Hanifah Is About How We React to Evil

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by R. Gidon Rothstein

Seven categories of hanifah to go, then we can see why I think Rabbenu Yonah read the word as “excusing evil.” Some flattery does that, but it’s not essential to it, the reason I think we should begin to change our translations (just as I now translate avodah zarah as “worshipping powers other than Gd,” because idolatry narrows it too much. A different discussion).

Praising the Evildoer in Private

The third kind of hanef praises the evildoer to his/her face, with no one else present. This hanef is sensitive enough to avoid misleading others into thinking well of the evildoer, while allowing him/herself to still curry favor with him/her. The severity of the crime here lies in the hanef’s implicit message the evildoer need not change, need not worry about his/her sins, because the hanef has just told him/her s/he is correct in thinking of him/herself as a fine person.

Other than the righteous, people who hear praise take it as validation they are acting correctly and well. Mishlei 11;9 tells us a hanef mouth destroys a friend or colleague, where the righteous escape with their true knowledge. The righteous know not to believe all their positive press; for the rest of us, positive words tell us we are on the right path, fortify us in our resistance to change.

The Dangers of Praise

Too, it gives us an inflated sense of ourselves, feeds the ga’avah (arrogance or conceit) in each of us, Righteous people spot the danger in empty or misdirected praise, do not let it swell their heads, and keep working on self-improvement. Niddah 30b tells us to ignore the whole world calling us a righteous person, to instead see ourselves as evildoers.

[The Gemara need not mean it literally to still uphold Rabbenu Yonah’s idea. A healthy awareness of how far any of us is from perfection leaves each of us still in the realm of evildoer in the sense of having work to do. Accepting compliments as reason to think our path of self-improvement is done is when the trouble starts, I think the Gemara could be saying.]

Avot de-Rabbi Natan 29 similarly advises us to prefer friends who give constructive criticism to those who compliment or praise us needlessly. Mishlei might mean the righteous save others, let alone themselves, with their knowledge, as they will share truths friends need to hear rather than the usual pleasantries. Should those friends be open to those ideas, they will be put on the path to improvement and salvation from their lesser selves.

Rabbenu Yonah notes some hanafim do so to curry favor with powerful people. (Note: here hanifah sounds like flattery, praising the evildoer so s/he will think well of a person.) In his slightly different version of Avot de-Rabbi Natan, whoever is mahanif for the sake of gathering honor ends up slinking away in embarrassment [imagine serving a leader loyally for years, papering over many misdeeds, only to be publicly reviled the first time support is not as full-throated as the leader wants. That’s the end Rabbenu Yonah is understanding for those who are mahanif to further personal position or wealth.]

It’s wrong because it supports evil, and it’s silly or self-defeating because it does not even get the desired results.

Partnering with an Evildoer

The next level down (remember, Rabbenu Yonah does these hierarchically) are people who work with evildoers. They do not necessarily praise them (although how often do people work with other people and never praise them?), they refrain from admonishing or remonstrating with them (and certainly do not shun the evildoer until s/he changes), they act as friends, and bring them close. II Divrei Ha-Yamim 20;37 has a prophet rebuke Yehoshafat, a Gd-fearing Judean king, for having allied with Ahazyahu, an evildoing king from the north.

The righteous are disgusted by evildoers, Rabbenu Yonah says, and Megillah 28a prohibits looking at an evildoer, saying it will dim the person’s eyes in old age. The Gemara gives the example of Yitzhak Avinu, whose eyesight suffered for his having looked at Esav (other passages in Midrash offer other reasons). Rabbenu Yonah notes Yitzhak did not know of Esav’s evil, yet looking at him still had the effect of weakening his eyesight. Joining an evildoer hurts the joiner.

[These ideas, which I don’t think are much argued, remind us of the importance of the distinction between an evildoer and someone whose misdeeds we think we can excuse and/or rectify with a gentler approach. For an easy example, the kiruv movement starts with the idea those raised in a completely non-Torah environment do not know any better, and in that sense do not count as evildoers. Many will extend that to those raised in a Torah environment who find themselves seduced by the surrounding culture. Complicated questions.

Yet Jewish tradition also clearly thinks of some people as evildoers, with whom we may not collaborate, let alone praise for their evil. It’s a hard line for people to draw today, a line over which a person who crosses has put him/herself in a position where Jews should not partner with him or her even in seemingly positive ways.]

Misplaced Praise

The fifth type of hanef sets up a relative, friend, or other person as wise or expert, a worthy leader, when s/he is not. Based on the recommendation, the community trusts the person, follows his/her ideas despite they perverting justice [not willfully or evilly, only because the person is unqualified to see the more correct answers], and miscarriages of justice destroy the world. Or, the hanef asserts someone’s trustworthiness without knowing it, leading another Jew to give that person financial or other power, such as power of attorney over his/her property for some business reason. The recommendation made without sufficient knowledge ends up hurting another Jew.

Sanhedrin 7b says anyone who sets up an unworthy judge has metaphorically planted an ashera, a tree of worship of a power other than Gd. If there is a true Torah scholar in the area, it’s as if the ashera was planted right next to a mizbeah, mixing proper and improper respect, making it harder to know who truly has the knowledge to count as a Torah scholar.

[Here, hanifah seems closer to flattery. I still think Rabbenu Yonah is focused on the flattery damaging other people, and there is an evil there, of taking on a position for which one is unqualified, leading others to suffer financially or worse. If I say a certain person is a competent doctor when it’s not true, Rabbenu Yonah is bothered by the patients that doctor will hurt-evilly, because s/he should not be acting as a doctor if not able to—not the flattery itself.]

Hanef By Omission

The sixth type of hanef stays silent when s/he could have protested a wrong, does not note or object to evildoers’ acts, admonish, rebuke, or remonstrate with them. Unfortunately for the silent hanef, Jews are commanded to remove evil from our midst, and Shabbat 54b thinks halakhah blames one who could have stopped bad or wrongful behavior—of family members, fellow citizens of a city, the people of the world, each according to his/her level of influence– as if that person did it him/ herself. With great sway comes great responsibility. It’s part of the well-known intertwining of Jews, as Sanhedrin 27b says, makes us all responsible for each other.

[I pause here again, because our world discourages interfering in others’ “business,” tells us to hold back on commenting on others’ behavior, emphasizes we should not think we know better than anyone else. For good and valid reasons, because there are many know it alls, busybodies, and more, who would do well to mix in less. And, the Torah also tells us of times when a well-placed protest will stop evil in its tracks. Those protests need not come from rabbis or communal leaders, should come from whoever can have the desired effect.

It’s hard to know which is which—in the seventh category, Rabbenu Yonah knows of people who are already well-known to reject any kind of rebuke or remonstration, and agrees we may keep quiet with them– and easier to refrain. Rabbenu Yonah reminds us there can be consequences to silence as well, being considered a hanef, and bearing culpability for others we could have put on a different path.]

The seventh category continues the thought, reminding us we may not assume our powerlessness. Unless we have tried, he says, we cannot know whether speaking up could have an effect. Shabbat 55a reads Yehezkel 9;4 to have Gd conceding the need to punish the righteous people of Jerusalem for failing to protest the evil of their contemporaries, despite Gd knowing no remonstration would have worked. Those righteous did not know, and bore guilt for their silence anyway.

Refraining From Remonstration Does Not Mean Staying Silent

The eighth and ninth categories continue his stand against being mute in the face of evil. People who know they cannot impact the evildoer may still not stay present while the evil occurs, such as staying in a conversation where people are speaking slanderously or vulgarly, or mocking Torah and mitzvot. Remaining there can be confused with acquiescence; the Jew must make clear his/her objection to the behavior, care more for Gd’s honor and the honor of Torah than his/her relationship with these people.

Sometimes, the person might be obligated to abandon their company, to cease associating with such people, an idea that leads into the ninth category, where Rabbenu Yonah objects to treating evildoers with even just the kind of respect people extend to the wealthy, currying favor with them in the hopes they will throw some of their current success this person’s way.

It’s sinful, Rabbenu Yonah says, permitted with the wealthy but not the evil [another reminder of the need to be clear about who is who]. Sometimes evildoers are able to hurt us, forcing us to treat them somewhat well [like the Tzar in pre-communist Russia]; Rabbenu Yonah permits only the kind of honor we give the powerful (we treat local gangsters with a different kind of respect than those we respect for valid reasons, Rabbenu Yonah is sure), but we may not praise that evildoer nor speak well of him/her to others.

In his reading, it was regarding such a situation that the Rabbis said (Sotah 41b, not far from 42a, where the list of the four groups he is defining appears) it is permitted to be mahanif evildoers in this world, to treat powerful evildoers as we would feared mobsters.

The nine types of hanafim show our topic has less to do with flattery as a problem—Rabbenu Yonah never brings up overpraising a good person—than with how to react to evil, with the clear assumption we may not in any way give the impression evil is fine or acceptable. At the edges, where we might suffer for being fully forthright with our response to evil, there is room to say we can treat evildoers with respect. More than that, and we become part of the problem, complicit with evil or worse.

Next time, we will start the last of the four groups, kat mesapperei lashon ha-ra, those who slander others.

About Gidon Rothstein

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