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"Truth or Consequences" Discussion and Study Guide

A. Overview

Judaism demands personal responsibility. In Ezekiel we are taught: “…The person who sins, only he shall die" (Ezekiel 18:1-4).

At the same time, Judaism burdens us with free will, as we are taught: "I call heaven and earth to witness against you this day that I have put before you life and death, blessing and curse. Choose life--if you and your offspring would live" (Deuteronomy 30:19). Moreover, "God helps a man to keep in the good path; but He allows a man to sin…" (Montefiore, p. 198).

In short, we are free to choose how we act, and, therefore, we are responsible for the inevitable consequences of our behaviors.

Our behaviors. What about those of others? To what extent, if at all, are we also responsible for theirs? And, if their behavior is our concern, how do we express that profitably?

Enter Maimonides (12th century), who codified Torah's laws into two-hundred forty-eight positive commandments and three-hundred sixty-five negative: the "613 Commandments, known by their Hebrew numerical acronym as "Taryag Mitzvot."

Commandment 205 asserts, "…we are commanded to rebuke one who is sinning or is disposed to sin, to forbid him to act so and to reprove him. A man may not say: 'I am not going to sin; and if another sins, that is a matter between him and God.' Such an attitude is repugnant to the Torah. We are commanded not to sin and not to permit any of our nation to sin" (Chavel, Vol. 1, pg. 219). This is the law Rabbi Ruth Sohn addresses in "Truth or Consequences."

Rabbi Ruth Sohn's timely discussion for the High Holy Days acknowledges that repentance sometimes requires outside help, assistance we can provide to another by placing "the mirror of truth" before him or her. Failure to do so is itself a sin for which we must seek teshuvah (return, or repentance). The commandment to help another change behavior is derived from the Torah's Holiness Code, specifically from Leviticus 19:17 which teaches, "hokhei-ach tokhiach – you shall surely rebuke."

The obligation for tokhehah (rebuking) is unlimited; you are never free to ignore it. Nor does the other person's right to free will or choice interfere with what is required of you. Parents, teachers, employers are as much your tokhehah responsibility as anyone else. Tokhehah becomes more complicated on the global stage because of the magnitude of the challenges. For these, "picking our battles" offers a practical guideline for what would otherwise be an unapproachable task.

It is not easy for us to confront another with a catalogue of his or her wrong behaviors. And why would that person even want to hear from us? Rabbi Sohn offers ten guidelines to help each of us master the art.

In addition, just as we give rebuke, we need to be ready to receive it--to enable others to place the mirror before us and to place it there ourselves.

B. Discussion

Case History Vignettes

Case history vignettes (called “Imagine”) appear throughout Rabbi Sohn’s article. Read them with an eye to your own choices.

Discussion #1

  1. What good might come from rebuking someone in the position described? From not practicingtokhehah?
  2. What harm might tokhehah create if it is given to the person in the position described? What harm might ensue if you fail to rebuke?
  3. Would you feel capable or incapable of rebuking under these circumstances? Explain.
  4. Would you want someone to hold "the mirror of truth" before you if you found yourself in a similar circumstance? Explain.

Missing the Mark?

Rabbi Sohn notes that the Days of Awe between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur ask us to wonder where we have "missed the mark." In Hebrew the word chet connotes “missed the mark”; the term is borrowed from the sport of archery and relates to two kinds of sin: sins of action, i.e. doing something wrong; and inaction, failing to act when required. (Other terms for sin are ahvon, denoting something thwarted or twisted; andpesha, related to rebelliousness. All three terms appear in the High Holy Days liturgy.) Such stock-taking should occur every day of the year.

Discussion #2:

  1. Why are the Days of Awe especially relevant for assessing our behavior?
  2. Why do the sages teach, "Repent one day before you die" (Montefiore, p. 321)?
  3. How can you "repent" for wrongdoing?
  4. Why do you think Hebrew has more than one word for "sin"?

The Obligation to Rebuke

Rabbi Sohn shows (Talmud, Shabbat 54b) that we must rebuke regardless of whether it will be heard, for failure to rebuke can have tragic outcomes. However, sometimes it's not so clear. A contrary teaching says, "Just as one is commanded to say that which will be heeded, so is one commanded not to say that which will not be heeded" (Talmud, Yevamot 65b).

Discussion #3:

  1. Do you agree that "If you're not part of the solution, you're part of the problem"? Explain.
  2. Have you been in a situation in which your failure to rebuke resulted in a worse outcome? In retrospect, what would you have done differently?
  3. Do you believe your silence, or the silence of others, permits social evils to perpetuate? How so?
  4. Is this saying in Leviticus (5:1ff): “A person who has knowledge of a matter and fails to testify in court incurs guilt that must be atoned” the same as failure to rebuke? Explain.
  5. How would you reconcile the views of Shabbat 54b (failure to rebuke is bad) and Yevamot 65b (don't speak if you may not be heeded)?

Tokhehah & Love

In a special Tokhehah that occupies two weekly Torah readings (B'chukotai, Leviticus 26:14-45; Ki Tavo, Deuteronomy 27:15-26 and 28:15-68)—designed to deter our ancestors from seeking other gods—God promises the Israelites severe punishments for abandoning Adonai. For all its theological complexities, later Jewish commentators evoked the concept of yissurin shel ahavah-– affliction out of love –-to explain these difficult verses that the Torah reader always reads quickly in a low voice and without naming the person receiving the aliyah.

The idea of affliction out of love derives from Deuteronomy 8:5, "Bear in mind that the Lord your God disciplines you just as a parent disciplines a child."

Maimonides, however, rejected this teaching, asserting instead that suffering from natural disasters is not Divine punishment but part of physical existence. Suffering from human-made disasters, like war, is society's responsibility; as for other suffering, we bring it on ourselves ("Guide of the Perplexed" III, 8-25).

In contrast, for our biblical ancestors, human suffering was a powerful warning about the dangers of violating the Covenant between God and Israel. (See Plaut, pgs. 1390-1391 for fuller discussion.)

Keep in mind, though, that the same Torah portions that speak to affliction out of love also convey God's love for Israel and the rewards that follow loyalty to Adonai (Leviticus 26:1-13 and Deuteronomy 28:1-14). Together they give rise to the idea of s'char v'onesh–-reward and punishment-– carrot and stick.

Discussion #4:

1. How might rebuking lead to "greater intimacy and deeper love,” as Rabbi Sohn suggests?

2. Explain how "affliction out of love" and "reward and punishment" might affect whether you rebuke someone.

3. Was love effective for Anonymous ("The Black Hole in His Soul" article in this issue’s Focus section)? Explain.

4. What is the greatest challenge you might face in trying to help a particular loved one change his/her behavior? Why?

5. Why does Rabbi Sohn believe that failure to argue is a weakness, rather than a strength, in a relationship? Do you agree?

6. Have you ever backed away from a disagreement in order to preserve a relationship? Explain why it did or did not work.

A Limitless Responsibility?

Rabbi Sohn notes that even though our attempts at rebuke may result in unpleasantness, the tradition does not give us the option of quitting.

Discussion #5:

  1. Why does Jewish wisdom want us to persist in tokhehah?
  2. Was there ever a time you decided to back off in your efforts to rebuke? Explain.
  3. Rabbi Sohn refers to Shabbat 55a (failure to try rebuking is unacceptable). Rabbi Tarfon taught, as a general proposition, that while you should not avoid the effort, neither are you required to complete the task (Pirke Avot 2:21). Are these contradictory? Explain. When is the rebuking task "complete"?
  4. Do you agree with Rabbi Edythe Mencher's approach ("Compassion is the Best Medicine" article in the Focus section)? Explain.

Personal Rebuke vs. Personal ChoiceWhen Direct Confrontation Isn't Enough

God "knows" that the Israelites will make their own choices, saying, "May they always be of such mind, to revere me…" (Deuteronomy 5:26). The tradition also gives us the right to choose. Moreover, Rabbi Akiva, comfortable with paradox, taught, "All is foreseen, but free will is given" (Pirke Avot 3:19).

The biblical record is filled with occasions when the Israelites made choices, although, to be sure, they were not always good decisions. Tokhehah, on the other hand, suggests that it's all right to negate another's personal choice in order to give appropriate rebuke.

Discussion #6:

  1. What might persuade you to rebuke even if it meant ignoring the other person's right to choose?
  2. Do you believe that free choice is absolute?
  3. What do you think of Rabbi Jack H Bloom's shock approach ("Recovery in Relationship" Focus section article)? Explain.
  4. Is it OK to ask others to help you with a rebuke situation? Explain.

Are We Obligated to Rebuke Parents?Balancing Tokekhah and Personal Cost

In Jewish tradition the burden is on us to rebuke even parents. There are no “personal exemptions,” although the approach to tokekhah should vary depending on the nature of the relationship.

Discussion #7:

  1. How might confronting a parent result in "personal cost" to you? Would that stop you from rebuking him or her? Explain.
  2. How much weight would you give to personal cost if the goal is just and your rebuking might help someone? Explain.
  3. What should you do if your parent refuses to pay attention to your "mirror"?

The Art of Tokhehah,Reflections & Receiving Rebukes

Tokhehahis an acquired art, requiring skill, a plan for action, and introspection; and avoiding self-righteousness. Rabbi Sohn’s ten tokhehah guidelines are designed to increase the likelihood that the person you would like to help will be present and open to what you say.

Discussion #8:

  1. Why do the ten guidelines begin with "self-awareness"?
  2. Why is it important to rebuke yourself and to look in your own "mirror"?
  3. How might you acquire such insight?
  4. If you have acknowledged your own wrongful acts, have you completed self-rebuke? What else might need to accompany self-rebuke?
  5. Explain "self-righteous." How can you avoid coming across this way when engaging in tokhehah?
  6. How will you know whether you’ve succeeded in changing another person's behavior?
  7. What will you do if you discover that your rebuke has not worked? Explain.

C. Resources

Charles B. Chavel, Tr. Maimonides: The Commandments. New York: Soncino Press. 1996. Two Volumes.

Claude G. Montefiore. A Rabbinic Anthology. Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society. 1960.

W. Gunther Plaut. The Torah: A Modern Commentary. New York: Union of American Hebrew Congregations. 1981.

Joseph Telushkin. Jewish Wisdom. New York: Morrow. 1994.

Note: Biblical translations in the Guide are from JPS Hebrew-English Tanakh. Philadelphia. Jewish Publication Society. 1999.