A little known secret about me is that I began college as a studio art major. I only last in that for a semester, because after a few nights in my freshman photography course, I dropped out. I could not take the criticism. Every few evenings, our professor asked us to bring in the prints that we had made for our various assignments. Each student put his or her photos up around our classroom. Then, the professor would walk around, making suggestions as to how we could improve our work.
By the third critique night, I was jazzed to show off my new prints. I had one in particular that I wanted the professor to notice. I placed it dead center on the wall, and it was the first one he commented on.
The professor was your classic artist. He wore a black turtleneck sweater and jeans, his hands were dried and cracked from years of exposure to the harsh darkroom chemicals, he had a greying goatee, and he wore heavy, black-rimmed glasses. The professor came up to the prints I had pinned to the wall, and he focused down on the one I wanted him to notice most. He placed about an inch and a half between the photograph and his nose. He lifted his glasses, resting them on his forehead, peering deeply into the shot, as though he were the photographer on the street looking through the camera’s viewfinder, composing the image. He was entering the physical space recorded in the print itself.
Then, just as intensely as he had approached, he lept back. “Mr. Hirsch, this photo fills me with a sense of existential fear,” he shouted, rolling his wrist around, his finger extended and pointing toward the photograph. He said nothing else as he continued on to other students’ works, leaving me standing there, open mouthed.
That was it. I called mercy. In hindsight, I have come to realize that the professor’s comment was a compliment. At 19 years-old, though, I heard it as criticism, and I received a flavor of existential fear. The next day I made an appointment with my advisor. I changed my major over to art history, which seemed like a safer major.
“Before you criticize someone, you should walk a mile in their shoes,” the joke goes, “because then you’re a mile away and you have their shoes.” We are naturally critical of others. It is how we hold standards of ourselves and of others. Criticisms is easily given, and often hard to receive. It can be electric between individuals. It charges us up, and it makes the hair on our arms stand on end.
To discharge my discomfort with criticism, I have taken refuge in Hillel’s teaching, “Do not judge another until you are in his place” (Pirkei Avot 2:4). This is a kinder, wiser version of the old joke. Judgement has utility for individuals and for a community, but it is power that can so easily be misemployed if used by someone who does not understand it. That is why Hillel enjoins judgement to those who have shared similar situations. My miscalculation in the freshman photography course was that I did not think of the professor as one who could criticize my work, nor was I able to see that judgement and criticism would help me grow to be a better photographer and a better man.
Criticism enables us to hold ourselves and others to particular standards, it pushes us to excel and to surpass self-imposed boundaries. Through constructive criticism we grow and learn. Proper judgement can help determine in a conflict who was correct and who was wrong. Explicit within Hillel’s statement is that there are individuals fit to sit in judgement of others, namely, those who have been in similar, previous situations to our own. Those who are worthy of being judge and critic are individuals who have experience in what they judge. I wish I could go back and say thank you to the professor for helping me learn how criticism works.
More often than not, we make or we receive a judgement quickly and harshly. We jump to conclusions. If I was able to have another conversation with that professor, I would urge both of us to think and react slower to one another. Hillel urges us to be slow in our judgement. Joseph Telushkin notes, “The expression ‘to jump to a conclusion’ almost always has a negative connotation. Few of us jump to positive assessments about others, but we are likely to seize upon a comment someone has made, an action someone has or has not taken, and assume a deficit in a person’s character” (Hillel, 75). Imagine how much richer of a community we would be if we all acted with deliberation instead of snap judgements.
No better place is that seen than in the debates between Hillel and Shammai. Hillel often takes the expansive, optimistic view, while Shammai is the literalist, conservative type. Shammai is quick to judgement, slapping away the person with the yardstick who wants the whole Torah taught to him while he stands on one foot. Hillel is humble and patient, teaching expansively. He responds to the man who wants the whole Torah in a sentence, “What is hateful to you, do not do to another. The rest is commentary, now go and study” (BT Shabbat 31a).
What many do not realize about this story is that it is one of three on the same page of Talmud. Three individuals go first to Shammai, and ask ridiculous questions. He slaps the person away, and then that same person goes to Hillel. In each case, Hillel uses the opportunity to guide the questioner into a new perspective on the question. At the end of the three vignettes, the three individuals meet. They conclude, “Shammai’s great impatience sought to drive us from the world, but Hillel’s gentleness brought us under the wings of the Divine Presence.”
Judgement is necessary, and it takes place as Hillel calculates his response to the individual with the strange question. Hillel’s lesson in judgement teach that there is much to gain when we are judged fairly and wisely by those for whom it is appropriate to judge. And, we reward ourselves and those around us when we refrain from unnecessary critique of others.