Tuesday, March 8, 2016

Reporting Rabbis Badly

Is it wrong to quote Torah scholars on matters that may reflect them in a bad light?

To clarify - I am not talking about things said in private, in a weak moment. I am referring to statements of ideology said as thought-out policy, which they believe in, but which others consider wrong. For example, if they told their followers that Person X is a rasha, or that the State of Israel is an evil entity.

There are many people who believe that relaying such statements is very, very wrong indeed. However, they don't usually muster detailed arguments beyond "Lashon hara! You are being Mevazeh Gedolim!"

I raised this issue a few months ago, in a post entitled On Being Mevazeh Gedolim. Reader Moshe Abrams pointed out that Rav Yehudah Henkin discusses precisely this question in Responsa Bnei Banim 3:18. The question was raised regarding publicizing a letter written by one rav in condemnation of other rabbonim, which would have the result of raising the ire of many people against this rav.

Rav Henkin replies that it is entirely permissible, and gives three separate reasons for this. The first is that the Talmud demonstrates that it is permissible to relate lashon hara about someone who is a baal machlokes - instigating conflict. Rav Henkin explains the technicalities of this at length, noting that it does not refer to anyone who is involved in a dispute, but rather to someone who is specifically trying to create divisions by delegitimizing others. Rav Henkin does not explain the conceptual rationale to the Gemara's license, but perhaps it is as follows: The problem with lashon hara is that it tears apart society. But if someone is already engaging in efforts to tear apart society, then exposing those efforts is a way to solve that problem.

The second reason given by Rav Henkin is that lashon hara is permissible when it is for public benefit. (He notes that this particular reason must be employed carefully.) While Rav Henkin does not elaborate on how that applies here, I think it is self-evident. If a rabbinic leader seeks to delegitimize another group, it is important for those who are evaluating him as a leader to know about it.

Rav Henkin's third reason is that the rav under discussion himself publicized his words. Since he was quite happy to do so, due to his conviction that his words were appropriate, there is no reason for others to protest that it is against his honor to do so. (Of course, it is crucial that there are no distortions of his words.)

Rav Henkin concludes with a powerful observation. He notes that the people protesting those who publicize the rav's words profess to be very concerned about the honor due to a Torah scholar. But, he asks, why are they not concerned about the honor due to the Torah scholars that this person condemned?

I found Rav Henkin's responsum to be very powerful and relevant. There is a pervasive phenomenon of Anglo charedim, especially those who come from non-charedi backgrounds, being deeply uncomfortable with various statements and positions of many charedi rabbinic leaders. Some of them re-assess whether they really belong in charedi society. But others address their discomfort by trying to suppress any mention of these statements and positions.

Personally, I think that Rav Henkin is obviously correct that it is permissible and even important to publicize such statements and positions. People need to make informed decisions, about which community to associate with, which schools and yeshivos to send their kids to, and which rabbanim to seek guidance from. If the leaders of a society feel strongly about certain things, then this should be known!

There are some important qualifications to be made here. If a rabbi says something that you find deeply objectionable, it certainly doesn't mean that he is entirely disqualified from having anything good to offer. And it may not be relevant or praiseworthy to relay his objectionable positions if, for example, someone is merely having a discussion about a shiur given by this person on an unrelated topic. But when people are making life decisions based on rabbinic leadership, they should be informed about the views and positions of this leadership.

Again, I am not talking about trashing people by relating their shortcomings, which is a more complicated matter - sometimes important, often wrong. I am talking about publicizing positions of rabbinic leaders that the rabbinic leaders themselves hold to be true and to be important to share with at least some of their followers. Anyone who opposes this needs to take a good hard look at themselves, and to ask themselves what they really think about this person, and what exactly is making them uncomfortable. The truth can be painful, but don't shoot the messenger.

See also these posts:
On Being Mevazeh the Gedolim
When Lashon Hara is a Mitzvah
The Angst of Anglo-Charedi Converts


  1. You are wrong for two reasons.
    1.In this era, a psak for an individual situation quickly becomes a regrettable public policy worldwide. What might make sense in Beit Shemesh might not make sense in Wichita. It makes sense not to publicize messages that you know will be taken out of context.
    2. The idealized image of Chareidi Gedolim serve an important positive function in the anglo wannabe-chareidi community ( of which I am a part). Eggheads might scoff at the idea of heroes and celebrities but its a real thing and shouldn't be easily dismissed. Do you really think klal yisrael will be better off pointing out their flaws? Like the mishna in Sota says, some passages we omit the reading aloud of targum.

    1. Against reason #1: I understand Rav Dr. Slifkin to be addressing public policy statements, not individualized psak.
      Against reason #2: The idealized image of Chareidi Gedolim leads to avodah zarah. Many Chareidim (at least Hassidim with respect to their Rebbes) for all practical purposes worship two gods: the Real One and a Godol. Idealizing anything or anyone turns the idealized entity into a false god.

    2. 2. IMHO this idolisation of gedolim causes tremendous amounts of damage. People become unable to think for themselves, and blindly follow ideologies which lead to the destruction of their society. People need to be aware that all people have shortcomings, and that responsibility for the actions one takes ultimately rest with oneself. We must respect the gedolim for what they are, but also be aware of what they are not.

    3. To clarify,
      #1 I am also talking about public policy matters. For example, a hardline taken against the Israeli government might be appropriate for the community in Israel. It keeps the old fashioned religion and prevents the religious community from blending with general Israeli secular culture. Such opposition is misplaced in chutz laaretz. Over affiliation with secular Israeli culture is hardly a problem for a Flatbush Yid.
      #2 You know you are exaggerating. You may argue about who is a Torah scholar but the identification and veneration of Torah Scholars with Godliness is well established in the Talmud and tradition. It's sad that in many Modern Orthodox communities Rabbis are not treated with proper respect.

    4. Hershel, #2:

      The Torah itself goes to great lengths to point out character flaws (not merely errant statements) of the Avot, Moshe Rabbenu, etc.

      Are the Haredi Gedolim too good for that kind of treatment?

    5. Well, which is it?

      On the one hand, you say it's sad that Modern Orthodox Rabbis are not treated with the proper respect. In the other hand, we should not protest (or even report) when Haredi rabbis call them reshoim?

    6. Yes, there is a certain value to maintaining a positive image to certain leaders. But this tendency can and is easily abused.

      Also keep in mind that your statement "you are wrong" is an opinion, which you are certainly entitled to.

    7. Hershel: There are two problems with your first point:

      1. It is not (only) critics who spread the word of these pronouncements around the world. Rather, it is the *proponents* of these rulings. R' Elyashiv says something, and almost instantly it's up on pashkevilim in New York.

      Well, turnabout is fair play. If charedi gedolim in Israel and their followers want to influence practice in other places, then people in those other places have a right to criticize.

      2. Your rather weak "defense" of some of these proclamations points to a deeper problem on your behalf: You think that any such pronouncement is somehow defensible, even if only in one area. Newsflash: Some declarations of charedi gedolim are wrong, period, no matter where they are "meant" to apply.

    8. Put it this way,
      Anglo Chareidim feel about Gedolim and the style of Judaism they represent the same way diaspora Jews feel about Israel. We might know that it isn't perfect but it's ours and we'll be darned if we let the nitpicking of haters cast us in an unfair negative light.
      Now think of yourselves as left wing Israeli professors visiting a college campus in Michigan where they publicly and viciously criticize the government and their supporters for some Israeli reason.
      If you want to slag on Israeli gedolim do it locally. If you start doing it here in chutz laaretz you are taking sides in a fight you don't fully understand.

    9. Why are these Gedolim subject to ridicule, just because their followers decided to publicize things in the streets of Flatbush?
      Many of the 'public pesakim' are private statements, uttered at home to followers, perhaps at a weak moment, and publicized on the internet. Those are not typical of the person's opinions and those publicizing them as such are the ones being untruthful.

  2. 1. That doesn't make it necessarily wrong - only if the psak is highly personalized.

    2. Grown-ups should realize that nobody is perfect. Are you saying that you want to be misled about people, because you can't relate to them appropriately otherwise? Though in any case, the discussion is not about flaws, but instead about beliefs and attitudes. Why should these be concealed?

  3. Like this ?http://www.theyeshivaworld.com/news/headlines-breaking-stories/394935/rabbonim-in-eretz-yisroel-speak-out-against-higher-education-for-chareidi-women.html

  4. "Personally, I think that Rav Henkin is obviously correct that it is permissible and even important to publicize such statements and positions." - would he have said: "publicize it in the shuls" or "publicize it on the World Wide Web"?

  5. It's funny that on loshon hara issue you are quoting Rav Henkin. Why not to go to the universally recognized prime source on this issue and find confirmation of your view from HaRav Israel Meir Kagan?

    1. The Chafetz Chaim was a true Gadol, who wrote the first systematic works on Lashon Harah. That doesn't mean that no one can disagree with him (if there is a disagreement). I'm sure that Rav Henkin knows the Chafetz Chaim and Shmiras HaLashon quite well.

      BTW, as long as we're here, can you provide a citation?

    2. Sorry, citation for what? I just suggested the author to find support of his notion from Chofetz Chaim. I'm sure too that Rav Henkin knows Shmiras HaLashon, but his own views are not mainstream and not only on this topic.

    3. Sorry, citation for what?

      Citation for where this the Chafetz Chaim contradicts him.

      I'm sure too that Rav Henkin knows Shmiras HaLashon, but his own views are not mainstream and not only on this topic.

      Not mainstream among which group? The non-zionist right wing only recognizes the existence of their own, so there is no Rav Yehuda Herzl Henkin, just "Henkin" or maybe "Are you talking about R Yosef Eliyahu Henkin?"

    4. 1. Someone told me a great story: He was at the home of an elderly Rav in Tel Aviv who was answering a shailah. The person said, "But the Mishnah Berurah says the opposite!" The Rav replied, "I dunno, I've been paskening this way since before the Mishnah Berurah was written!"

      2. As far as I know, the Chafetz Chaim does not explicitly discuss the situation discussed here.

  6. Lazar: I don't see anything here going against the Chafetz Chaim? What is your question?

  7. For some reason I know not of any authority dealing directly and in depth with the numerous stories and facts regarding any people in history conveyed in all historical books as well as texts of many other didciplines (including the gamut of biblical and Talmudic scriptures).
    In other words, why does one not consider all within news and historical facts that reflect poorly on one person or another as slander?
    The answer to this must not be knee-jerked but a deep (and hopefully moral) look at questions such as slander of the dead and of the non-Jew, for both of whom I feel the case against slander should not be different. Another question to bear in mind is the abovementioned, regarding the "slandered"'s belief he is right. I have for many years concluded that for example, it could not be slander for a leftist to say his friend is a rightist or vice versa unless the friend is hiding this fact. Yet another question is the oft discussed intention and chances for damage.
    If we were to ignore an in-depth look at these dilemmas and others, one may conclude that it would be forbidden to be exposed to any medium, history book or religious text on any kind that includes facts about people in stories, anecdotes or tales of any sort. This conclusion is clearly absurd.

  8. In my humble opinion any discussion regarding slander must ask some importants questions, some of which have never been treated properly:
    Is slander also against dead people? (Yes.)
    Is it slander if it is against a non-Jew? (a resounding moral yes from me.)
    Is it slander when it is against entire religions, groups, nations, gender, religious denominations? (To me again yes, as well as the worser sins of racism and generalisation.)

    But so far, by these definitions, virtually every media oulet in the world, every history book, and every other text relaying facts about people through stories or anecdotes are 'sinning'. In all of these - including Scripture and the Talmud, for example - there are numerous accounts who shed many persons and peoples in a bad light. In the Pentateuch and the early books of Prophets, there is no individual who is not criticised.

    That is why we must add the aforesaid aspect of one's own convictions. As long as I think my intentions are right and I make them public, it cannot be slander to relay them.
    In addition to the intentiins of the slandered, we must condider the intentions of the slanderer. If it to teach a moral lesson, to keep others educated, to learn from mistakes, or to keep them from harm - it cannot be slander.
    As I said, had the opposite been the case, one could not teach history or read religious texts.

  9. Crazy how applicable this became bc of that nutjob from Baltimore

  10. http://matzav.com/sending-girls-to-seminaries-and-the-shidduch-crisis/


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