Does Hanifah Mean Flattery?

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by R. Gidon Rothstein

We commonly translate hanifah as flattery, yet Rabbenu Yonah’s nine categories of hanafim do not seem to me to fit the word. Sadly, many of Rabbenu Yonah’s categories are very much alive in our times. This week, the first two types are ones I think we unfortunately see in among many American Orthodox Jewish leaders (perhaps Israeli ones, too, I am just more tuned in to the American scene).

Declaring Evil Good

The highest, worst form of hanifah comes when a person tells an evildoer—who took money not theirs, slandered or verbally abused another person—s/he has not done wrong. The hanef has, first, failed to fulfill the Torah’s commandment to  remonstrate with other Jews (hokheah tokhiah, VaYikra 19;17), to attempt to bring them to understand their misdeed.

More, the hanef has supported the evildoer, given him/her shelter to decide s/he has acted properly. [If everyone tells me I’m wrong, I will more likely rethink than if only some do. As long as a person has supporters, s/he is likely to assume those supporters are right, the other people the ones who do not understand the situation properly.]

Rabbenu Yonah locates the significance of the sin in the person’s not being zealous to push truth, instead helping falsehood, declaring bad good, darkness light. This itself grates, the hanef’s willingness to mischaracterize good and bad [and, in case it is not yet clear, I am distressed over how much of that we have in our times, people happy to tell wrongdoers they are acceptable, good, or great, however they justify it to themselves. With the events of the past week, we see it in our Orthodox community as well, people rushing to tell those who did wrong they did not.]

He also objects to how the person misleads the sinner, who will feel no need to repent, because s/he has been told those actions were good, and will then also repeat the wrong in the future—why wouldn’t s/he, if it was good?– incurring further punishment, causing further damage.

Mishlei 17;15 says “one who justifies an evildoer or condemns a righteous person, both are an abomination to Gd.” Gd requires people to do their best to be clear about what counts as evil or good, and muddying those waters is itself an abomination. Rabbenu Yonah it is worse when done publicly, because the public sees and learns that what they had until then thought of as wrong is ok or good. The muddying of the waters around values is central to what is wrong with this hanef.

I say it again because it seems to me so necessary to stress: Rabbenu Yonah wants us to know being clear about the nature of right and wrong, labelling them carefully and correctly, is one of our basic roles as human beings in Gd’s world. Those who willingly overlook wrongs committed by others, tell those people they are just fine, fail at this fundamental task.

Buttering Up a King

Better to let oneself be in danger than tell a king he is doing right when he is in fact doing wrong, says Rabbenu Yonah. He notes the story of Agrippas, Sotah 41a, a descendant of converts who took the throne towards the end of the Second Temple. Reading the Torah in public, he came to the Torah’s prohibition of crowning an ish nokhri, someone not born of Jews, Devarim 17;15, and began to cry, embarrassed to realize he had no right to his position.

The assemblage reassured him, “Agrippas, you are our brother!” Comments a tanna in the name of R. Natan on 41b, the people made themselves liable for destruction, for falsifying the truth. (They could have comforted him, perhaps, but not by saying he was right to rule when the Torah excluded him.)

Staying away from such statements is also important for judges, who must not fear any defendants, must stand up for truth always. Should they accustom themselves to telling wrongdoers they are acting well outside their role as judge, I think he means, they will get used to it, and eventually pervert justice.

[We can easily imagine the rebuttal: the Jews calmed Agrippas down because he was largely a good king, giving them many other results they wanted, putting judges they liked in place, moving an embassy where they wanted it, playing a role in peace treaties they valued, or they feared he would hurt them if they did not. Rabbenu Yonah is saying those are not valid reasons to misconstrue the truth and the nature of right and wrong. They need to find ways to express gratitude without papering over evil actions.]

Praising Evildoers On Other Accounts

Dealing with evildoers gets more complicated in the second category, praising the evildoer for other good traits, without saying s/he was right or good for specific wrongs. This is the more prominent type in leaders today, who insist they must thank people who do much evil for those goods they do.

Mishlei 28;4 calls characterizing an evildoer as a “good person,” (Rabbenu Yonah’s words, ish tov, a good man) an abandonment of Torah, because only such abandonment could lead one to such praise. Speaking on behalf of an evildoer makes a case that s/he is, on balance, good, when in fact s/he is not.

Focusing on the good, ignoring or covering over the bad, is the problem, because people who do not know this person will form a misimpression, will honor him/her, and the evildoer will then find further success. One can only mention the good things this evildoer does if also noting his/her misdeeds.

Rabbenu Yonah quotes two verses that highlight the challenge in following his advice here. Mishlei 10;7 says the name of the wicked should rot, and Yeshayahu 57;12 has Gd say “I will recite your righteousness and your good deeds, and they will not help you.” Meaning, some people are so evil, their names should rot—we should not praise even where they have done well—and their good deeds are insufficient to change our overall perception of them [when does lipstick help a pig?].

[Who qualifies as such an evildoer becomes an obvious question, although I doubt we will find consensus on the answer. It’s easy to say Mussolini should not be praised for getting the trains to run on time—if he did— because we are not living in Italy during his reign and he was clearly evil in many ways. With real, current people, we can end up disagreeing if they just occasionally do bad or qualify as evil, and then to accept the necessity of avoiding praising that person even for the goods s/he might have done. Because we cannot seem to be supporting evil.]

Rosh HaShanah 16b says a person whose sins outweigh his/her merits is judged and sealed for death. Rabbenu Yonah adds evildoers are known by their talk and modes of conduct, as clarified in an earlier (lost) section of this work, the Gate of Fear of Sin.

Hating the Evildoer

Righteous people experience evildoers as an abomination, Mishlei 29;26 tells us. Unless one reacts to evildoers this strongly, one has not yet glimpsed the secret of true righteousness. Staying neutral, refraining from praising the evildoer but also not cursing or reviling him/her, is not an option for the righteous, Rabbenu Yonah says.

Some people might mistakenly decide to praise an evildoer out of their lack of education or wisdom. They fail to realize they are praising the dead, in the sense that evildoers and their deeds  [think again about that embassy] have no lasting value, are not part of Gd’s future, and the person who praised them has made an error Rabbenu Yonah thinks Gd counts as deliberate [because Avot tells us unwitting counts as willful when it comes to hillul Hashem, profaning the Name of Gd, I think]. When we are supposed to know to stand against a person or action, and we do not, Rabbenu Yonah thinks ignorance or foolishness is no defense.

His last two lines of the paragraph say why: a servant cannot be considered to love the master (or Master) if the servant loves or values those who distance the master. Jews who claim to love and serve Gd but allow themselves to see good in those in fact working to distance Gd from the world, thereby show a gap in their love of Gd, regardless of the motives they thought they had.

It highlights the importance of knowing the difference between a righteous person, a middling person who has some good deeds and some bad (and whose good deeds we certainly can and should praise), and an evildoer, who is so far from Gd’s values that we must refrain even from praising any goods this person has to do.

It’s not an easy decision process. Currently, we seem to gravitate to seeing the good and minimizing the bad, I think in the hopes it will bring more people back to the good. Sometimes, we have to see a person as s/he is currently, must see that person is so encompassed by evil, even the good must be distasteful to us. [I have not changed or exaggerated what Rabbenu Yonah wrote; I also hope I have not been too subtle about its contemporary resonance. If I have, please feel free to email me, grothst is the user name for the gmail address.]

Next time, we’ll see lesser versions of hanifah, and come closer to an accurate translation than the inadequate flattery.

About Gidon Rothstein

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