Balancing Critique and Gratitude: Lessons from the Study of Mussar
Like many rabbis, I receive a weekly email from the remnants of the Alban Institute, a premier source of information and consulting on issues facing religious congregations. Last week, Alban’s missive offered best practices for embracing young adults in congregational life. The source? Union for Reform Judaism’s Communities of Practice.
Few among us would have imagined that our Movement might set the bar for young adult engagement in American religious life. Fewer still would suggest that URJ is the source of whatever successes Reform Judaism might be having in that regard. I wondered if we are so busy criticizing the Union, among all our Movement organizations, including our own congregations and ourselves, that we fail to recognize success.
I received that Alban email on the day I arrived at the annual Kallah of the Southwest Association of Reform Rabbis (SWARR). This year, SWARR was treated to learning from our Movement’s leaders, including a panel discussion with CCAR President Rabbi Denise Eger, URJ President Rabbi Rick Jacobs, and HUC-JIR Los Angeles Campus Dean Dr. Joshua Holo. Our leaders were asked about areas of cooperation and areas of difficulty between the organizations they lead. Rabbi Jacobs noted that his counterparts in other Jewish religious movements often marvel at the very fact that our congregational and rabbinic bodies and seminary talk to one another, meeting regularly. Apparently, we are somewhat unique in that regard. Dr. Holo told us that, to the best of his extensive knowledge, we are the only religious movement or denomination in the world that co-funds its congregational body and seminary.
I wondered: To what extent does the tochechah (critique), which many of us frequently direct at our Movement institutions obscure our capacity for hakarat ha tov, literally “recognizing the good,” or gratitude? Conversely, to what extent has our tochechah (justified, appropriately expressed critique) contributed to the success we might now celebrate?
From my study and practice of Mussar, as taught by Alan Morinis, I have learned to seek the “golden mean” in attempting to balance my middot (soul-traits) and behavior. In making my own cheshbon nefesh (accounting of my soul), I find that I have been out of balance, erring on the side of tochechah, criticizing our Movement institutions – URJ, above all – without sufficient hakarat ha-tov (gratitude) for their important contributions to my rabbinate and congregational life. Oh yes, I regularly express gratitude for two aspects of URJ that we all praise, i.e., camps and the Religious Action Center. Now, though, I’m aware that there’s much more to praise. To correct the imbalance, I need to go out of my way to practice hakarat ha-tov, expressing gratitude; and I need to still my tongue or my typing fingers when tempted to issue tochechah (critique).
I suspect that I’m not alone.
Rabbi Barry Block serves Congregation B’nai Israel in Little Rock, Arkansas.