Ask the Rabbis | How Can We Avoid the Trap of Self-Righteousness?

Image depicting traits of self-righteousness.

Everyone wants to be right—in the right way. What’s the line between striving for moral perfection and being a jerk? The rabbis mine the tradition for rules, reminders, stories and mental disciplines to help in the struggle.

INDEPENDENT 

It was 1966. I was 17, an American high school dropout diligently studying Torah in a dilapidated yeshiva in Jerusalem. I was so zealously devoted to the pursuit of piety and the daily regimen of observance that even the angels would gag when they saw me pray or study. That is, until one afternoon, during a mussar discourse by the elder Rabbi Ben Zion Bruk, when my self-righteous religiosity crumbled into dust before my pious eyes. In his throaty old voice, he looked at each of us and said: “If you ever presume to have overcome the Evil One, then you should know that he’s got you exactly where he wants you.”

I realized then that self-righteousness is actually a cover-up for the shadow-self that lurks within. A more accurate term would be “self-denial.” How to avoid becoming entrapped by it? Ha! It took Mr. Snake only 17 words to undo God’s 18 words. And we presume we can avoid the trap? Rubbish. Any presumption that it can be avoided is in itself a self-righteous one. The Tree of Knowledge was only the first of many such mines to be buried along our life-path. All we can do is tread carefully and remember always that we’re only here for the weekend, and that, as Abraham Joshua Heschel put it, “Knowledge by itself is a pretext for
higher ignorance.”

Rabbi Gershon Winkler
Walking Stick Foundation
Monument, CO

HUMANIST

Self-righteousness is a terrible character flaw, and I bet that most of us would quickly agree. But be careful. Agreement is loaded with irony, if not complete hypocrisy!

Self-righteousness is one character flaw that plays a role in everyone’s psyche. It is a bypass to self-awareness, one of the easiest detours from the path to introspection. Self-righteousness allows us to direct our attention to others while deflecting it from ourselves.

Realists recognize that it’s impossible to avoid every trap of self-righteousness. Yet as a philosophy of radical honesty, humanism encourages us to engage in a little more self-awareness. Note that I don’t say self-criticism. The goal is not solely to examine our faults. It’s to probe all of our behaviors, our missteps among them, in the context of our motivations. We seek to understand what drives our best and worst behaviors so as to become more decent people of integrity.

Whenever we find ourselves becoming a bit too self-righteous, we have an opportunity to adjust our perspective, to move the focus from others to ourselves. If we want to travel a healthier road in life, we need to dig more deeply into the reality of that life.

Rabbi Jeffrey L. Falick
Congregation for Humanistic Judaism of Metro Detroit
Birmingham Hills, MI

RENEWAL

Let’s agree: It’s not easy. We are hard-wired to think well of ourselves and not so well of them, however we define others who are different from ourselves. Even worse, as neuroscientist Dr. Robert Sapolsky has explained, the part of the brain that handles feelings of disgust at physical items (like rotting food) also handles moral disgust at people who behave in ways we disapprove of or whose values and beliefs we find repugnant.
To avoid the trap of self-righteousness, we need first to be aware of it. Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks noted that self-righteousness is actually the opposite of righteousness: “The righteous see the good in people; the self-righteous see the bad.” So if you’re mostly seeing bad in other people, take heed—the trap is at hand.

The second task is to be willing to step back and look at our own behaviors, the ways we talk, our einayim ramot (haughty eyes), and to accept the proposition that we may not be as right or virtuous as we like to think we are. Which is why the High Holidays, which demand such introspection, are a radical invention. But rather than beating our fists against our chests during the Yom Kippur confessional, we might address some compassion to ourselves, tapping on our hearts to help them soften, allowing ourselves to admit fault, to see things from other perspectives, not just our own. One of my favorite lines in the Talmud is an instruction by an anonymous master in Berachot—“Teach yourself to say ‘I don’t know.’” That one works all year round.

Rabbi Gilah Langner
Congregation Kol Ami
Arlington, VA

RECONSTRUCTIONIST 

Righteousness is laudable and holy; self-righteousness is annoying and counterproductive. To thread that needle, the trick lies in the very order of the words: Decenter the self, and be righteous for the sake of tzedek, rightness. Easier said than done, right? Now enter mussar, Judaism’s venerable ethical-spiritual tradition.

Mussar shows us the continual struggle between our positive-ethical impulse (yetzer ha’tov), which focuses first on others, and our negative-selfish urge (yetzer ha’ra) which is purely self-directed. Both are natural and necessary, in proper ratio. Balancing them, while favoring the good instinct whenever possible, is the golden mean. And if we start with others, presto, our “self” never overshadows our “righteousness.” Another mussar tool is cheshbon ha’nefesh, “soul-accounting.” We should be lovingly self-critical, both individually and collectively (for instance, critical consideration of racism’s historical impacts is very Jewish). Avoid self-righteousness; embrace self-critical-ness, which alone yields real righteousness.

Finally, mussar has us ever review, critique and improve our middot, or attributes. Humility, anavah, consistently practiced, zaps away self-righteous tendencies. Seeing the whole truth, emet, helps greatly. Tzedek, “righteousness,” is its own moral middah. With ongoing, serious, self-reflective practice, we avoid
self-righteousness— and better still, we live holy and ethical lives.

Rabbi Fred Scherlinder Dobb
Adat Shalom Reconstructionist Congregation
Bethesda, MD 

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REFORM

This time of year, there is a lot of talk of teshuvah, repentance. We set spiritual goals, aiming to be the best person we can, or at least a better version of ourselves. While my kids will remind you that practice makes better and there is no such thing as perfect, the rabbis of our tradition do imagine that somewhere there exists the tzadik gamur, the perfectly righteous being. Not surprisingly, it is an almost impossible feat to become that person: You have to have all the right intentions, all the time, when doing all of the right actions. Any missteps will place you with the rest of us, considered the beinonim, those who are neither perfectly good nor perfectly evil—in other words, humans.

‘The righteous see the good in people; the self-righteous see the bad.’

Our ancient tradition knew well the pitfalls of the human ego; there is a fine line, our Sages seem to teach, between being wholly righteous and being self-righteous, arrogant or smug. The rabbis of the Talmud teach that “As Rabbi Abbahu said: In the place where penitents stand, even the full-fledged righteous do not stand.” I’ve always understood it to suggest that the Divine appreciates us, loves us, and holds us closer in our imperfections and attempts at righteousness than in our assumptions of—or pretensions to—self-righteousness and perfection.

Rabbi Sari Laufer
Stephen Wise Temple
Los Angeles, CA

CONSERVATIVE

Self-righteous individuals are often intolerant of the opinions and behaviors of others. We may avoid falling into the trap of being self-righteous by recognizing that most truths are not absolute. Further, most important issues can be understood from multiple perspectives. The following Talmudic tale provides guidance to prevent
self-righteousness:

Rabbi Yohanan and Resh Lakish lived in the land of Israel almost 2,000 years ago. They became the best of friends and study partners in part because they had remarkably different backgrounds and world views. After Resh Lakish died, Rabbi Yohanan was inconsolable. He could not imagine returning to the study house without his beloved friend and hevruta, or study partner. The other sages identified a new hevruta for Rabbi Yohanan, one of the finest scholars available.

However, whenever Rabbi Yohanan would say anything, this new hevruta would immediately support Rabbi Yohanan’s opinion, leading Rabbi Yohanan to burst out in anger: “Do you think you are at all like my friend Resh Lakish? Whenever I would say anything, Resh Lakish used to raise 24 objections, and I would have to respond with 24 rebuttals. But all you do is agree with me! What’s the use of that?” Then Rabbi Yohanan stood up, tore his garments, and wept.

Studying with someone who disagreed with him was this wise rabbi’s way of avoiding an echo chamber, thereby sharpening his intellect, increasing his humility and avoiding self-righteousness.

Rabbi Amy Wallk Katz
Temple Beth El
Springfield, MA

MODERN ORTHODOX

There is no trick or tactic that can guarantee that you avoid the trap of self-righteousness. The best way is not to feel self-righteous. It helps if you regularly review your personal behavior with a good dose of self-criticism. Second, it helps if you have a spouse, a friend, a colleague who tells you the truth about your personal behavior—and if you make clear to them that you want the unvarnished truth from them and not what makes you feel comfortable. A third way is to read the High Holy Day Machzor (prayer book) in advance and carefully study the lists of sins. If you are honest with yourself, you will find that you committed more of them than you kept a mental record of—or had realized.

If you have already fallen into the pit of smugness and self-satisfaction and are convinced that you are the exception to Ecclesiastes’ statement that “there is no righteous person on earth who does good and never sins” (Ecclesiastes 7:20), then your only hope is to repent for being self-righteous. Plead to God to help you climb out of this religious abyss. If you are already self-righteous, you are probably not up to this. But if you are not there yet, it will help you not to fall into the trap.

Rabbi Yitz Greenberg
J.J. Greenberg Center for Jewish Life/Hadar Institute
New York, NY

ORTHODOX

When you find something that really works, I hope you’ll bottle it and send me some! But there are three things I find helpful. One is the example of Moses: The Chumash describes him as being the most humble person who ever lived. Paradoxically, he was also the greatest person who ever lived, with the most insight into God, the world and his own accomplishments. The simple explanation is that the more you understand of Godliness, the more you see how far you have fallen short of what there is to know and to do. Your own accomplishments pale next to the distance yet to be traveled.

The second thing that works for me is daily Gemara study. The deeper in study you get, the more you realize how dumb you are. You’re constantly put in touch with your own ineptitude, which makes you come down from your high horse.

The third tool that I use is never, ever, ever looking to sports stars, entertainment celebrities or politicians for inspiration. Instead, look for stories about ordinary people who have achieved greatness—sometimes enough to make your jaw drop. Reading about what the people around you are doing tends to be humbling. It makes you reconsider whether anything you’ve done entitles you to any kudos at all.

Rabbi Yitzchok Adlerstein
Cross-Currents
Los Angeles, CA

NEO-SEPHARDIC

The trap is in the word “self.” Humans are selfish by nature, choosing to cooperate only when it benefits them. Stories of selfless sacrifices, unwavering loyalty and unconditional love fascinate us because they are exceptional and heroic, seemingly swimming upstream against our innate tendencies. The danger of self-righteousness lurks everywhere. Admitting wrongdoing or errors portrays us as weak, as lesser than others, and so we always strive to be right, even at the cost of distorting the truth. When that “right” is part of religious “righteousness” the danger is even greater. The self-righteous one can easily see himself as an altruistic person, working within the greater network, a faith community of like-minded believers. Saying that my religious path is right and yours wrong does not feel selfish because I am not justifying myself but rather my perspective of morals and ethics shared by many more, representing, so I believe, the will of God.

It is for good reason that Hillel the Elder and Rabbi Akiva made the rule “Love others as you do yourself” the axis of Jewish wisdom. With this rule as a guide, one cannot be self-righteous. It tells us to shift our center of gravity from self to other. This is the first step of teshuvah, repentance, as we approach the High Holidays. While it is very important to forgive ourselves and move on, we must also recognize we have wronged others, and to do that we must be unselfish and love others. Say, sincerely, “I am sorry,” not because I want a clean bill of health (selfish) but because I understand how my actions or words, which I thought justified, have hurt the other person.

Rabbi Haim Ovadia
Torah VeAhava
Potomac, MD

CHABAD

In responding to this problem, which vexes our community and our world more than ever in recent memory, I am reminded of something my older brother once taught me: When you point a finger at someone, look closely, because you’re really pointing three fingers back at yourself. The Lubavitcher Rebbe elucidates this principle in a Hasidic discourse in regard to the ancient menorah in the Holy Temple in Jerusalem, the symbol of the Jewish people, which was hewn from a solid block rather than composed of different pieces. The beauty of the menorah, he emphasizes, is that it was indeed solid even as branches reached off it in different directions. (As we know, the flames themselves faced back toward each other.) That solidity extended to the entirety of the menorah, from the base to the flowery ornaments.

In people, the ornaments represent positive qualities, and the base represents their flaws. When we train ourselves to see the positive qualities of others and our own flaws, as opposed to the reverse, we become more righteous ourselves, and thus it’s easier to become less self-righteous. Even if not a panacea, this principle is certainly a cure for our souls and hopefully then for the problem of self-righteousness that has already destroyed too much.

Rabbi Levi Shemtov
Executive Vice President, American Friends of Lubavitch
Washington, DC

Opening picture: Illustration composite made from IWAT1929

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One thought on “Ask the Rabbis | How Can We Avoid the Trap of Self-Righteousness?

  1. henry Gottlieb says:

    The title “rabbi” denotes one who knows everything(and is never wrong!)

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