Devarim: Call Out Culture

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by R. Gil Student

I. The Call-Out

One of the features of social media behavior, one of the ways it allows people to protest injustice, is through something named a “call out.” I would like to explore guidance we can find on this subject in the Torah portion of Parashas Devarim.

What does it mean to do a “call out”? If someone has done something wrong, I publicize it and call him out. For example, if someone uses an anti-semitic slur, I can call him out by publicly saying that he did so. If people echo and amplify my call-out, it could go viral and he could become known as someone who used an anti-semitic slur. Or, it could go nowhere and make little to no impact. However, in theory, it could damage his friendships and relationships and maybe even lead to him being fired from his job. On the other hand, it could lead to him apologizing and, more generally, it could raise awareness about how improper it to use anti-semitic slurs.

II. End-of-Life Rebuke

What does the parashah have to say on this subject? Parashas Devarim begins with Moshe rebuking the nation, toward the end of his life, as they stand ready to enter the land of Israel. Why does Moshe rebuke the people now, at the end of the forty years of wandering in the desert? Rashi (Deut. 1:3) explains that Moshe rebuked them close to his own death for four reasons (I am filling in the last two from the Sifrei): 1) so he does not repeatedly rebuke them, 2) so that they would not be embarrassed of him after the rebuke, 3) so that Moshe would not retain a grudge if they ignored his rebuke and 4) so that they should part ways in peace — meaning, with everything said that needs to be said, so they can depart from each other without any contentious issues remaining.

The commentaries point out how astonishing this claim appears. For forty years in the desert, years full of good times but also many problematic actions and complaints, Moshe never rebuked the people? What about the mitzvah of “hochei’ach tochi’ach, you must surely rebuke” (Lev. 19:17)? How, as a leader, could Moshe fail to rebuke the people for their misdeeds? Rav David Pardo (18th cen., Italy; Maskil Le-David, ad loc.) suggests that, of course, Moshe did whatever he could to stop the people from sinning, including rebuking them. Now, he rebuked them over sins for which they had already done teshuvah. They had repented and stopped sinning so there was no urgency to the rebuke and that is why he could wait until a more opportune time.

But this only raises another question. We know from Rashi why Moshe waited so long to rebuke them but once they did teshuvah, what was the point of rebuking them once they stopped sinning? Furthermore, is it even permissible to rebuke someone for a past sin for which he repented? The Mishnah (Bava Metzi’a 58b) says that reminding a ba’al teshuvah of his past sinful deeds constitutes ona’as devarim, verbal mistreatment. If so, how could Moshe now rebuke the people for past sins over which they already did teshuvah? Even though the generation of the Exodus had already died, the current generation had done their fair share of sins. Additionally, insulting someone’s parents also constitutes forbidden speech. How could Moshe embarrass the people over their parents’ sins, for which the parents even did teshuvah? Perhaps we can understand based on a foundational insight of Rav Elchanan Wasserman.

III. Constructive Damage

I’m old enough to remember when spanking was a respected and effective parenting technique. And while I’ve never experienced this, I know many who had teachers who believed that physical punishment was an effective teaching technique. Both were endorsed by the Sages — only when effective, of course, and not when they would cause resentment and rebellion. Why, asks Rav Elchanan Wasserman (Kovetz He’aros, no. 70), is hitting someone — something normally forbidden — allowed in situations when they are effective in parenting and teaching? Similarly, the Rambam (Mishneh Torah, Hilkhos Dei’os 6:9) writes that the special prohibition against oppressing orphans and widows does not apply if you do so in order to teach them or guide them in the proper path. Why should there be any exception to the prohibition?

Rav Elchanan explains that there is a broad rationale underlying many of the interpersonal mitzvos, namely that these prohibitions are intended to prevent abusive behavior. The actions are forbidden when they hurt someone. But when those very same actions help them, when they serve as instruction and guidance, then they are permitted. Lashon Ha-Ra, gossip, is allowed when it is le-to’eles, when it serves a constructive purpose. The same applies to hitting and insulting and otherwise causing someone physical or emotional pain. If the pain is constructive, if it helps him or others, then it is permissible.

To be sure, this kind of permission is easily abused. Anyone can justify anything and claim it is constructive. That is why the Chafetz Chaim carefully details the necessary requirements for saying constructive lashon ha-ra. We have to be vigilant in understanding our intentions because the line between permissible and forbidden actions can be very thin. We have to think carefully, and perhaps ask others for advice, before allowing ourselves to engage in what we consider constructive damage. But in theory, and very often in practice, this is an important tool in helping others grow and improve.

IV. Constructive Rebuke

If so, we can understand that during the forty years in the Sinai desert, whenever the Jews sinned Moshe had to rebuke them in order to bring them back onto the path, back into compliance with the divine will. Now, at the end of his life, his focus lie not in the past but in the future. He was preparing the Jewish people for their time without him. He was pointing out where and how they had fallen so they would not fall into those patterns in the future. In other words, Moshe was being constructive. His rebuke may technically have constituted ona’as devarim but because he was being constructive, it was permissible. He was trying to help the people fix their mistakes and avoid them in the future.

How should he express his rebuke in a permissible way? Rashi explains that Moshe waited until close to his death so he could do it in the most sensitive and productive way. Moshe expressed his objection to their sins in a way that minimized hurt feelings and embarrassment, that prevented any grudges but that still allowed him to part from the people with everything said that needed to be said. Moshe did, indeed, rebuke the people for their past deeds for which they and their parents had already done teshuvah. But he did it in a gentle and sensitive way, timing it just right so that he could prepare them for the future without hurting them unnecessarily. In this way, Moshe’s hurtful words were not only permissible but a mitzvah.

Let’s return to the topic of calling someone out. When we see someone behaving improperly, we feel many things. We are pained by this person’s actions. We want to prevent harm to any innocent victims. And, of course, we want to help this person return to proper behavior. If we call someone out, are we achieving these goals? Maybe. But we are also causing embarrassment and possibly other harm, which is forbidden unless we fulfill the most important criterion — that we are acting in a constructive way.

In order for a “call out” to be appropriate, at a bare minimum it must be constructive. Generally, there also should be other criteria similar to what the Chafetz Chaim details regarding lashon ha-ra, such as confirmation of the facts and no other personal motive. But let’s set those aside for the moment. Before calling someone out, think about what you will accomplish. Is there a better way to do it?

It is almost always best to try to resolve things privately by reaching out to the individual and discussing with him his actions and how they have negatively affected others. If that fails, then we have to decide what is the best approach that will protect the innocent and bring the sinner back to the proper path. A “call out” is a useful tool but it is never the first tool, because of its many counterproductive outcomes. Shaming produces anger and resentment, not teshuvah. And even when and if we call someone out, we have to be precise and accurate in our facts and sensitive to the need for a productive outcome.

Above all, we need to think before we call someone out. We need to consider the damage we might cause and whether our actions are truly a productive measure or merely an act of anger and frustration. The difference between a proper rebuke and a forbidden one lies in whether we truly are being constructive.

About Gil Student

Rabbi Gil Student is the Editor of TorahMusings.com, a leading website on Orthodox Jewish scholarly subjects, and the Book Editor of the Orthodox Union’s Jewish Action magazine. He writes a popular column on issues of Jewish law and thought featured in newspapers and magazines, including The Jewish Link, The Jewish Echo and The Vues. In the past, he has served as the President of the small Jewish publisher Yashar Books and as the Managing Editor of OU Press. Rabbi Student has served two terms on the Executive Committee of the Rabbinical Council of America and currently serves as the Director of the Halacha Commission of the Rabbinical Alliance of America. He serves on the Editorial Boards of Jewish Action magazine, the Journal of Halacha and Contemporary Society and the Achieve Journal of Behavioral Health, Religion & Community, as well as the Board of OU Press. He has published five English books, the most recent titled Search Engine volume 2: Finding Meaning in Jewish Texts -- Jewish Leadership, and served as the American editor for Morasha Kehillat Yaakov: Essays in Honour of Chief Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks.

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