Lashon HaTov: Singing the praises of courageous women
Like many of my colleagues in Jewish education, I sometimes struggle to remember precisely what I learned from R. Sacks zt’l. This is not simply a matter of forgetting what one has been taught, but points to something deeper. The influence of a great teacher is sometimes such that it is hard to find the boundary between what I have long thought about a topic, and what has been presented to me in such a profoundly compelling way that is hard to imagine thinking otherwise.
For me, one exception to this is the idea of lashon hatov (good speech), as I can clearly remember being introduced to this notion by R. Sacks. The importance of avoiding “evil speech” has long been emphasised in sermons, books, articles and popular “guard your tongue” programmes, but until Rabbi Sacks began teaching and writing about it, the idea that there is a mitzvah to speak well about people was definitely lacking an equivalent PR campaign.
R. Sacks explained that lashon hatov “is as creative as lashon hara is destructive”. Drawing on Pirkei Avot, he explored the ethical and pedagogic function of praise:
The very first statement in Avot includes the principle: “Raise up many disciples.” But how do you create disciples? How do you inspire people to become what they could become, to reach the full measure of their potential? Answer: By acting as did Rabban Yochanan ben Zakkai when he praised his students, showing them their specific strengths.
He did not flatter them. He guided them to see their distinctive talents. Eliezer ben Hyrcanus, the “well that never loses a drop”, was not creative but he had a remarkable memory – not unimportant in the days before the Oral Torah was written in books. Elazar ben Arakh, the “ever-flowing spring,” was creative, but needed to be fed by mountain waters (years later he separated from his colleagues and forgot all he had learned).
Rabban Yochanan ben Zakkai […used praise] not so much to describe as to motivate. And that is lashon tov. Evil speech diminishes us, good speech helps us grow. Evil speech puts people down, good speech lifts them up. Focused, targeted praise, informed by considered judgment of individual strengths, and sustained by faith in people and their potentiality, is what makes teachers great and their disciples greater than they would otherwise have been. That is what we learn from Rabban Yochanan ben Zakkai.
More generally, R. Sacks taught that being generous in our praise of others falls within the command of “love your neighbour as yourself” (at least according to Maimonides). He also saw a deep spiritual significance in lashon hatov:
We think religion is about faith in God. What I had not fully understood before was that faith in God should lead us to have faith in people, for God’s image is in each of us, and we have to learn how to discern it. I then understood that the repeated phrase in Genesis 1, “And God saw that it was good,” was there to teach us to see the good in people and events, and by so doing, help to strengthen that goodness.
Susi Bradfield z’l, whose 14th yahrzeit falls tonight, was someone R. Sacks appreciated greatly. He praised and celebrated her character and her contributions to the community both during her lifetime and afterwards, including in this tribute marking her 10th yahrzeit. Susi Bradfield, he wrote:
[…] had one of the most beautiful personalities I have ever encountered. Saved from the Holocaust by the Kindertransport rescue, she found herself a stranger in a strange land while the world she knew as a child in Berlin went up in flames.
Together with her husband, the late Freddie Bradfield, she built a life, a business and a family with a graciousness so warm and a dedication so serene that it was hard to believe what she had been through – a story she eventually told in her moving autobiography, But Some Became Stars. Elaine and I counted it a great privilege to know her together with her children, Michael and Cheryl, and their lovely families.
Susi Bradfield z'l
On Sunday 23rd May, 2020 Torah will host a shiur in memory of Susi Bradfield, on the topic of courageous women in the Tankah. The guest speaker, Judy Klitsner, is another contemporary woman of courage. A disciple of Nechama Leibowitz and award-winning author, her work as a Jewish educator and scholar is well-known. Less well-publicised but equally important is her long-standing role as an advocate for the victims of abuse, work that she took on long before #metoo. She has published numerous articles promoting a preventative, rather than reactive, approach to the problem. Judy was among the founders of the Takannah Forum, a respected anti-abuse organization in Israel. She continues to raise awareness about the topic with frequent lectures at venues throughout the world. Judy is the Founding Board Chair of Sacred Spaces, an organisation that aims to build healthy Jewish communities by partnering with Jewish institutions to prevent and respond to sexual abuse and other abuses of power.