By Rabbi Steven Pruzansky
Is there such a thing as being too sensitive?
The question itself will be deemed by some as lacking sensitivity! But even as the heart tells us “no” – one cannot be “too” sensitive – the mind teaches us that, yes, there is sensitivity that is counterproductive, and harms both protagonist and subject. Intellectually, we realize that, at times, compassion, sympathy and sensitivity can be misplaced. The parent who succumbs to a child’s cries for endless pieces of candy is acting as compassionately as the surgeon who refuses to make an incision in his patient to avoid causing him pain, and as unwisely. Neither is acting as a parent or surgeon should.
As the famous comment of our Sages (Kohelet Rabba 7:16) taught, “One who is compassionate to the cruel will eventually be cruel to the compassionate,” a truism confirmed repeatedly in recent times, especially here in Israel. While our default position must be sensitivity, there are times when we must limit or even overcome those natural instincts in order to maintain our value system and properly serve G-d. Unlimited compassion is far better than the opposite but can be equally destructive.
Admittedly, this notion is a tough sell today. We are living through an era in which the pull of the heart matters more than the conclusions of the mind, feelings more than facts, and perception more than reality. This is true in politics, race relations, the wars of the sexes, and a host of other issues. Truths, even obvious truths, must be suppressed, and that is the world we live in. But the ascription of spiritual gravitas to “feelings” threatens to transform the Jewish and general worlds beyond recognition, undermine the Torah, render parenting more difficult than it already is, and distance us from G-d.
Certainly, rabbis are called upon to show sensitivity constantly, which is understandable, but therein lies the modern dilemma. One of my colleagues recently suggested that rabbinic responses to a number of issues have been colored by the conflation of the role of the rabbi with that of the social worker or therapist. (That is not entirely surprising. I once asked a non-Orthodox rabbi what led him to become a rabbi, seeing as he did not believe in the divine origin of the Torah, and he told me that he saw himself as a “social worker with a better title.”) But while a rabbi engages in therapy of sorts, he is not a therapist, nor is that his primary role.
Thus, this colleague noted, a therapist rarely offers value judgments to his client. His function is to listen, empathize, connect with the emotional world of the patient and try to help him/her navigate the unstable terrain on which the patient walks. Value judgments are usually inappropriate and often unhelpful. Conversely, rabbis (clergymen, generally) are expected to give value judgments. They too must seek to understand the emotional world of the person, but that world, rather than benign, is governed by our relationship with G-d. Indeed, the rabbis’ world view – unlike that of the therapist – is ideally always shaped by the laws and values of the Torah. The proffer of values need not be heavy-handed but can never be completely discounted or ignored.
If the therapist’s principal task is to help the person become psychologically healthy, the rabbi’s role is to help the person become spiritually healthy. The therapist tries to get the person right with the world; the rabbi tries to get the person right with the Almighty. Obviously, there are areas that overlap, but there are also boundaries that should not be blurred even if the ways we negotiate that arena may differ from case to case. The rabbi – unlike the therapist – must eventually speak the language of “permitted, forbidden, can, may, should, should not,” and if he doesn’t, he has not merely improperly conflated the two roles but he has essentially vitiated the rabbinic role. That is done sometimes for good reasons – a desire not to cause pain or an excess of sensitivity – and sometimes for bad reasons – a craven need for popularity or a fear of bad press among the opinion-shapers of today.
Rabbis and rabbinical organizations have been wrestling for some time with a number of issues in this genre. More often than not, this has resulted in confusion, not clarity, as political correctness clashes with halachic correctness, and some rabbis willfully act more as therapists and social workers (if not social trendsetters) than as rabbis. Thus, the halacha is usually black and white – after all, that is why it is called Halacha, the way we walk - and no amount of hand-wringing or pressure will change that. There are limits beyond which the halacha cannot go. Is that insensitive? It is not meant to be, but one can argue that honesty shows greater respect for the other side than a faux sensitivity that raises expectations that will never be met.
There are approaches to sins and sinners that most rabbis use that do not require denial, acceptance or vilification. Here’s one, mine, and quite common: we are all sinners but I do not have to delve into each person’s private life to ascertain their level of religiosity. Why is it anyone’s business? It is certainly not my business. What is unacceptable is the glorification of the sin, its public advocacy and its celebration – and that applies to a host of sins. The Rambam (Laws of Repentance 2:5) says that one who publicizes his sins against G-d is brazen, and so there is virtue in concealing such sins from others. Such a person is a Jew who is in as good standing as any other Jew. That is the difference between the sinner, which we all are to varying degrees, and the heretic, who denies that what he is doing is divinely proscribed.
Of course, that requires the rabbis to use the language of “sin,” which, it seems, the rabbi qua therapist has been loath to do. Sin is a sign of human frailty. It is our constant but unwanted companion in life. But the notion of “sin” presupposes that there is an objective morality (of divine origin) that distinguishes between right and wrong, moral and immoral. A rabbi who fails to use the language of sin has ceased to function as a rabbi. Similarly, a rabbi who encounters a person addicted to a certain sin – and there are numerous possibilities; consider the rageaholic who is prone to violent outbursts – and discourages that person from seeking help to overcome that addiction has acquiesced in the sin and failed as a rabbi. The treatment might work and it might not work, but foreclosing the option is irresponsible and insensitive. It can even be spiritually devastating.
To be fair, the rabbinic model of the Hasidic Rebbe is more aligned with the “rabbi as therapist” than the so-called “Lithuanian” model, if only because the Rebbe serves also as a father figure to his followers. It is easy to imagine a Rebbe telling an individual with lascivious tendencies that he should do whatever Mitzvot he can do and not define himself by the sin, and such is right and proper. It would be inconceivable, though, that the Rebbe would not also gently remind his interlocutor that his conduct is nonetheless a sin, and offer ways to overcome it. But we cannot deny the more common model symbolized by Moshe himself, that of “yikov hadin et hahar” – let the law bore through the mountain. The Law is the Law is the Law. That is Torah truth but also most unwelcome in the parts of the Jewish world that prefer nuance to truth, and gray to black and white.
There is something even off-putting about a discussion of integrating sinners into the community. When have we ever had a community that did not have sinners? Indeed, the Gemara (Kreitot 6b) states that "any public fast that does not include the intentional sinners of Israel is not considered a public fast." Being inclusive of sinners is routine; we should not pretend it's revolutionary.
What compounds the problem is the obliteration of all traditional moral norms in society, especially during the Obama years, which has made even the promotion of traditional morality something akin to a hate crime. Often, the appeal to the heart strings is palpable – the quest for love, happiness, fulfillment and satisfaction in life. “Does G-d want to remove from some people the possibility of love? Does G-d want to deprive any person of happiness or physical gratification? Does G-d not want people to be who they are?" Those may be powerful questions, but ones that we need not necessarily fully answer, except to say this: the Jewish laws of sexual morality and Kashrut are chukim (Rambam, Shemona Perakim, Chapter 6), which defy simple understanding. They are decrees from G-d that bind the faithful even if we do not fully comprehend them or their particulars. As such, they are the primary means by which we show our fidelity to G-d and our commitment to the way of life He assigned to us in His wisdom, compassion and love. They connect us to G-d, as indelibly as letters engraved in stone. That will not change.
To some people today, the utterance of simple truths is utterly unacceptable. They seek not a dialogue but a monologue enforced through threats and intimidation. But truths, uttered or even unuttered, still remain truths. Providing a forum to air one’s pain is, indeed, sensitive, but when one later encounters the brick wall of G-d’s law, the collision will be even more jarring. There is a better way – mutual respect and mutual sensitivity. That is, mutual respect, not just for the struggles of all sinners but also respect for the integrity of G-d’s law and the limits He imposed on us. And mutual sensitivity, especially for those faithful Jews who try to observe the Torah amid personal sacrifice and against the current of modern society, and even for rabbis who will not pander to the modern ethos or always make people happy but rather strive to bring all people closer to G-d and serve Him and His people with faith and honesty.
That is being truly sensitive to the primary objectives in life of every living being. We should try it.