Israel Ba’al Shem Tov, the founder of the 18th century Hasidic movement, was not only a mystic and a spiritual teacher; he was also a shamanic healer, and he would travel from town to town in southeastern Poland offering his services to people with physical or psychic ailments. His reputation was widespread and wherever he would travel, people—Non-Jews as well as Jews—would flock to him for healing.
It happened once while the Ba’al Shem Tov was on the road that he spent a few days in the town of Olyka. He knew the people in the town well, for Olyka was a regular stopover in his itinerary. The Besht was staying with Reb Menahem, a householder who was an elder in the community.
Now there was a itinerant preacher who had also come to Olyka, whose name was Reb Dovid HaMokhiakh, David the Chastiser, and it was his vocation to give sermons to the communities he visited. Like most of the traveling preachers, Dovid the Chastiser would speak for two or three hours and he would concentrate on the sins that he imagined the people he was speaking to had committed, imploring them to engage in teshuvah. The communities where Reb Dovid spoke paid him a sum of money, and this was how he earned his living.
This was the first time that Reb Dovid the Chastiser had come to Olyka, and he was going to preach at the synagogue on Shabbes afternoon, and of course the entire Jewish population of the town would attend. Reb Menahem, the Ba’al Shem’s host, invited him to go with him to the synagogue, but the Besht declined.
While the Ba’al Shem was waiting for his host to return home for the Third Shabbes meal, a young man knocked on the front door. This man had been at the synagogue, listening to the preacher, and he was greatly perturbed. “Rebbe,” he said, “Dovid the Chastiser is vilifying all the people in the synagogue something terrible, telling them how awful they are and how they will burn in Hell for their sins!”
The Ba’al Shem became angry, but he knew there was nothing he could do to stop the sermon. So he told the man to return to the synagogue and ask his host, Reb Menahem, to return home immediately and not listen to the rest of the sermon.
So the man went back to the synagogue and spoke to Reb Menahem, and Reb Menachem left the shul to return home. But the man also whispered to a few other people that the Besht was really annoyed with the preacher. And when people heard that the Ba’al Shem was angry with Dovid the Chastiser, they whispered this to those around them. One by one each of the townsfolk got up and left the synagogue, and soon there was no one left in the building except the preacher himself. Naturally, the man stopped preaching.
The preacher was terribly disheartened and the following day he came to the house where the Besht was staying and greeted the master, who was sitting in a chair. “And who are you, if I may ask?” the Besht inquired. “I’m Dovid the Chastiser. . . Please tell me why you became angry with me yesterday?”
The Besht jumped up and tears poured from his eyes. “Sir, you speak evil of the Jewish people. You only see what people are doing that is wrong and you instill guilt into their hearts. And you make them fear God by telling them that they will burn in Hell for their sins.
“Let me tell you something about one of the people in this town that you were preaching to yesterday. Every day Reb Shlomo goes to the market to sell his vegetables and fruits. And he never earns enough to support his family. And so he stays in the market as late as he can, hoping to sell a few more items. But then he remembers that he is missing the afternoon prayers at the synagogue and he becomes anxious. “Oi vey,” he says with a heartfelt cry. And so he takes a few minutes away from his vegetable stand and prays to God. And you know what, Reb Shlomo doesn’t understand Hebrew at all. He doesn’t know at all what he is saying, but he prays with so much longing and love for God that all the angels in heaven are stirred by his cries.”
Well, that’s how the story ends. We don’t know what happened next. We don’t know how the preacher responded to the Ba’al Shem’s tochacha, his chastising. The Ba’al Shem had the knack of deeply affecting the lives and behavior of the people he met. So I would imagine that the master’s words, spoken with such sincerity and such love for his people had a transformative effect on the preacher, but I don’t know. It seems to me that the Ba’al Shem is no longer angry with the preacher. He’s in a very different place.
I’m so touched by the way that the Besht speaks about Reb Shlomo, how he knows the man’s troubles. And how he elevates this common man. This is one of the ways in which Hasidic tradition depicts the Ba’al Shem’s love for common people. The story about Reb Shlomo he tells the preacher was an attempt to evoke a change of Reb Dovid’s heart, so that he would develop some compassion for the common people of Olyka. On Rosh Hashanah evening, Rabbi Dev spoke about the Ba’al Shem’s teaching that if you are going to chastise someone, it must be done out of love or not at all.
The story about Reb Dovid the Chastiser is about language. Language can be used to heal and it can be used to hurt. The Ba’al Shem objected to Reb Dovid’s use of language to unjustly castigate the people of the town. The Besht had an immense love for people and he couldn’t stand seeing them demeaned by a judgmental chastiser who felt it was his professional duty to smear the lives and motives of the people he was preaching to, and who knew nothing about their lives.
What can we learn from this story? Six things, I believe. First, to become aware of when we are judging others in a critical manner. Second, to examine our prejudices about people whose lives we know little about. Third, to cultivate compassion for others. Fourth, to emphasize the good that other people do, rather than focusing on the bad. Fifth, to defend those without a voice of their own. And sixth, to refrain from unfair and cruel judgmentalism. The Besht is saying that we are not to judge our fellow human beings out of a sense of righteous morality, most especially when we know little or nothing about them. We are, instead, to love and embrace other people because they are embodiments of the divine.
Critical judgmentalism is pervasive in our society. So many of us tend to judge ourselves and others in negative ways. This one is better looking than me. That one is a conniver—better watch out! This one is dumb. That one is smarter than me—I’m jealous. How do I maintain my self-respect when I feel so weak in the presence of that one? This one is politically to the right of me—what a screwball! That one is politically to the left of me—what a simpleton! Boy, that person’s skin is sure dark! Et cetera, et cetera . . . When such negative thoughts go through our minds, they keep us from empathy, from compassion, from love.
Okay, enough . . . The real spiritual question is what to do about these unfair judgments. How does one work with such thoughts when they pop into our heads? Well, the Ba’al Shem had a strategy.
First of all, the Ba’al Shem Tov taught that you can’t prevent such thoughts from cropping up in your mind. Maybe you’re a person who doesn’t have negative judgmental thoughts, but if so, you are mighty lucky! Or perhaps highly developed spiritually and morally. But I must admit that I am personally not so fortunate or so developed. I have to cope with unfair judgmental thoughts all the time.
So what does one do about these thoughts? The Ba’al Shem teaches that one should stay mindful and not identify with such thoughts. If you learn to stay aware and mindful, when such thoughts arise in your mind you can then let them go. You can choose to turn your awareness in a different direction. You can replace the negative thought with a positive thought. You can say inwardly: “That person, like me, is a spark of the divine.” The word teshuvah can be translated as “turn.” When you deliberately turn your awareness away from unfair judgmental thoughts toward the positive, you are engaged in a form of teshuvah.
And the Ba’al Shem had another related practice as well. He said that when a negative judgment arises in your mind about another person, turn that judgment back on yourself. Ask yourself: Where is that judgment coming from? Maybe I’m seeing a bad trait in this other person that is actually in me. And then, says the Besht, work on yourself to try to repair the fault you have projected on the other person. Wow! And the Ba’al Shem lived in the 18th century, long before Sigmund Freud and Carl Jung.
I have been working with these practices for some years now, and I can testify that they are life-changing. Nonetheless, I have to admit that I’m not always successful. There are some things that that continue to make me indignant and unfairly judgmental. Let me give you a single example, one that has been irritating me a lot: Israel’s occupation of the West Bank. The continued expansion of the settlements. The failure of the Israeli government to make justice and peace with the Palestinians a moral priority. And I can become irrational and lose my temper over this, as Rabbi David and the people on the Middle East Peace Committee can tell you. My teshuvah work this High Holy Day season has largely been about this issue.
It seems to me that negative judgmentalism is one of the main impediments—perhaps the most problematic impediment—to compassion. And love and compassion are at the very center of the Ba’al Shem Tov’s scale of values.
I shared an earlier draft of this talk with Sandra Razieli, the director of Kehilla’s Bar/Bat Mitzvah program and a member of our Bimah team. Sandra offered me some valuable criticism, much of which I’ve incorporated in this talk. I’d like to share with you a few of her thoughts on judgmentalism:
“I think the message of not being judgmental is dangerous to people who err on the side of too much compassion. They may hear the words ‘be compassionate’ and then think that they need to forgive and be understanding of behavior that is, in truth, unforgivable . . .”
And Sandra gives an example: “I recently spoke with a woman who has been in an abusive relationship for over 40 years. She is financially secure and owns her own home. However, she is not able to leave the relationship because she feels she must be compassionate and understanding towards this man and it would be too hard for him if she leaves. She hasn’t learned yet to be compassionate towards herself and the messages she received as a young girl and a woman about being loving and giving to others have blocked her from treating herself with compassion and respect.”
I want to thank Sandra for this valuable insight. Not all judgments are negative and unfair. It is clear that without being able to make critical judgments, we would not be able to discern what is helpful or harmful, what is good and what is bad in particular situations. The real problem occurs when our judgments freeze into negative judgmentalism, because then our rigid attitude obscures our ability to be in connection with ourselves and with others.
Now let me say a few words about anger. People get angry. Anger is a natural reaction that rises in us. The real question is how we act on that anger when we are annoyed. Do we simply lash out at those who make us angry—or do we try to open a dialogue that might lead to constructive change?
I imagine that the Ba’al Shem would caution that in our anger we not lose our compassion for the victimizer as well as the victim. Something in the victimizer’s past warped their humanity, but still this individual is a human being, made in God’s image, with a neshamah, a pure Godly soul at their core. When we lose our ability to see divinity in any and every human being, we are losing our own connection with our own divinity.
Now here’s my problem. As I mentioned above, I can get so riled up around the brutal actions of Israelis toward Palestinians that I lose my cool and become irrational. My work these High Holy Days is trying to learn to extend my compassion even to those Israeli leaders whose policies seem to me to be an affront to what I feel is most humane about Jewish values and ethics.
This is what I see: these right-wing leaders are so fearful for the welfare of the Israeli people that they are acting out of what seems to them to be necessity. I think their actions are shortsighted, and that they have prolonged the Israeli/Palestinian conflict. They are unable or unwilling to see the image of God in the other. I am trying to understand and empathize with their motivations. And nevertheless, I will not allow my compassion for them to prevent me from my work as an activist to challenge Israel’s policies toward the Palestinians. After all, the Torah tells us that we are to love the stranger for we were strangers in the land of Egypt. In their fear for Jews, these leaders have de-humanized the Palestinians.
So this is my message to you on this Yom Kippur afternoon as this long day is moving toward the end of the fast: We must strive to stay awake to the unfair judgments and negative patterns that pop into our minds, and try to pull us into a place of separation, anger or self-righteousness. And we must struggle with our own tendencies toward black and white thinking. And we must join the quest for justice with the quest for compassion.
After the musical prayer leader’s song, I would like to ask you to take a few minutes of silence to consider the issues I’ve raised and how they might apply in your life.