In the Torah reading of Vayechi, Jacob before he is about to die calls his sons together so that he can tell them of their future – “And Jacob called unto his sons, and said gather yourselves together, that I may tell you that which shall befall you in the end of days” (Genesis 49, 1). He then gives a character analysis of each of his sons (Genesis 49, 3-27). This character analysis of his sons is actually criticism.
Criticism is not necessarily negative. Criticism can mean voicing disapproval. But, this is really a connotative, non-literal definition of the term. The denotative and literal meaning of criticism is rational analysis and judgment – and, the term comes from the term critic that in its origins means a judge. For example, a book or movie critic gives a rational analysis of a book or movie in which judgments regarding the book or movie may be both positive expressing approval and negative expressing disapproval.
Jacob in criticizing his sons prior to his death points to both positive things that he approves of and negative things that he disapproves of. His sharpest criticism in a negative sense expressing disapproval is of Shimon and Levi regarding their massacre in the past of the inhabitants of Shechem after the rape of Jacob’s daughter Dinah (Genesis 34). Jacob very harshly criticizes Shimon and Levi – “Shimon and Levi are brethren, weapons of violence their kinship…for in their anger they slew men…cursed be their anger, for it was fierce, and their wrath, for it was cruel” (Genesis 49, 5-7). Notice that Jacob had called his sons together before he is about to die to tell them of their future – and, his telling of the future (as in the case of Shimon and Levi) is actually a character analysis based upon the actions of his sons in the past. Jacob makes no predictions of the future – he gives criticism (positive and negative) of his sons based upon their past behavior, and the implication is that their future will be a product (at least in large part) of their past. Notice also that regarding the anger of Shimon and Levi Jacob suggests a solution for the future to the problematic character of Shimon and Levi – that in the future (on the assumption implicit in the passage that character traits can be transmitted to future generations) their descendants should be divided and scattered throughout Israel (Genesis 49, 7).
Remarkably, the Bible tells us that Jacob in voicing criticism of his sons was blessing them – “this is it that their father spoke unto them and blessed them; every one according to his blessing he blessed them” (Genesis 49, 28). However, this is not a simple matter. Is criticism truly a blessing and beneficial? Or, is criticism at least problematic, if not harmful? In the Bible there is a commandment requiring of us to give criticism – “you shall surely rebuke your neighbor” (Leviticus 19, 17). However, in the Jewish tradition, we do not live by the plain meaning of Scripture (like Sadducees of the early Talmudic period and Karaites of the medieval period) – we live by Scripture (the written Torah) as interpreted within the rabbinic tradition (the oral Torah). The verse “eye for eye, tooth for tooth” (Leviticus 24, 20) is not understood according to the Jewish tradition in its plain or literal meaning as actual bodily punishment, which would reflect a very primitive conception of justice – rather, the verse is understood midrashically (not according to the plain meaning) as requiring monetary compensation.
Characteristic of the pluralistic nature of the Jewish tradition, there is debate and differing viewpoints regarding criticism. On the one side, there is a Talmudic teaching warning of the negative consequences of refraining from giving criticism – “Jerusalem was destroyed only because the people did not rebuke one another” (Shabbat 119b). On the other side, several Talmudic teachers voice opposition to the giving of criticism (in contradistinction to the plain meaning of Scripture commanding us to give criticism) – arguing that in their day people no longer know how to give and receive criticism (Sifra Kedoshim 4):
Rabbi Tarfon said: I swear that there is no one in this generation who is able to reprove. Rabbi Elazar b. Azaryah said: I swear that there is no one in this generation who is able to accept reproof. Rabbi Akiva said: I swear that there is no one in this generation who knows how to give reproof.
There is a difference between constructive and destructive criticism. Constructive criticism is directed toward an issue and not toward the person. It is permissible to say to me that what I have said or done is stupid – and this is an issue oriented attack characteristic of constructive criticism. You must explain to me why what I have said or done is stupid in your opinion, and be willing to hear why I may disagree, but the discussion between us will be issue oriented. However, if you say to me that I am stupid, this a personal attack characteristic of destructive criticism – and it doesn’t matter why you think so; in any case such destructive criticism is forbidden. Jacob’s criticism of Shimon and Levi is constructive and issue oriented directed to their anger and behavior that Jacob describes as cruel – but, he does not call them cruel as people. Yet, the opposition of the Talmudic rabbis (Rabbi Tarfon, Rabbi Elazar b. Azaryah and Rabbi Akiva) to criticism is evidently even to criticism of a constructive nature.
By the way, as a psychologist-counselor, I studied for a number of years at the Adler Institute in Israel. Adler Institutes, throughout the western world, are based upon the teachings of Alfred Adler who was the first to have fundamental disagreement with Freud (and Freud expelled Adler from his group in Vienna as a kind of psychological heretic). In any case, at the Adler Institute in Israel distinction was made between criticism and feedback – and, opposition was to all criticism even if constructive. Feedback is the giving of information, and criticism is a form of feedback – not all feedback is criticism but all criticism (even if destructive) is feedback. The difference is that feedback is not intended to correct or cause the other person to change his or her behavior in any way. Rather, feedback is merely the imparting of information – what the other person does with the information is the concern or business of the person receiving the feedback. By contrast, criticism, in the imparting of information, is intended to correct or cause the other person to change his or her behavior in some way.
In my personal view, this distinction between criticism and feedback exists theoretically, but in practice the distinction is not very sharp. Many times when one intends merely to give feedback and information there is a concealed criticism reflected in the feedback, and even though one intends merely to give feedback there is at least on an unconscious level a hope, if not desire or will, that the behavior of the other person will change. Moreover, there are cases in which I do want to give constructive criticism and not just feedback. For example, as a parent if my child is violent I do not want just to give the child information that such violence is dangerous, and that I am afraid and angry when the child is violent – I want to give a clear message to the child that such violence is completely unacceptable to me, and that I fully intend and expect that the child will change his or her behavior. Also, as part of a counseling approach I believe there is room for constructive criticism in addition to the giving of feedback. For example, in the case of a husband who berates his wife, or a parent who berates a child, it is appropriate, in my view, for a counselor to voice constructive criticism that such behavior is not productive and will only cause damage to the marriage or parent-child relationship – and, the intention is not just to impart information but to cause a change in the behavior of the husband or parent and a corresponding change for the better in the marriage or parent-child relationship.
One other crucial point – criticism not only must be constructive but also within a context of a positive view of the person receiving the criticism and arising out of a feeling of love and compassion (in the sense of empathy). My fundamental principle for governing interpersonal relations is a minimum of criticism and complaint (and especially anger that can destroy relationships), and a maximum of love and appreciation. Love is not criticism and criticism is not love. Love is an unconditional acceptance of another person (as he or she is) without desire or expectation that he or she will change in accordance with our desires or expectations. Criticism is an attack – either upon the person himself or herself constituting personal attack and destructive criticism; or upon an issue constituting an issue oriented attack and constructive criticism. Yet, in either case, criticism is an attack, and as such reflects a lack of love and acceptance. Thus, criticism must be given in a context in which not only do we judge the person receiving the criticism in a positive and favorable light but in which we minimize criticism and complaint and maximize love and appreciation.
I believe, though not stated explicitly in the Biblical text, that Jacob gives his criticism of his sons within a positive context of love and acceptance of all his sons – and, this then is the reason that Jacob’s giving of constructive criticism to his sons is termed a blessing in the Biblical account (Genesis 49, 28).