The book of Mishlei (Prov. 26:4-5) offers directly contradictory advice on responding to fools:
Do not respond to a fool’s folly in kind lest you too be considered his equal. Respond to a fool’s folly in kind lest he consider himself wise.
So what should we do, respond or not? The Gemara (Shabbos 30b) distinguishes between a discussion of Torah, in which you should respond to prevent mistaken explanations from spreading, to a discussion of mundane things, which you should let go. Commentators explain differently. The Living Nach summarizes the explanations:
Do not respond to a fool’s folly in kind. This verse, unlike the next, discusses how to behave in the face of provocation (Rashi), such as when one is being cursed by a fool (Ibn Ezra). Respond…in kind. This verse describes how to react to a person who is attempting to lead one astray (Rashi); or, to a person who has misconstrued a Torah principle (Metzudoth).
Another explanation emerges from a perplexing midrash about Reuven and Ya’akov’s interaction. Ya’akov, distressed by the possibility of losing his son Binyamin, refuses to allow the brothers to take him to Egypt despite the demand by the powerful Egyptian leader (Yosef). Reuven offers collateral to ensure Binyamin’s return (Gen. 42:37):
Kill my two sons if I do not bring him back. Give him to me and I will return him to you.
This is a strange offer because Ya’akov is Reuven’s father, and hence the grandfather of Reuven’s two sons. Why would he ever kill his own grandsons? Commentaries like Ibn Ezra and Seforno try to salvage a coherent argument by suggesting that Reuven was merely swearing that he would bring back Binyamin. However, the Midrash Rabbah (Bereishis Rabbah 91:9) takes Reuven’s offer at face value and calls him a “foolish firstborn” (bekhor shoteh).
Part of the ambiguity is due to Ya’akov’s response to this offer. He simply reiterates his opposition (Gen. 42:38):
My son will not go down with you because his brother is dead and only he is left. If harm falls on him on the way you travel then you will bring down my gray hairs with sorrow to the grave.
The verses themselves are perplexing but the midrash’s continuation is even harder to decipher. The midrash describes R. Tarfon’s unique method of interaction (Bereishis Rabbah, ibid.):
When someone would say something proper [smart] to R. Tarfon, he would say, “Kaftor va-ferach.” When someone would say nonsense to him, he would say, “My son will not go down with you.”
The response of “kaftor va-ferach” is understandable. They are the beautiful ornaments of the menorah and their names strike a response of astonishment. But what is the response of “My son will not go down with you”?
Rashi and some other commentators explain that “my son” (beni) is intended as a play on the word “binah,” understanding. R. Tarfon is saying that he disagrees. This is a bit of a stretch. R. Zev Wolf Einhorn suggests that R. Tarfon would use the terminology of “son” when discussing halakhah, perhaps as a form of endearment. Here, he is merely gently telling a student or colleague that he cannot agree.
R. Tzvi Pesach Frank (Peninei Rabbeinu Tzvi Pesach Al Ha-Torah, Gen. 42:38) quotes the following explanation from R. Mordechai Sender Kopstein of Radin, in the name of R. Kopstein’s father. What was Ya’akov’s response to Reuven’s outrageous offer? He ignored it. He simply reiterated his original objection and essentially pretended he did not hear Reuven’s foolish (as per the above midrash) suggestion.
Similarly, suggests the senior R. Kopstein, when R. Tarfon heard nonsense, when a student or colleagues made an outrageous halakhic suggestion, he said a non-sequitor, changing the subject or at least moving on.
Perhaps the key here is that R. Tarfon is acting as a pedagogue, as a leading scholar of Torah. If he responds to a foolish suggestion, he is honoring the correspondent as an equal. For R. Tarfon to respond, he is turning nonsense into a plausible argument, a possibility that requires refutation by a top notch scholar.
When a lesser scholar, or even a layman, responds to foolishness, he is not honoring the correspondent. He is a nobody pointing out nonsense, showing the correspondent the folly of his arguments. If R. Tarfon points out an error, perhaps it is a good argument but R. Tarfon has a different approach. If Mr. Schwartz, who has no unique training or skills, refutes an argument, then it must really be nonsense.[Note: This was not prompted by any recent event and is not intended to suggest that any recent proposal is nonsense. It is an interesting insight for life based on a midrash on this week’s Torah reading.]