“Why is it that you see the speck in the eye of your brother, but the log that is in your eye, you do not notice? How can you say to your brother, ‘Permit me, and I will remove the speck from your eye’, when the log is in your eye?’ Hypocrite, remove first the log from your eye, and afterward, you will surely see to remove the speck from the eye of your brother.” (Matt.7:3-5, Delitzsch Hebrew Gospels, Vine of David)
It’s a truism to suggest that we have a tendency to be very critical. Ironically, our harshest criticisms are often for those who are on our “side” (whatever that means, exactly) It seems that we have a speck to pick from our brother’s eye at every turn. Let me be the first to fall on my own sword concerning this: It is a source of grief to me that I have failed in this area many times, and I am more focused on correcting this flaw than ever before.
It’s important that we always strive to grow and mature in our faith. This often involves making theological shifts as we grow in knowledge and understanding. Yet, we must be careful as to the manner in which we address these shifts. Our speech is a major part of this carefulness.
To this end, we will focus on this teaching of the Master in the gospel of Matthew. The intent behind the Lord’s words seem so obvious and so simple. But many of us are unaware that God has given us laws in His Torah concerning our speech and the right use of our tongue. This teaching of Yeshua was not original. He illuminated a principle in the Torah which was apparently being neglected. This principle is found in the following passage in Leviticus:
“You shall do no injustice in judgment; you shall not be partial to the poor nor defer to the great, but you are to judge your neighbor fairly. You shall not go about as a slanderer among your people, and you are not to act against the life of your neighbor; I am the LORD. You shall not hate your fellow countryman in your heart; you may surely reprove your neighbor, but shall not incur sin because of him. You shall not take vengeance, nor bear any grudge against the sons of your people, but you shall love your neighbor as yourself; I am the LORD.” (Lev.19:15-18)(emphasis mine)
This is amplified also by the teachings of the Chofetz Chaim, who taught that loshon hora (evil speech) has the power to undo and erase the merits of a lifetime of Torah learning and mitzvah observance (according to Sefer Shmiras HaLoshon).
We have all heard some variation on the following, and usually from a non-believer: “Didn’t the Lord teach us not to judge?” Is this universally true? Did Yeshua censor all who speak against sin or false practice? Should we never state an observation of any type unless our own lives and testimonies are spotless?
The verses in Leviticus do not tell us to not judge, but rather gives parameters of our speech and conduct for when we judge. It tells us what our attitude of mind and heart should be before we ever open our mouths. It is this aspect that the Lord is addressing. We are expected to judge, and to point out wickedness, and to discern between right and wrong, but it should be done in order to build up, and not to tear down. There are also times when such observations are necessary, but many in which they are not, at least in the context of speech. Paul addresses this topic at length as well. He certainly never shied away from rebuking those who needed it, but an important Torah principle guided him always:
“Let no one seek his own good, but that of his neighbor.” (1 Cor.10:24)
It should also be noted that Paul exercised his ministry with a special call that none of us have. None of us, after all, have been given the burden of contextualizing the gospel for the pagans of the nations, and to be the light-bearer of Jewish faith to the people of the world. At least not as he did, specifically. We should not take Paul’s boldness to mean that we unilaterally have the authority to shoot the knees out from any who enter into our theological cross hairs.
So, before we start to feel bold and justify ourselves for our public criticisms of a person, institution or denominational structure, we should be familiar with the halacha of proper speech, and be careful not to violate the Master’s teachings, all while thinking we are behaving consistent with them. In Jewish tradition since the time of Jesus, there has been much written concerning these principles, which will help us further our understanding of this sensitive subject.
First of all, we should be aware that when we practice evil speech by proclaiming another’s shortcomings to them or (worse) to others, we are inviting the satan to declare our own shortcomings before the court of heaven. The Talmud, in the section on Ethics of Speech, says the following:
“Whoever speaks loshon hora raises his sins to the Heavens” (Arachin 15b)
According to the Talmud, it was baseless hatred (often manifested in loshon hora, or evil speech) which precluded the destruction of the Temple in 70AD (See Yoma 9b). Perhaps this is one one of the reasons the Lord so heavily emphasized loving our neighbor. The opposite brings destruction. So, in this context, the evil speech of Jews towards their brethren brought accusations to the throne of Heaven against them, and the result was the Day of Visitation of the Lord, to which they remained largely oblivious. More on this at another time.
The Vilna Gaon (18th Century sage), uses the Midrash as a backdrop for comments on this subject:
“For every moment one guards one’s tongue, he earns reward that is beyond the comprehension of angels…The principle way of meriting the World to Come is through guarding one’s mouth, which is greater than Torah learning and mitzvos because the mouth is the Holy of Holies…” (Chofetz Chaim, “A Lesson A Day”, Introduction, Artscroll)
According to the Chofetz Chaim, God is compelled to respond in relation to the intercessions and accusations of the angels of the court of heaven. When the fallen angel, the satan, relates the sins of His people, he is able to do so because of the evil speech of His people. According to the Zohar (Parashas Pekudei), the sin of evil speech “brings plague, sword and murder to this world.” It continues:
“Woe to those who awaken this evil force, who do not guard their tongues and pay no heed to this!…Through evil speech, the satan is aroused to voice accusation against the entire world.” (Zohar)
While these extra-biblical sources do not carry the same inerrant authority as the Bible itself, they accurately portray and illustrate the real depth of what the Lord is addressing in this passage in Matthew.
So, we have seen already that judging our neighbor in a way that the Lord deems to be unloving or unjust is no small matter, but in fact outweighs all the good we may think we are accomplishing. This is serious indeed, especially since this affects that which is most dear to us, which is our own personal relationship with God. May our hearts grieve over this, and may we learn the hard lesson of being silent and letting HaShem be the rightful judge of others.
In part two of this essay, we will look at some ways in which the outward declaration of sin and wickedness is appropriate, and when it right to rebuke our neighbor.