When to take offense

My last blog, on conflict resolution, was based on a presentation I gave recently at a UMJC leaders’ conference. At the end of the presentation, one of my colleagues came up to me and said he appreciated what I had to say, but wanted to add that the best approach to conflict is not to get into one in the first place. He felt that we’re too quick to take offense and would usually do better to let things go before they even develop into a conflict. My friend cited a prayer that comes at the end of the daily Amidah: “My God, guard my tongue from evil and my lips from deceitful speech. To those who curse me, let my soul be silent; may my soul be to all like the dust” (Koren Siddur).

Yep, it would be hard to get into conflict when your soul is like the dust.

Our Messiah gives similar instructions, for example:

How blessed are those who make peace!
for they will be called sons of God. . . .

“You have heard that our fathers were told, ‘Love your neighbor — and hate your enemy.’ But I tell you, love your enemies! Pray for those who persecute you! Then you will become children of your Father in heaven. For he makes his sun shine on good and bad people alike, and he sends rain to the righteous and the unrighteous alike.” Matthew 5:9, 43–45 CJB

We can all think of lots more references like this in the life and teachings of Yeshua. Rav Shaul adds a pragmatic qualifier to the ideal of being a peacemaker: “Repay no one evil for evil, but try to do what everyone regards as good. If possible, and to the extent that it depends on you, live in peace with all people” (Rom 12:17–18). Apparently, even if we’re making our soul like dust, not trying to get even, and even loving our enemies, sometimes it’s still not possible to live in peace with all people.

Today we need to recognize that we live among a population that’s generally quick to take offense and to consider it a big deal when they’re offended. Sometimes taking offense is even raised up as a virtue in its own right. (I could wade into the political morass by citing recent examples of hair-trigger self-righteous offense-taking on both the left and on the right . . . but I’ll refrain.) In today’s hyper climate we often need to slow down, do what’s good and honorable ourselves, and try to keep the peace. But sometimes, Shaul reminds us, it just isn’t possible. So, when do we need to make it an issue and risk conflict even if we long to be peacemakers?

I can imagine a number of times when this might be appropriate, or even necessary, in pursuing a life that honors the God of Israel, but I’ll limit myself to one for now: When someone’s behavior isn’t just offensive, but is abusive.  

It’s one thing to overlook occasional harsh language or thoughtless behavior, which most people fall into from time to time. One of the keys to a happy marriage (and it applies to other relationships as well) is to remember that our partner isn’t perfect, won’t ever be, and doesn’t even need to be! He or she will disappoint, hurt my feelings, make me angry from time to time, and we can still have a happy marriage. But if my partner is consistently belittling, mocking, or being manipulative, he or she should be confronted. This also applies to friends and others with whom we interact in life; abusers need to be confronted (a la Matthew 18, as we saw in my last blog).

The need to confront is especially the case when abuse is directed toward others.

I’m using the term “abuse” here deliberately. As with the offense/offensive terminology, abuse/abusive tends to be overused in today’s discourse. Abusive behavior isn’t just rude or inconsiderate or clueless—it’s destructive. It diminishes, or threatens to diminish, the inherent dignity and worth of another human being. The abuser has a compulsion to dominate and control another human being, to make her an object that he can manipulate for his own purposes. (The male and female pronouns here can be flipped, of course. Women can abuse men, a wife can abuse her husband, and abuse can also be perpetrated on someone of the same sex as the abuser.)

Blogger John Castle adds to our definition:

Abuse involves denigrating (putting down) the value of the partner, either physically, verbally or with body language, social isolation, rape and other sexual violations, and economic marginalization.  It can involve name-calling. . . . This cruelty sinks below the discussion of ideas and opinions and desires, and calls into question the nature of the person. It doesn’t recognize the personhood of the spouse.  The victim is treated like an enemy that must be conquered, rather than a partner who is loved and valued.

When Castle speaks of “the nature of the person” and the “personhood” of the abuse victim, I assume he’s referring to the inherent dignity all persons possess as created in the image of God (Gen 1:26–27). In Jewish ethics, an essential attribute of the divine image is moral freedom and the moral responsibility that goes with it. This is one of the main ways in which we are like God. One Jewish writer on ethics concludes from Genesis 1:26–27: “Any act which disregards the rights of other people constitutes an unlawful exercise of dominion” (Arthur Block, A Book of Jewish Ethical Concepts, p. 255, cited in Joseph Telushkin, A Code of Jewish Ethics, Vol 1 [New York: Bell Tower, 2006] 13). The abuser habitually disregards the rights of the other and makes the other an object to be manipulated, out of his or her own sick need for control.

It’s godly to overlook offenses, but it’s not godly to overlook abuse.

This applies especially when we see abuse being practiced against someone else. I know, Yeshua says “If your brother sins against you” (Matt 18:15), but if I witness (first-hand and not just by hearsay) sin against someone else, I might need to step in. Matthew 18 deals directly with on-on-one conflict, but it’s also a template for conflict resolution beyond the basic one-on-one variety. I also need to step in if I learn of abuse against a minor or an adult who is incapacitated in some way, even if I don’t witness it directly. The process will be more complex, and the abuse is only alleged, not proven, but I still need to intervene.

Our Messiah tells us that peacemakers are blessed. And making peace is sometimes a matter of letting things go, of making our soul “to all like the dust.” But genuine peace sometimes can come only after confrontation and conflict. Wisdom is knowing when to chill and when to push back. Being alert to the nature of abuse may help us make that call.





1 thought on “When to take offense”

  1. Thank you, Rabbi, for this reminder! I suppose many of us fall in to the applicable traps suggested in this writing. Being a peace-maker, letting things go……things like arrogance, ‘wiser than you’ attitude….so much to let go by the wayside as we seek to please the Master of our Lives and to show loving kindness to our Fellow. Be blessed.

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