The Tisch: Easy as Pie

What would our children look like if we said nothing or did not react when their behavior was inappropriate?

marble cake_311 (photo credit: (MCT))
marble cake_311
(photo credit: (MCT))
Improving our society or improving ourselves as individuals may be predicated on the ability to give and receive constructive criticism.
But who really wants to give criticism? Even when your motives are altruistic, even when you do it for some greater good, it never seems to be well received. Indeed, it is probably easier not to give any critique. Nonaggressive, cooperative behavior to the tune of “live and let live” would seem to be an easier route, a path that does not engender anger.
Alas, when you have responsibility, giving critique is unavoidable: What would our children look like if we said nothing or did not react when their behavior was inappropriate? What would our students become if we never alerted them when their conduct was unacceptable? Indeed, parents, teachers and other leaders have the hapless responsibility of giving constructive criticism. The question, of course, is the manner: How can we effectively fulfill our duty to critique, without shying from our responsibility and while ensuring the critique can be heard by the recipient? The hassidic master Rabbi Yohanan Perlow (1900-1955) described three stages of offering critique in the history of Hassidism.
Perlow – or R. Yohan’che, as he was known – was the youngest of the six sons of Rabbi Yisrael of Stolin (1868-1921) from the Karlin dynasty. Before World War II, R. Yohan’che was the hassidic master in Lutsk. Four of his brothers were killed in the Holocaust, and a fifth brother died in Detroit in 1946 with no children. As the only surviving member of the Karlin dynasty, R. Yohan’che accepted the mantle of leadership after the war, settling first in Haifa and then moving to Brooklyn.
When he arrived in the British Mandate of Palestine, R. Yohan’che began to resurrect the Karlin hassidic tradition that had been devastated during the Shoah. One Shabbat he was sitting with his hassidim and he gave each of them some wine and a shtickl lekah, a piece of sweet cake, and he explained: In the formative days of the hassidic movement, people searching for the truth would come to the disciples of the Ba’al Shem Tov (c.1700-1760). These hassidic masters would look at the person before them and reveal all their misdeeds. Just hearing the diagnosis would move the person to repent and choose a different path. In hassidic lore, R. Yohan’che’s ancestor Rabbi Aaron of Karlin (c.1736-1772) is said to have moved 80,000 people to change their ways using this method.
Alas, this harsh method could not last: The thought of hearing someone else tell you all your sins was just too much for most people. People began to shy away from personal encounters with hassidic masters, lest they would be made to face the stark reality of their existence.
Two brothers – Rabbi Elimelech of Lezajsk (1717-1786) and Reb Meshulam Zusha of Anipoli (c. 1718-1800) – opted for a more subtle method of offering critique. As they would encounter sinners, they would carefully avoid embarrassing the person and would not announce the person’s misdeeds. Rather, they would pretend that they themselves had committed the iniquity: “Woe to me, that I have committed such a sin!” one of the brothers might cry out giving details of the actual sin. “I must repent immediately!” they would conclude. Hearing this, sinners would be moved to repudiate their previous actions and change their ways.
Alas, this course too lost its effectiveness. The route for offering constructive criticism today – explained R. Yohan’che – is by giving out a shtickl lekah. This was a play on words: Lekah is the Yiddish term for gingerbread or really any cake, but in Hebrew it means a lesson. R. Yohan'che would give a shtickl lekah as if to say: I am giving you some sweet cake; you should take from me a lesson.
While this route of giving criticism may be as easy as pie, it is still hardly a piece of cake to take the criticism.
The writer is on the faculty of Pardes Institute of Jewish Studies and is a rabbi in Tzur Hadassah.