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March 7, 2012

The Challenge of Offering Moral Rebuke in the Workplace

http://www.jewishjournal.com/blog/item/the_challenge_of_offering_moral_rebuke_in_the_workplace_20120307/

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At work, we consistently offer positive reinforcement and constructive feedback to others to improve the quality of our collective efforts. From a Jewish perspective, we are not only concerned with the efficacy of our work but also the ethics of the workplace. In addition to personal accountability, all Jewish workers have a sacred duty to be a moral presence as well.

There is actually a Biblical commandment to offer rebuke (tochecha): “You shall not hate your brother in your heart; you shall reprove your fellow and do not bear a sin because of him” (19:17). The verse teaches that we offer reproof for two reasons: that our resentments do not lead to hate, and that wrongs are not carried out for which we too would be responsible. Rather than speaking lashon hara and rechilut (speaking negatively about another and spreading gossip) we are to confront the individual directly. We care about the moral and spiritual welfare of others; thus, it is vital that we give feedback when we see others going astray.

According to one position, this mitzvah only applies when we think the other will be receptive to hearing the reproof. If not, it is considered counterproductive. “Just as there is a mitzvah for a person to say words of rebuke that will be accepted, so too there is a mitzvah for a person not to say words of rebuke that will not be accepted” (Yevamot 65b). It’s only a mitzvah if one suspects the other has the integrity and emotional intelligence to truly see their blind spot and correct the wrong. The goal with rebuke, according to this position, is not just to express righteous indignation, but to create change and stop a wrong or abuse occurring before our eyes.

Rabbi Zeira, however, taught that one should offer rebuke whether or not one believes it will be accepted (Shabbat 55a). We simply cannot stand idle while others do wrong in our midst. Regardless of whether our voice will be heard, we cannot remain indifferent. As Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel taught: “We are a generation that has lost its capacity for outrage. We must continue to remind ourselves that in a free society all are involved in what some are doing. Some are guilty, all are responsible.” Thus, we must express outrage at wrongs. The rabbis teach: “Everyone who can protest a wrong in one’s midst and does not, is responsible for those people.  For the people of his city, one is responsible for the people of the city.  For the whole world, one is responsible for the whole world” (Shabbat 54b). If we don’t speak up our own moral integrity is in jeopardy as a bystander. The rabbis teach shtika k’hodah, when we stay silent we are considered to be in agreement. According to this position, we don’t need to correct the wrong but we cannot stand idly by. 

The obligation to give tochecha is not a simple command. The rabbis teach that no one today is on the spiritual level to engage in rebuke properly as few are self aware and humble enough to give tochecha properly and few are humble enough to properly hear and accept it (Sifra, Kedoshim). For this reason, Sefer Chassidim suggests that we can only really give rebuke to one that we feel love for. Clearly, we have to carefully check our motives before challenging another’s conduct.

Of course, any feedback should be given gently, in private, at the right time and in the appropriate environment. Most importantly, we should be sure not to shame another when challenging them. This is a very difficult skill to learn.

There is a very important place for rebuke in the workplace, to ensure we have a moral influence upon coworkers and to establish clear ethical workplace boundaries. We cannot live in a world where wrongs are ignored, nor can we work in environments where there is indifference toward the welfare of others. Abuses must be addressed. Some acts require whistle-blowing when they reach a level of harm or illegality. Other acts require rebuke or constructive feedback.

We cannot do this alone, and should create an open work culture where feedback is acceptable and encouraged when boundaries are crossed. We must learn the art and ethics of critique in order that we can build a stronger society committed to truth, human dignity, and transparency. We can start by checking our own practices, taking our own self-accounting, and inviting others to approach us if we ourselves ever cross boundaries.


Rabbi Shmuly Yanklowitz is the Founder & President of Uri L’Tzedek, the Director of Jewish Life & the Senior Jewish Educator at the UCLA Hillel and a 6th year doctoral candidate at Columbia University in Moral Psychology & Epistemology. Rav Shmuly’s book “Jewish Ethics & Social Justice: A Guide for the 21st Century” is now available for pre-order on Amazon.

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