The Avodah Blog

Praises Pitfalls

Tamar ToledanoTamar Toledano, from Elkins Park, PA, attended the University of Pittsburgh, where she earned a Bachelor’s degree in Sociology, with a minor in Public Service and a certificate in Women’s and Gender Studies. As an Art Speaks Coordinator for Ya/Ya, Tamar works with local youth to create public art projects that raise awareness of social justice issues.

This piece is cross-posted from Jews For New Orleans, the AVODAH New Orleans blog. Read Tamar’s post on Jews For New Orleans here.

Our AVODAH community here in New Orleans is still in its beginning stages. We are new to this city, our jobs, and each other, making our collective insecurity a collective need to be addressed. We have done this beautifully. After two months of living together our burgeoning community already has an established ethic of gratitude and praise. For example, after every meal there is a chorus of thank you’s sung to the chef’s of that night’s dinner, we collectively write thank you notes to those who have volunteered to share their time, knowledge, skills or hospitality with us, and we even had a program during a community Shabbat where we publicly wrote down things we admire about each other. All of these components of our expression of praise and gratitude toward one another are inspiring and humbling. We understand and embrace the power of a simple thank you or sincere complement; it may change the course of one’s day or aid in a personal process of healing and renewal.

But lately, something has been bothering me. If these practices are proven to be uplifting, and they undoubtedly are for some, why do I find myself rolling my eyes during our continued tradition of thanking the chef’s of our meal, and feeling ashamed that I don’t want to say thank you along with everyone else? Why am I critical of our public proclamations of praise even when I am the one receiving it? If I believe in the necessity to express appreciation and admiration for another person when it’s due, then why am I recently so bothered by the deliberateness of our gratitude?

Somewhere along the path of my Jewish education I was taught that the real challenge of praying is in the repetition. Some days we are too lazy to pray, some days we feel that God does not deserve our praise and gratitude, and some days we simply don’t connect with the words we’re meant to connect with. And yet through the repetition we are to find solace and occasional moments of authentic sentiment. The hurdle is in overcoming these setbacks, which perhaps will never fully subside. It’s a challenge, yes, but what is the lesson? Perhaps it’s a practice in humility and supplication. These are good things to experiences and important lessons to learn but being forced to humble yourself with words that consistently don’t resonate for you at specific times of the day can create tension and resentment —the kind that I am currently feeling. And yet, I hear the voices of the rabbis of my childhood telling me that the challenge is in being inconvenienced. Yes, rabbi, I understand the challenge but what if I don’t want to rise to it? Where is my agency?

And the agency of entire communities who reject the notion that we are restricted to a prescribed language through which we are limited to offer praise. Are we to say, then, that the Conservative, Reform and Reconstructionist movements weren’t up for the challenge because they changed the liturgy they found to be problematic? Is it healthy for the individual to perpetuate male-centered God language when they find it offensive, or to sustain praise for a God who destroys our perceived enemies when we would rather offer our hopes for peace and understanding? It is clear that the language of praise is important, as well as the intent behind it, but it seems that the challenge is in feeling like our issues with God are not being addressed. Likewise, when we compliment another person, we are not offering them ways in which we think they could improve.

Giving praise or expressing gratitude, to God or another person, requires that we check our egos in order to acknowledge another. Indeed we are making another person feel better about themselves. But my question is, does this a sustainable community make? At what point does expressing gratitude become excessive or just a way to avoid giving criticism? On our community Shabbat we learned a text from tractate Arachin 16b in which Rabbi Tarfon says “I would be surprised if there is anyone in this generation who can accept reproof. You say, ‘remove the splinter from between your eyes,’ and they say ‘remove the two by four from between your own eyes!’” Rabbi Eleazar ben Azarya then says, “I would be surprised if there is anyone in this generation who can give reproof.” In this text we are to learn that the inability to accept reproof is a symptom of the younger generation and subsequent presumed inexperience. We also see the ease in which the imagined young person ups the ante in his rebuke against the elder rabbi.

Last week’s episode of 30 Rock summed up this caricature of the young person perfectly when we are shown a clip of a young white man carelessly talking at his interviewer, “Hey are you Jack? Sorry I’m late. B.T.Dubs, I gotta leave for my ironic kickball league in about ten. Also I’m not interested in this position unless I’m going to be constantly praised. And I won’t cut my hair.” The need for constant praise, disregard for other people’s time, inability to take criticism, and shirking responsibilities, this is the young generation that Rabbi Tarfon and Tina Fey are talking about.

Do we desire praise and thanks because we’re young people who don’t yet understand the ways of the world? Perhaps it’s an age-old generational divide, one where the older generation scoffs at an honest desire to be praised and thanked. Or maybe it’s not a generational thing, but a human thing, needing to feel needed and appreciated. Whatever it is, Rabbi Tarfon and Rabbi Eleazar ben Azarya have an important message about reproof. People need to feel good about themselves, yes, but they also need the insight to be self critical and independent, and more so to be able to accept outside criticism as a learning opportunity. Does excessive praise stunt this ability? I think it does. When I am thanked and complemented I feel good and know what other people like about me. But how can I grow from there?

In my creative non-fiction writing workshop we recently started sharing our personal essays with one another. Our workshop leader, Lea, explained the importance of constructive criticism stating that if we only heard how good our work is then we believe there’s no place else to go with it, to make it better, more honest, more thoughtful. So too, in life, it is necessary to praise, give thanks, and humble yourself in the process. But the real challenge of these selfless acts and in community building is not in the repetition, or forced supplication, it is in being sure to communicate ways in which we could better ourselves both as individuals and as a unit, a community through honestly evaluating our values and practices.

I am not saying that every compliment should be coupled with a criticism. Of course there is a place for honest expression of praise with no reproof. I am also not saying that I feel like our community here does not value constructive criticism. Indeed, I started writing this blog post two weeks ago, and already in the time between then and now we have begun having talks about our food values and how we can better our eating practices. While I don’t see us publicly writing ‘things we think every person could work on’ any time in the near future, it has become clear that as a group we have reached a point where we have collectively realized that indeed praise and gratitude alone do not a community make.

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