R. Elazar says: Any community in which there is flattery will be exiled in the end. It is written here, For the company of flatterers is desolate (galmud), etc. (Job 15:34), and it written there, You will say to yourself, “Who bore these for me, when I was bereaved and lonely (galmud), exiled and disdained (Isaiah 49:21).
R. Yirmiya bar Abba says: Four categories of people will not greet the Shekhinah (the Divine Presence): the cynics, the flatterers, the liars, and the slanderers. The cynics, as it written, [God] withdrew [God’s] hand from the cynics (Hosea 7:5). The flatterers, as it is written, That a flatterer will not come before [God] (Job 13:16). Liars, as it is written, One who speaks falsehood will not dwell before My eyes (Psalm 101:7). Slanderers, as it is written, For You are not a God who has pleasure in wickedness; evil will not dwell with You (Psalm 5:5), meaning: You, Adonai, are righteous; evil will not dwell in Your dwelling place.
The Musar Movement (Jewish ethical study) of the nineteenth century focused intensely on moral conduct by inculcating specific middot (character traits; sing. middah) conducive to ethical behavior. Among these virtues are compassion, loyalty to God and community, respect for learning and authority, wisdom, rationality, and patience. The study of Musar has been renewed and reinvigorated in our time because so many people find it profoundly valuable.
The middot advocated in Musar are grounded in virtues the Sages of the Talmud consider praiseworthy. The Rabbis held people exhibiting these traits as possessing the spiritual power and potential to strengthen family and community bonds and influence the behavior of others, thereby improving the world. The Rabbis’ therefore discussed, taught, and encouraged the development of these virtues. The Sages also condemned middot they believed lead to wicked behavior and are therefore destructive of both self and the community. Accordingly, they didn’t hesitate to expound on them, as they do in this passage.
We are entering an ongoing conversation about the evils of flattery. Flattery can be a kindness, a way to acknowledge goodness. R. Elazar, however, does not have that kind of flattery in mind. His strongly worded statement helps us realize he speaks not of benevolent flattery, but rather insincere, manipulative, gratuitous flattery. He tells us that a community in which such flattery is common fare will not survive intact: it will ultimately suffer the devastating fate of exile, here perhaps understood metaphorically: the communal bonds will dissolve. He quotes two verses, Job 15:34 and Isaiah 49:21, explaining them in terms of one another, employing a common rabbinic interpretive technique: the term galmud (desolate or lonely) in both verses links the term “flatterers” in the the Job verse with “exile” in the Isaiah verse. R. Elazar thereby concludes that flattery leads to exile.
R. Yirmiya identifies four traits the define people who will not “greet the Shekhinah,” meaning that their way of being in the world distances them from God in this life and possibly in the world-to-come: cynics, flatterers, liars, and slanders. (It appears that R. Yirmiya’s teaching may be a separate teaching from the oral tradition, included here because its mention of flatterers fits the discussion of overbearing flattery.) For each trait, R. Yirmiya supplies four powerful verses as proof texts to claim that God rejects cynics, flatterers, liars, and slanderers. As R. Yirmiya reads these verses, Hosea 7:5 says that God pulls away from cynics and they are therefore unable to draw close to God. Job 13:16 is often understood to say that a flatterer shall not be admitted into God’s presence. Similarly, Psalm 101:7 is often understood to say that a liar shall not be seen or acknowledged by God. Psalm 5:6 is understood to say that since God finds wickedness so displeasing that evil people are not permitted to “dwell with”—that is, draw near to God.
I want to suggest another way to read R. Yirmiya’s proof texts and thereby a different way to interpret the passage. Rather than claiming that God pushes away or exiles cynics, flatterers, liars, and slanderers from the Divine Presence, rejecting them because these four character traits steer much of their behavior and relationships with others, consider the possibility that cynics, flatterers, liars, and slanderers push God out of their lives by rejecting godly virtues. An alternative way to understand the verses quoted by R. Yirmiya: God withdraws God’s hand from the cynic (Hosea 7:5) because, having held it out, the cynic refuses to accept God’s ethical priorities. Cynics publicly express negativity, rejecting much that is good in God’s world. Flatterers don’t bother approaching God (Job 13:16) because they know their insincerity can deceive people although it is useless in manipulating God. Similarly, liars cannot, in and of themselves, relate to God (Psalm 101:7) because, however you conceive God, truth is fundamental. Psalm 5:5 is simply saying that God is not evil, but R. Yirmiya reads it to say that slanderers, whose behavior marks them as evil, cannot draw close to God. While R. Yirmiya is generally understood as teaching that God rejects four types of people, perhaps we can understood the passage as a warning that cynics, flatterers, liars, and slanderers reject godliness.
QUESTIONS TO CONSIDER AND DISCUSS
- How do you understand “greeting the Shekhinah” or being in God’s presence?
- What other character traits, incompatible with godliness, would you add to R. Yirmiya’s list?
- Can one change one’s character and nurture in themselves new middot? The Musar tradition holds this is possible through intense learning and practice. Have you ever tried to develop a specific desirable trait in yourself? If so, and if you succeeded, how did doing so contribute to your happiness?