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What does Judaism say about bullying?


Bullies are typically motivated by a need to address their own insecurities and feelings of weakness or incompetence. They seek out vulnerable "targets" whom they victimize with harassment, physical violence or humiliation. Intimidating others gives bullies a sense of superiority and power that helps them compensate for their own perceived deficiencies. They thrive on exposing the weaknesses and vulnerabilities of others. Thus, they are attracted to individuals who appear emotionally insecure or who lack social sophistication. Terrorizing such people is almost guaranteed to result in a frantic spectacle for the bully and his associates to observe and enjoy.

But bullies rarely target genuinely confident and self-assured children simply because, deep down, the bullies themselves are intimidated by them. Herein lies the key to avoiding confrontation with bullies--not by mastering the skills of self-defense or verbal sparring, but by building up inner strength, strength of spirit. Helping our children develop a sense of their own importance and acquire the courage of their convictions is equivalent to vaccinating them from the emotional trauma and abiding pain of being bullied.

From this perspective, we can understand what our rabbis meant when they said that a truly wise person is "insulted, but never responds in kind." The notion of the comeback is foreign to the righteous individual. Because he feels confident and secure in who he is and what he believes, he is not fazed, let alone intimidated, by the fists or words of would-be bullies. And for this very reason, after a while, potential bullies lose all interest in pursuing him.

Rabbi Joshua Maroof

Magen David Sephardic Congregation

Rockville, MD

Modern Orthodox

There should be no ideological differences among Jews when it comes to opposing bullying. The fundamental principle of Judaism is that every human being is an image of God. This means that each person has the intrinsic dignity of being equal and of infinite value and should be treated accordingly. The bully seeks to degrade the other. Therefore, bullying assaults Judaism's most sacred principle, targeting its most sacred object--a human being.

The bully must be confronted and stopped. Tactics--What is the best way to stop the bullying? Should the child or the parent confront the bully? Should the authorities or other parents be engaged?--can be debated. The most effective methods will depend on circumstances. All cases, though, given the real danger of permanent damage to a victim's self-esteem, demand swift action.

The bully--and everyone else--should be reminded that the Talmud considers shaming or humiliating a person in public is the moral equivalent to murder. Rashi points out that the face of an embarrassed person often turns white, as if the person's blood had been drained, or spilled. Stopping the bullying should therefore be considered the moral equivalent to pikuach nefesh (life-saving), which takes precedence over 610 of the 613 commandments. The bully might also be reminded of the Talmud's statement that one who humiliates another person in the presence of others will be denied a share in the world to come. In other words, bullying is both physical assault and spiritual murder. It is beyond the pale by human standards and divine judgment alike.

Rabbi Yitz Greenberg

New York, NY


I vividly remember the schoolyard bullies. "Stay away from the water fountains today. They're hanging out over there," the kids would say. "They" were the bullies who would terrorize verbally and physically anyone who entered their turf. Times are different today; bullying no longer takes place just on the playground. It can take place over the phone, online or in a simple text message. Now a bully can be anyone--not just the kids with more muscles.

"If I am not for myself, who will be?" the often-cited Mishnah from Pirkei Avot, has much to teach us when it comes to our children and bullies. As parents, we can teach our children that they are responsible for their own actions and blessed with the gift of choice. They may choose to act out in rage against the bully or may choose to disengage--walk away, turn off the computer or ignore the text message. The Mishnah teaches us that we also have the choice not to be the bully, not to engage in behavior that intimidates and causes pain. We can teach our children that they can take control of the situation by how they respond, and thereby take control away from the bully!

Tokekha--rebuke--is a value upon which our tradition has much to teach us. In the case of bullying, tokekha means teaching our children how to respond in a safe and smart way. We can instruct them that tokekha means alerting an adult if they have been the victim of a bully or have witnessed bullying. We can also impart the value of standing up for those who are being bullied in a safe and meaningful way. Tokekha is also a tool for us as parents to confront our own children if we recognize inappropriate behavior.

These are just two of the Jewish tradition's tools to take safe and effective action against those who choose to bully. Our children must remember: they always have a choice in how to react and what they will say and do.

Rabbi Greg Litcofsky

Temple Shir Tikva

Wayland, MA


Bullying is a problem with effects far beyond the playground. That's why the U.S. government launched, a resource for concerned adults and kids. Too many people, big and small, throw their weight around inappropriately; too many have been victims.

My Hillel rabbi at Brandeis University, Al Axelrad, described Jewish views as "pacifoid"--leaning heavily toward non-violence whenever possible, but stopping short of pacifism in the face of implacable bullies. "An eye for an eye" is rarely a good answer--but neither, to quote a nice Jewish boy who birthed a different faith, is "turning the other cheek" always adequate. Our children must learn to defuse intense situations, and effectively sidestep or rebuke bullies, even when it means "telling"--informing a responsible adult.

Not all our children are the victims. Parents and teachers of bullies themselves should inculcate Jewish values, like: gadol hashalom (Great is Peace); honoring tzelem elohim, the Divine Image (Gen. 1:26) in everyone; anavut (humility), questioning what we do, and why; and even pikuach nefesh (saving lives), given the physical and psychic effects of bullying, which can even extend to suicide.

Sticks and stones can break my bones: Yes. Names will never hurt me: Not quite. Communities can reduce bullying incidents by half, with concerted efforts. Perhaps ours should do more.

Rabbi Fred Scherlinder Dobb

Adat Shalom Reconstructionist Congregation

Bethesda, MD


We are a short family--all under 5'3". When our oldest son was 5 years old, we wanted to protect him from the eventual taunting and bullying we feared his small stature would invite. That was the year that the first Karate Kid movie came out, so off we went to find our son's "Mr. Miyagi."

We began to apply one of the highest teachings of Pirkei Avot: "Make yourself a teacher, acquire a friend, and judge all with merit." We found a mentor who would help Edan discover his own strength; we counseled him to choose friends who would always "have his back," and we instilled in him a commitment to being a mensch, thereby inspiring that behavior from others.

During Edan's 12 years of martial arts study, we augmented his training with Jewish teachings. He learned that when someone is hurt on the mat, the responsible opponent turns her or his back so as not to cause embarrassment when pain is expressed (in tears or anger, for instance). Shaming, we taught our son, is akin to murder. It can also turn one who has been bullied into a bully. Again we invoked Pirkei Avot and explained: B'makom sh'ein anashim, hish-tadel lihyot ish--or as my holy partner would say: Even when nobody else is being a mensch, you be the mensch.

If we have one great wish, even obligation, as parents and mentors, it is to see our youth develop into the adult described in Psalm 1: One who doesn't fall into bad company and does not feel the pull of the tides, but is firmly rooted in one's own strength, truth and right choices. K'etz shatul al palgei mayim--like a tree firmly planted on the banks of the flowing water.

Rabbi Nadya Gross

Associate Director of HASHPA'AH and

co-rabbi of Pardes Levavot

Boulder, CO


We are taught by our tradition to give our back to those who seek to smite us (Isaiah 50:6-7) in order to avoid conflict, that the world rests on the merit of the one who restrains himself or herself in the moment of dispute (Talmud, Chulin 81b). If you are, like Isaiah, so consciously connected with God that nothing bothers you, and no one's blow to your back could make you feel belittled, then stand firm, accept wrathful attacks or insults and know that you are rising to heights of human ennoblement.

We are also taught, though, by the Talmud, to care for our well-being, to stand up for ourselves and not allow others to trample across our dignity. So if you're not like Isaiah, then for your sake and for the sake of others you must not allow the bully to think he or she can get away with their behavior without consequence. Though it may be noble to turn the other cheek, one runs the risk of being too passive: "The wrong kind of humility, however, is bowing to the assault of the wicked ... on the contrary, we are to admonish them for their deed," as we read in Or'cho't Tzadikim, Sha'ar Ha'a'nee'vut. At the very least, children who are being bullied should be encouraged to tell their parents, teachers or school guidance counselors and come away from the experience knowing that such behavior is not tolerated. If they are taught to do nothing, and that there is no recourse, the next submission could be to an adult predator.

Rabbi Gershon Winkler

The Walking Stick Foundation

Thousand Oaks, CA


Jews, unfortunately and often tragically, have too much experience as the victims of bullies and thugs. For centuries, our classic response has been to keep our heads down, to evade our tormentors or, when confronted, certainly not to fight back. It was equally foolish to appeal for help to local authorities who often were in cahoots with the abusers.

In contrast to this meekness and impotence, we need to teach our children that they can protect themselves. We have a tradition of heroic models of resistance to draw on. Our children can learn to stand their ground, resist intimidation, call for help from a reliable adult and trust that it will be forthcoming when called on.

Equally important, in our efforts to preserve our own dignity and self-worth, we need to recognize that bullies are also hurting inside. While our inclination may be to demonize them, they, too, need help, which we can provide in part by containing their malevolence when they cannot do so on their own.

Rabbi Peter H. Schweitzer

The City Congregation for Humanistic Judaism

New York, NY
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Title Annotation:ASK THE RABBIS
Date:Mar 1, 2008
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