Why We Feel Reluctant to Address Judgmental or "Scary" Aspects of Jewish Belief—And Why We Should Anyway
As children & teenagers, some felt overwhelmed by an dysfunctional or heavy emphasis on Heavenly chastisement or fear of God & fear of Heavenly wrath.
Due to negative experiences, others genuinely struggle to relate to Torah concepts of punishment & fear in the healthy & beneficial way Judaism requires.
Upon initially entering the frum world, I also felt strong resistance to these concepts.
They simply do not fit in to modern slogans of "Live & let live!" "I'm okay, you're okay!" "Do your own thing!" And so on.
Yes, love, reward, and the feel-good aspects should be the main focus of Judaism.
At the same time, it's a problem to cast aside one of the core fundamentals of Judaism just because they don't feel good or are harder to accept.
After all, the fundamentals regarding the seemingly "negative" or "scary" aspects exist for a reason.
Using Healthy Fear as Part of Your Arsenal against the Yetzer Hara
Yes, directing our minds toward the positive, reward, creates the best path toward goodness.
Knowing the great appreciation in Shamayim for our self-restraint or ability to change direction in the middle of a challenging situation—these also help us so much toward doing the right thing!
But the idea of negative consequences helps more than people realize.
As long as you imagine Hashem will reward you enormously for even your minutest acts of good (and it IS true—He will do exactly that!) while overlooking your lesser deeds & motives (because of popular excuses like tinok sheh nishba, a weak generation, significant self-improvement & self-awareness is only for tzaddikim, etc.)—you may find yourself blissfully ignoring some very problematic aspects.
For example, the majority of people (including personality disorders) indulge in an abusive behavior because they minimize the abusive behavior as "cute" or "clever" or "funny" or being out of their control because, hey, that's just how they are and it even runs in the family.
(I call the last one The Popeye Defense: ♪"I yam what I yam and that's all what I yam—I'm Popeye the sailor man!"♫ Please note: This jingle is not considered a legitimate sanigor before the Heavenly Tribunal. Singing it on Judgement Day is not a Get-Out-of-Gehinnom-Free card.)
Or they justify the abusive behavior as being served just desserts—their victim deserved it.
In the personality disordered mind, their abuse of others is considered self-defense.
The Danger of Victim Mentality
"I'm a victim!"
They see their victims as their persecutors, which allows them (in their own dysfunctioning mind) to behave however they want.
The most extreme examples of where victim mentality leads:
- Nazi Germany, which insisted on seeing their atrocities & genocide of the Jews as self-defense—they, the Master Race, were victims of the inferior race of Jews; they needed to defend themselves against inferior races.
- Communism, which insisted on committing numerous horrors & millions of deaths...all for the sake of "equality" and helping the "poor workers"—in other words, supporting victims against their oppressors & inequality.
Sociopaths/Psychopaths often know what they're doing without excuses, but not always and anyway, the majority of abusive behaviors derive from the above excuses.
So because the victim mentality is the main justification for abusive behavior, we're focusing on that.
Not all abusive behavior means someone is an abusive person overall.
A generally decent person may engage in abusive behaviors at times.
The knowledge that a behavior is forbidden & not so easily dismissed by Hashem as we like to think can prevent us from indulging ourselves.
The Little-Known Prohibition of Chanifah
And to avoid chanifah.
Chanifah, often translated as flattery, means to act like the forbidden is permitted.
A much overlooked prohibition in our times—have you even attended a shiur dedicated to chanifah?—the Torah states its prohibition outright, plus it's mentioned in every mussar sefer with some (Orchot Tzaddikim, Pele Yoetz, etc.) dedicating an entire chapter to chanifah.
Realizing that your support of abusive behavior against others might get both you & them into some pretty hot water eventually...that might give you the insight & the courage to stand up for what's right.
Or at least, it can imbue you with the insight & courage to NOT be so fast to dismiss or chuckle at or justify behavior that causes suffering for others.
YOU might think it's not such a big deal.
However, HASHEM may disagree.
(He actually says in the Torah what He thinks. If we read it, we can know.)
He ended up with a disease attacking the lower part of his face that caused his jaw and mouth to decompose. (Much like leprosy—a Torah-ordained disease for those who misuse their tongue for slander, rumor-mongering, tale-bearing, etc.)
Unfortunately, he refused to invest in any self-introspection or change of behavior.
So he continued with his abusive behavior by growling and expressing displeasure via the only part of his speaking apparatus still in operation: his throat.
Furthermore, his decomposing flesh stank and he continued to remain in a terrible mood with all his nasty growling & grunting.
I found this absolutely bizarre.
Yet his long-suffering wife agreed to endure all this to allow him to remain at home, which was more comfortable for him than the hospital.
You'd think he'd be grateful.
But he wasn't.
Entrenched in his victim mentality (whereby he viewed his family as CAUSING him to yell at & berate them), his suffering made him even more miserable & frustrated, which to his already warped mind, further legitimized his nasty & harmful behavior.
After all, to his mind, circumstances grant him the RIGHT to be angry & growly!
I keep this in mind for my own self-restraint because abusive people always think their abuse is justified.
They do not see themselves as abusers but rather as the victim.
It's easy to justify one's bad behavior as "not my fault" or "he deserved it" or "just kidding!"
Believe me, the jaw-diseased guy felt his family deserved the lash of his tongue (even when the tongue was no longer there).
So his belief in himself as a victim kept his heart hardened.
Yet if a person's jaw & mouth & tongue starts to decompose, it should bring one to ponder: "Do I use my oral apparatus properly?"
Perhaps he could have halted or even reversed his disease by halting his verbally abusive behavior.
But we know what the Gemara Eruvin 19a says about how a rasha standing at the gate of Gehinnom still won't do teshuvah...
Telling her parents did nothing to stop the abuse. (She overheard the conversation between her parents: Her father wanted to throw out the boy; her mother refused. The father capitulated to the mother. For whatever my opinion's worth, they're both equally responsible for allowing it to continue. Being a spineless excuse for a man is no excuse.)
The young victim went on to lead a messed-up life before making her peace with God toward middle age, but this return to Torah did not save her from 2 marriages to bad men, both ending in divorce (and the incarceration of Husband #2).
In the meantime, her brother went on to lead a decent life, marrying a wonderful woman & raising a nice family.
But as Rav Miller said in the previous post linked above, Hashem doesn't forget.
Especially if you never say sorry or do a darn thing to make amends, Hashem eventually calls in the account.
At age 42, her brother contracted cancer of the you-guess-what.
As you can imagine, the progression & attempted treatment of that disease in that specific area is particularly painful & humiliating.
My friend (his younger sister) visited him several times in the hospital & saw all his suffering for around 9 months.
As with the above example of oral cancer after a lifetime of verbally abusive behavior, the connection here to his former abuse is pretty obvious.
She saw Heavenly Justice meted out before her eyes.
Here was proof that Hashem was on HER side; He cared about her pain & sought to punish her abuser.
Shortly before her brother died, he looked at her and said something like, "I know why this is happening. I know why Hashem struck me with this disease. It's because of what I did to you. I know I deserve this. And I'm sorry."
And he meant everything he said.
He wasn't just sorry because he was dying in a disgusting & painful manner.
He understood the tremendous pain & trauma he'd caused her & felt remorse for that.
And she was able to forgive him with her whole heart.
She told me this with a glowing face; she felt good about truly being able to let it go.
(I think seeing his immense suffering helped.)
She never forgave her mother, however.
She stated that outright: "I will NEVER forgive my mother!"
She simply can't.
It so often looks accidental, innocent, and harmless.
Yet it eats away at its victim.
I used to compare emotional abuse to a person standing on a chair changing a light bulb when the abuser walks by and kicks the chair out from under the person, causing the person to crash to the floor.
At that point, the chair-kicker either looks surprised it happened or continues on his way as if he didn't notice a thing.
When the victim asks why the chair-kicker wasn't more careful or even accuses the chair-kicker of kicking the chair on purpose, the chair-kicker responds with one of the following responses:
- Minimization ("People fall off chairs in life. Why are you so upset about it?" "People sometimes kick chairs in life. It happens. Why are you so upset about it?" "It's not that big deal." "I didn't see you." "I forgot to be careful not to kick the chair when you're standing on it while changing a light bulb. Nobody's perfect.")
- Amused minimization ("Oh, chuckle-chuckle, you think it was me?" or "Oh, chuckle-chuckle, you think I did that on purpose? Naaaah...chuckle-chuckle" or "Oh, chuckle-chuckle, are you trying to blame me for your own clumsiness again?")
- Defensiveness ("But I didn't see you on the chair. I didn't even see the chair! Why is that MY fault?!!" or "How can I be expected to be careful around you standing on a chair when I'm so stressed out/in a hurry/occupied with other things/on the phone/tired/etc?" "I forgot, okay?!! You never forget anything ever in your life? You think you're so perfect?!!" "You're always in a bad mood. Your parents really messed you up. You need medication."
- Outrage ("How dare you think I kicked the chair—you fell because of your own clumsiness & are trying to blame me!" or "How dare you think I kicked the chair on purpose!" "Oh yeah? Well, just shut up! You're &*^^&%$##@^*&*!!!")
(Note: An emotional abuser who starts off with Minimization often graduates to Defensiveness or Outrage when pressed.)
But when a friend's emotionally abusive (and sometimes verbally abusive) husband developed a disease that ate away at his innards over the course of 2 years, I wondered why that disease. Why his gut?
Furthermore, his lack of self-scrutiny or self-improvement puzzled me.
Despite treatment involving the icky removal of parts of his stomach & intestines, he continued to be unfailingly grouchy & ungrateful toward his family the entire time—including toward his wife who insisted on caring for him at home, which included the special & intricate preparation of foods for him—all so he could be more comfortable than in a hospital.
Bizarrely, he never apologized for any of his behavior toward his wife over the past 20 years, nor his behavior toward anyone else.
(And yes, he had been told at times that his behavior was inappropriate and in the case of one of his children, appalling.)
Even as things grew worse & a loved one offered to help him make amends to others as best he could in that state, HE REFUSED!!!
Yes, this was a frum guy, a very knowledgeable frum guy who learned Torah copiously on a daily basis.
Yet at the end of his life, he refused to consider whether he needed to apologize to anyone.
Instead, he said he preferred to leave it all up to the Heavenly Beit Din.
It sounds all nice, full of temimut & emunah, but that was a terrible choice.
(Rav Miller says so, but I can't remember where.)
I do not know whether apologizing & changing his behavior could have stopped or even reversed his disease at some point.
But after thinking about it, I realized that this disease reflects the reality of emotional abuse more than my chair-kicking-out-from-under parable.
Emotional abuse is subtle.
It slowly eats away at the victim, leaving the victim in a constant state of anxiety, self-loathing, self-doubt, and despair.
Emotional abuse often affects the victim's physical & mental health.
For example, another friend married to an emotionally abusive husband came to the brink of suicide.
She only told me later. I was shocked.
She was a very solid, down-to-earth person who always demonstrated enormous reserves of inner fortitude.
Furthermore, in the 25 years I knew them, she never once reported any instance of verbal abuse on his part—it was purely emotional abuse (as far as I know).
And that, combined with another traumatic event in life, brought a person like her to utter despair.
Fortunately, Hashem helped save her from herself (she realized that suicide is arguably the single most abusive act a parent commit against a child), and she dropped her deadly plans, got divorced, and went on to live a relatively productive & satisfactory life (which eventually included a satisfying second marriage to a kind-hearted person).
Emotional abuse is very, very difficult to see from the outside.
Heck, it's even difficult for the victim herself/himself to realize what's going on because it's so insidious.
It does not LOOK like abuse.
And I'm ashamed to admit that in both situations above, I did not initially understand what was going on, so did not offer the proper support necessary in the above situations.
But it's important to know that it exists in order to give victims support & avoid supporting the emotional abusers.
When to Make the Correlation...And When Not
They say things like:
"Just because a guy's tongue completely decomposes after a lifetime of using that tongue for verbal abuse—that doesn't mean God's punishing him for verbal abuse, ya know! You sound very judgemental."
So be it.
In these cases, I think I'm right to be judgmental. It helps me correct my own behavior.
At the same time, it's vital to note: When someone suffers, we should NOT go poking around for the reason why they suffer.
Both Rav Levi Yitzchak Bender & Rav Papo (Pele Yoetz) warn strongly against doing this!
Very good people suffer for the sins of their generation and/or their past lives.
There is the concept of tzaddik v'ra lo.
Also, different kinds of suffering help us develop wisdom & compassion & increase our awareness of our dependence on Hashem (when we're not having a total breakdown from the suffering, that is...)
But if you happen to know someone is unrepentantly abusive for years AND he eventually contracts a disease of the EXACT part of the body used for this abuse...
...it's okay to make the correlation!
It would be nice if, seeing as he refuses to connect the dots himself, someone would tell him.
It could either stop or reverse the disease (though at this point, I don't think regrowth of the verbally abusive tongue, mouth, and jaw is possible).
It could at least help save his Olam Haba. He could be saved from afterlife punishment.
Why suffer in BOTH worlds?
In short: Denial of Divine consequences helps no one.
Irreparable? Unforgivable? That's No Excuse.
Even those with years of opportunity to make an attempt at amends...they didn't.
In the case of my friend & her brother, it seems he realized he was wrong because he stopped of his own accord, yet he had FOUR YEARS to stop himself (before he actually did) and then he did nothing to make amends to his sister for all that trauma—until decades later, after a lot of suffering & shortly before he died.
A lot of people will say what he did was unforgivable & there is no way to make it up to her.
But that does not absolve an abuser of the obligation to try.
Stopping isn't enough, especially regarding such horrible long-term abuse.
Apology. Making amends. Doing teshuvah.
These are the necessities.
What Does All This Mean to Me?
Needless to say, I'm far from perfect & can also indulge myself or dismiss certain actions as "Well, that was a long time ago" or "Can't do anything about it now anyway..." or "It doesn't really matter" or "It's not such a big deal" or "I wasn't REALLY so angry" or "It wasn't THAT bad" and so on.
Just like most others do.
Or "It was just a joke" or "She kind of deserved it" or "Hey, I was just being honest!" or "It felt good from my end..."
Just like most others do.
But again, the question remains whether Hashem dismisses that behavior so easily.
And ignorance can only protect us for so long.
As we see in the above examples, plus the examples from Rav Miller in the previous post, Hashem offers people YEARS to wake up to the harm of their behavior.
And especially frum people who learn mussar, who learn Torah, and learn halachah...
What is our excuse for years of ignoring overt Torah directives?
Please also remember: It's NOT about being PERFECT.
It's about TRYING.
All the above examples showed people who never tried (as far as anyone ever knew anyway).
In another lecture, Rav Miller gave the example of someone who restrained himself for 15 minutes before yelling. (Usually, he didn't restrain himself at all.)
Many people think that's nothing, but you'd be surprised at the vast majority of yellers who NEVER hold back at all (unless in public—but in their home, they lack the shame that restrains them in public).
Here's my point:
Seeing evidence of Hashem's Judgment helps me curb my own behavior & strive for self-awareness & self-control in a variety of areas—even when I'm feeling lazy or despairing or angry.
Not that I'm so great, but just a little better than I would be without the knowledge of negative consequences.
For many of us, reward simply is not enough.
We need the motivation of considering the negative consequences too.
Here is another post related to this one: