate the heart of the person for whom the words were really intended, without his feeling defensive for receiving rebuke. He allowed the other party to pick up the rebuke on his own, rather than shove it at him.

While sometimes this will not work (a small child who has run into the street needs something stronger and more direct), we often can have the best of both worlds by sharing what needs to be heard, but by being less than direct. (I am conscious of likely violating my own advice with this essay!) Instead of telling off a child, a spouse, or a coworker, we can embed counterexamples of the bad behavior in casual conversation with them. If they are in a position to accept the rebuke, they will understand and apply it to themselves. If they won't, the chances are that a more direct approach wouldn't work either.

The sagacity of this approach is easy to see. We take the sting out of a message by depersonalizing it. An argument that does not directly challenge a core belief or need of another will be heard more readily than one that does.

3/1/2011 5:00:00 AM
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    About Yitzchok Adlerstein
    Yitzchok Adlerstein is an Orthodox rabbi who directs interfaith affairs for the Simon Wiesenthal Center, and chairs Jewish Law at Loyola Law School in Los Angeles. He is hopelessly addicted to the serious study of Torah texts.