Praise and Criticism, and the Jewish idea
By Chaim Lazer
Something that we all have to deal with on a daily basis is praise and criticism. We have read books and articles on the subjects from every one from doctors, educators and parents. Each article stresses the importance of avoiding criticizing people and to emphasize praise. Criticism, we are told is a negative trait, whereas praise is positive.
Why is it, though, we may ask, that this is the way we must deal with others. Can we not be honest in our feelings? Can we not be open and forthcoming? Why must we deal so indirect with people that we must deal in a less than frank manner?
In truth, our Jewish heritage can shed some interesting light on these questions. Approximately 150 years ago, lived a man known as Menachem Mendel of Kotzk. He was a great and brilliant chassidic rabbi that had many followers. Rabbi Menachem Mendel was known for being a zealot for truth. Never one to compromise, he taught his followers that truth in every thing was supreme. Whether in business, in inter personal relationships or just between one's own self, one had to be honest. Honest in one's dealings with others, and especially honest in one's evaluation of one's own self.
Legend has it that Rabbi Menachem Mendel and his small group of followers were chased out of one town after another due to their "anti-social" behavior. The reputation for being critically biting and acidic preceeded their approach to Kotzk. There the local people came out and threw stones at the rabbi and his small group of followers. "Aha!" the rabbi exclaimed, "this is a place where there is no indifference. If the truth bothers the local townsfolk so much that they have come out to greet us by throwing rocks, then this is the place for us!"
Kotzk, a small town in Poland, became the center for those rare individuals that were seeking "truth". Kotzk was not known as a haven of love and warmth, - perhaps it was, but it was known for being a center for truth seeking individuals. When a new "truth seeker" came to Kotzk, seeking to "perfect himself" and desiring to join the ranks of the disciples of Rabbi Menachem Mendel, he was exposed to a scathing torment of criticism from the chassidim. Each aspect of every newcomer was examined and analyzed by the chassidim. The new fellow had to hear a tremendous amount of personal criticism and take stock of what he heard. Few were able to stay in Kotzk.
What benefit did one reap from hearing the heaping torrents of criticism? Simply speaking, it was his gateway to personal improvement. The chassidim took criticism seriously. They used it to analyze their person character and make improvements. Many distinguished rabbis and refined individuals emerged from Kotzk. They had one trait in common, a unwavering desire to face up to their own character lackings and make repairs.
Today, however, we do not live in Kotzk. Truthful soul searching for the purpose of self improvement is not a common commodity. In its place, we have those seekers of happiness and enjoyment. Instead of becoming a better person through painful self-sacrifice, we have today seekers of the proverbial pot of gold at the end of the rainbow, happiness.
Now nothing is inherently wrong with being happy. May we all be happy! But happiness is not something that can be chased after. Happiness is something that comes as a result of good inter-personnel relationships and personal goal achievements. A person who, due to his effort has achieved a goal or has a positive and meaningful relationship will be happy because of his achievement. However that process which sets his goals to be achieved or his character traits which enable his inter personal relationships to be fixed are his inner values.
Inner values, which set his person in motion, are based on a person's self-evaluation of himself and his own personal talents and inherent abilities. As an example, a person who has a leaning towards art may feel stifled if he has to work on a factory assembly line, but if he worked in a studio, he might feel more satisfaction from his work. This is a character trait that lends to a person's inner satisfaction.
Similarly, if a person has a value that he must get as much happiness in his life, he will feel unhappy when others go out to have a good time and he must work. The difference here is that the inherent traits (as our example of an artistic leaning person) are not changeable, though they may be modified. Values, however, may be changed modified and even reversed.
How are we to know which values we have that are good, positive and constructive and which values are self-defeating and destructive values. On a superficial level, we can see certain things in ourselves that are not beneficial, but due to our inherent self-love, we are blinded to many other things that we should change.
There is an old proverb that states that our friends will tell us the good things about ourselves, our enemies will show us the bad things about ourselves. To effect value changes, we must be open to self-evaluation and value change. But without criticism, we have no window for self-evaluation. Whereas heaping praise on individuals will make them feel better about themselves, they will gain no insight about their selves and hence, there will be no person improvement.
Only a person who is of a weak and insecure character needs to be constantly patted on the back. For people of this inferior standing, we have no choice. We do not live in Kotzk; we live here and now. In order to get on with life, in it's most efficient manner, we must go through the motions of stroking these unfortunate people.
But for ourselves, doesn't criticism make more sense? Surely we realize that with out criticism we can't grow. Certainly a mature individual should be able to face his own shortcomings. How can he make personal character trait improvements, unless he is able to accept what others say and make a self-evaluation on an impartial basis.
This is what is important in life. This is what will bring true and lasting happiness. When we are able to change ourselves and our values to desire doing good and positive acts, then we will have lasting enjoyment. But when we are constantly seeking unwarranted praise, there is no possibility of improvement and no possibility of lasting happiness.
from the March 1999 Passover Edition of the Jewish Magazine