By DONNIEL HARTMAN
The goal of every religious tradition in general and Judaism in particular is to provide structure and motivation to generate moral and spiritual growth. The great enemy of religion is mediocrity, and the fundamental purpose of every system of laws and rituals is to maximize the potential embedded within human nature which all too often lies unrealized.
One of the more beautiful and interesting attempts of Judaism to achieve this end is its institutionalization of the obligation to serve as moral and value critics toward each other. As Leviticus 19:17
teaches, when we see fellow Jews doing something wrong, and not fulfilling their duty or living up to their potential, we are obligated not to remain silent, but rather to speak to them, critique them and challenge them to change.
Criticism is not viewed as an expression of animosity and distance, but rather as an act of love and care. Our responsibilities to others are not exhausted by refraining from harming them or lending a helping hand in times of financial crisis. We are obligated to the moral and spiritual improvement of the society in which we live, which entails holding ourselves and others to higher standards.
The aim of this duty of mutual social criticism is not to express one’s own moral superiority, nor to relieve one’s own conscience, but rather to serve in a constructive capacity. For the social critic to fulfill their responsibility the individual being criticized must trust the critic and see him as a fellow "insider" who has an unquestioning loyalty. The language of the criticism and its tone must also express this care.
Failure to live up to these conditions transforms mutual social criticism from a catalyst for moral improvement to a deeply alienating and bifurcating experience. Even more, it stultifies peoples’ behavior and causes them to idealize unnecessarily what they have done, attacking the messenger and ignoring the message.
In many ways this has happened all too often in Israeli society since the death of Yitzhak Rabin (z"l). A deep and profound criticism was directed toward the community of Yigal Amir. However, once this criticism was accompanied by a sense of moral superiority, a lack of a presupposed sense of mutual loyalty, and was conducted in a language meant to shame and punish, it could not be heard. The sad truth about Rabin’s death is that Israeli society has not grown in its aftermath.
Over the last few months we have witnessed ever-increasing examples of moral decay – child abuse in the ultra-Orthodox community, teenage drunkenness and violence in the secular community, murder in the community of immigrants from the FSU, and now, again, terrorism in the religious-Zionist community.
One of the challenges we face in our society is that all too often sectoral moral failings are used by other sectors as moments for rejection, self-aggrandizement and self-congratulation and not recognized as a moral failing of us all. The violence – while in each case perpetrated by a member of a particular sector – is not sectoral violence, but Israeli violence which we must all combat equally and together.
Non-haredi Jews have no cause to celebrate when we witness the failings of an individual haredi. Non-settlers have no cause to celebrate when a settler is found to have engaged in terrorism and murder. Similarly, more religiously observant Israelis have no cause to celebrate at the violence that is increasingly plaguing the club scenes of our major cities.
If we are to avoid repeating the mistakes of the past, and grow and improve morally as a society, we must return to the culture of mutual criticism out of love and care. That, however, cannot begin at the moment of criticism; it must be built on an ongoing daily basis. A society where mutual loyalty is taken for granted is a society that can grow morally, for it is a society in which each one of us can serve as a check and balance to the other.
Israel is a society of deep ideological, cultural and ethnic differences. When each sector circles the wagons and becomes defensive at its own moral challenges, we have a society that has institutionalized its moral mediocrity and failings. Through a healthy and vibrant culture of dialogue, respectful debate and mutual criticism, we can harness our differences into a powerful force for societal growth and improvement.