On the Need for Hakarat HaTov in the Jewish Community

by Rabbi Robyn Fryer Bodzin

Forty years ago this month, at the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion in Cincinnati, Sally Priesand became the first woman ordained as a rabbi on American soil. Since her pioneering experience, more than 900 women have been ordained as rabbis at rabbinical schools across the country. Our paths crossed for the first time this week, at The Jewish Women’s Theatre production of Stories from the Fringe: Women Rabbis, Revealed! It was a humbling experience to thank Rabbi Priesand for opening the doors to the study halls of Jewish learning for women, but at the same time a necessary one, as hakarat hatov is a fundamental Jewish value.

Hakarat hatov is more than simple gratitude; when we engage in it, we recognize the good that another has done for us. As a Jewish community we need to find more opportunities for praise. And at the same time, we must curtail the ease at which we undermine or attempt to delegitimize the other. Klal Israel, all Jews, according to the Talmud, are responsible for each other. Responsibility toward the other is a two step process. The first step is seeing the good and the humanity in the other. The second step is sharing that goodness with them.

One of the first prayers that a Jewish child learns is Modeh Ani, “I am grateful to You, living enduring monarch, for restoring my soul to me in compassion. You are faithful beyond measure.” This brief prayer thanks God for restoring our soul each morning and enabling us to wake up and start a new day. If we can do it with God, why are we not able to do it with the people as well? Imagine how different our personal and professional relationships would be if each time a new conversation, email or Facebook exchange began, we started with a word of gratitude toward the recipient. When we interact with people, we should take more opportunities to acknowledge the benefit we have received from them.

It can easily be argued that the opposite of hakarat hatov is lashon hara, or slander. Lashon hara is a growing cancer in our society. We don’t have to dig deep into the Jewish press to find examples. Just this week, Haredi Knesset Member Moshe Gafni referred to Conservative and Reform rabbis as “clowns”. This is not productive behavior. This evil defamation runs contrary to the biblical prohibition of wronging another. Our sages teach that lashon hara kills three: the one who said it, the one who listened and the one about whom it was said. If slander injures three, then the inverse must be true as well; hakarat hatov is able to heal at least three people. If we took more time to praise the other, imagine how much healing would be in the world.

While constantly saying thank you and acknowledging the good in the other might not be easy at first, it can become contagious. If just a few members in your network modify their interactions with you, it can lead to others engaging in this behavior as well.

Instead of finding more ways to splinter as a community, we need to find more opportunities to acknowledge the good of the other. It is a pure form of chesed (lovingkindness) and of tikkun olam, of making our world a better place.

Thanking the now retired Rabbi Priesand for her pioneering efforts was a deeply spiritual experience for me. Tears welled up in my eyes and my body shook as I left that encounter.

Thank you to all of the early women rabbis for enabling hundreds of other women rabbis to share our Torah with the world and for bringing a new breadth of wisdom and experience into the rabbinate.

Rabbi Robyn Fryer Bodzin is the spiritual leader of Israel Center of Conservative Judaism in Queens, NY.