In Mishnah Sotah 7:8 the Rabbis take up the topic of flattery in the larger political and national realm. Amidst a description of how the precept of Deuteronomy 31:10 – requiring a public reading of ha-Torah hazot (“this Torah”) every seven years at the close of the sabbatical year (shemittah) – was carried out in the late Second Temple period, Mishnah Sotah 7:8 contains a fascinating description of the participation of Agrippa I, who ruled Judea and Samaria from 41-44 C.E., and the fawning flattery of the Rabbis in response. Descended from the Herodian line (Agrippa I was the grandson of King Herod, and the son of Aristobulus and Berenice) Agrippa I was of technical Jewish ancestry, but questionable Jewish identity. Following the assassination of emperor Caligula in 41 C.E., Agrippa I was appointed king of Judea and Samaria by Caligula’s successor, Claudius, in gratitude for Agrippa’s assistance in securing the throne.
Deuteronomy 31:10 tells us that, Moses instructed [the people] as follows: Every seventh year, the year set for remission, at the Feast of Booths [Sukkot], when all Israel comes to appear before the Lord your God in the place that God will choose, you shall read this Teaching aloud in the presence of all Israel. (Deuteronomy 31:10-11)
Mishnah Sotah describes how this happened in the late Second Temple period, during the reign of King Agrippa I:
How was the passage [read] by the king?... they made a wooden platform in the Courtyard and he sits upon it… The attendant of the gathering takes the Torah scroll and hands it to the head of the gathering, and the head of the gathering hands it to the deputy (of the High Priest), and the deputy [of the High Priest] hands it to the king. The king rises and receives [the scroll], but he reads sitting.Then we are treated to this historical anecdote:
King Agrippa rose and received [the scroll] and read standing and the Sages praised him. When he reached, “You may not place over you [as your king] a foreigner [who is not your brethren] his eyes flowed with tears. They said to him, “Do not fear, Agrippa. You are our brother! You are our brother!”Agrippa’s behavior was pure spectacle and the Sages’ response was fawning flattery. Agrippa’s theatrical tears were rewarded with undeserved adulation. Surprisingly, Mishnah presents the incident without comment.
Gemara, however, has plenty to say. Gemara first questions the propriety of what we might call Agrippa’s standup routine. Perhaps he had no right to sit, that right being accorded to descendants of King David alone. But R. Chisda tells us that even Agrippa could sit. Perhaps, R. Ashi suggests, the king ought not forego the honor of sitting because doing so reflects poorly on the people as a whole. But this, too, is overturned on the grounds that while one may not forego that which is purely an honor, this is a matter of the fulfillment of a commandment, and hence the honor associated with it may be set aside. Unable to fault Agrippa on technical grounds, the Gemara turns to the real problem: the fawning flattery of the Sages.
When he reached, “You may not place…” A Tanna taught in the name of R. Natan: At that moment [when the Rabbis said, “You are our brother!”] the enemies of Israel [here, the gemara uses a euphemism for the people Israel] made themselves liable to extermination, because they flattered Agrippa. R. Shimon b. Chalafta said: From the day the fist of flattery prevailed, justice became perverted, conduct deteriorated, and nobody could say to his neighbor, “My conduct is better than yours.” R. Yehudah the Palestinian, or another version, R. Shimon b. Pazzi, expounded: It is permitted to flatter the wicked in this world, as it is said: The vile person shall be no more called liberal, nor the churl said to be bountiful (Isaiah 32:5); consequently it is allowed in this world. R. Shimon b. Lakish said: [We learn it] from this text: For seeing your face is like seeing the face of God (Genesis 33:10). On this point he is at variance with R. Levi; for R. Levi said: A parable of Jacob and Esau: To what is the matter like? To a man who invited his neighbor to a meal, and the guest perceived that his host wished to kill him. So he said to him, “The taste of this dish I am eating is like the dish I tasted in the king’s palace.” The other said [to himself], “He is acquainted with the king!” So he became afraid and did not kill him. R. Eleazar said: Every man in who engages in flattery brings anger upon the world: as it is said: But they that are flatterers at heart lay up anger (Job 36:13). Not only that, but their prayer remains unheard; as [the verse] continues, They do not cry for help when God afflicts them… (Sotah 41b)The Sages’ purpose is clearly to excoriate flatterers. “The enemies of Israel” is none other than Israel herself, who weaken their nation by groveling before rulers such as Agrippa I. R. Shimon b. Chalafta boldly claims that flattering powerful leaders leads directly to perversion of justice, as people stumble over one another and themselves seeking to curry favor with whomever is in power. His claim is both brazen and idealistic. By contrast, R. Shimon b. Pazzi provides what we might term a pragmatic political response: this is not an ideal world, and in this very real and imperfect world of power politics, flattery is a valid political tool. Resh Lakish offers a Biblical example. When Jacob reunites with his brother Esau after a 22-year separation, he fears that Esau may still harbor a lethal resentment, so he offers words of flattery: For seeing your face is like seeing the face of God. R. Levi explains further that this is like one who fears his host seeks his death and therefore says, “The taste of this dish I am eating is like the dish I tasted in the king’s palace” therefore letting his host know that he enjoys the protection of the king. Yet R. Eleazar concludes that flattery does not affect anything good and serves only to increase the anger in the world.
This inspires R. Yirmiyahu b. Abba’s teaching:
…R. Yermiyahu b. Abba said: Four classes will not receive the presence of the Shechinah: the class of scoffers, the class of flatterers, the class of liars, and, the class of slanderers. The class of scoffers, as it is written: He stretched out His hand against scorners (Hosea 7:6). The class of flatterers, as it is written: For a flatterer shall not come before Him (Job 13:16). The class of liars, as it is written: He that speaks falsehood shall not be established before Mine eyes (Psalm 101:7). The class of slanderers, as it is written: For You are not a God that takes pleasure in wickedness; evil shall not sojourn with You (Psalm 5:5); i.e., You are righteous, O Lord, evil may not sojourn in Your habitation. (Sotah 42a)Flatterers are in the same category as scoffers, liars, and slanderers: they are insincere, dishonest, and manipulative, and thereby separate themselves from the Shechinah. The king of political cunning and deceit, Niccolo Machiavelli (1469-1527) wrote in his seminal political treatise, The Prince, “There is no other way of guarding oneself against flattery than by letting men understand that they will not offend you by speaking the truth; but when everyone can tell you the truth, you lose their respect.” Machiavelli was warning the very one he wished to flatter, not to fall for flattery. Gemara addresses the leaders of the Jewish people who engage in flattery that their behavior is detrimental to the people’s political security and spiritual welfare.
We all engage in flattery. Do we shower others with praise and kind words to boost their morale? to curry favor? because we believe the praise to be genuine? to encourage them to view us favorably? The gemara advises us to stop and examine our motives and the possible consequences of flattery.
© Rabbi Amy Scheinerman