Words That Kill

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One of the forty eight elements necessary for successfully mastering Torah, the Sages (Avos 6:6) tell us, is humility. When you disagree with great scholars, you must do so with full recognition of your own limitations and with great respect for the stature of those on the other side of the argument. You must be exceedingly careful with your language.

This respectful attitude toward great scholars seems like common sense, but not everyone attains the maturity that enables acknowledging the stature and abilities of your disputants. The student of Talmud will certainly cite the dictum that study partners are supposed to be like enemies while arguing (Kiddushin 30b) and the many Talmudic examples of sharply worded arguments. However, R. Yair Chaim Bachrach (Chavos Yair, no. 152) strongly disputes these proofs. To him, the battle of Torah is fought with proofs and theories, not insults. Rather, the Biblical admonition remains true, “The quiet words of the wise are heeded” (Eccl. 9:17).

A figure in rabbinic history who remains famous for his brilliant, strident arguments is R. Aryeh Leib Ginsburg, author of the Sha’agas Aryeh, Turei Even and Gevuras Ari. His indispensable (pseudo-)responsa and commentaries are replete with sharply worded attacks on those whose arguments found disfavor in his eyes. His legendary righteousness leaves the reasons for his harsh attacks unclear. However, yeshiva legend deflates his example for contemporary students and scholars based on a story of his death which R. Zev Eleff explores in an essay in the latest issue of The Jewish Review of Books (“The Wages of Criticism”). The first and most powerful story is told in R. Aharon Marcus’ 1901 Der Chassidismus:

[R. Ginsburg] died in Metz at the age of 97 as a result of an accident that took place when a bookcase fell down on top of him. He remained buried for a half an hour until relatives found him. When he was unburied and restored to his regular position he said in Hebrew that all of the authors attacked him for ignoring their writings and arguing with their positions. For a half an hour he appeased them all, save for one: “the bad tempered Levush” (Rabbi Mordechai Yaffe), who did not forgive him. Because of this, he knew he would soon die.

The Sha’agas Aryeh was killed by his own sharp words, as the books he disputed collapsed on him. While the veracity of this story is highly questionable, as R. Eleff demonstrates, its repetition, albeit with variations, within the world of the yeshiva teaches students an important lesson that demonstrates the value of intellectual humility. R. Eleff continues:

The story of the Sha’agat Aryeh’s death remains a part of yeshiva folklore. I first heard it from Rabbi Hershel Schachter, who heard it from his father, who heard it when he was a yeshiva student. Although it has been decoupled from Marcus’ Hasidic polemic, it still warns those who would presume to criticize the intellectual abilities or interpretive authority of the saintly rabbis of yesteryear. Ginsburg’s books are on the shelves of any well-furnished rabbinic library, but his willingness to unabashedly criticize earlier authorities has not, by and large, been followed by subsequent generations of rabbinic scholars. On the contrary, he is remembered—whether it happened to him or not—for being a harsh critic who died at the hands, or bindings, of those he criticized.

About Gil Student

Rabbi Gil Student is the Editor of TorahMusings.com, a leading website on Orthodox Jewish scholarly subjects, and the Book Editor of the Orthodox Union’s Jewish Action magazine. He writes a popular column on issues of Jewish law and thought featured in newspapers and magazines, including The Jewish Link, The Jewish Echo and The Vues. In the past, he has served as the President of the small Jewish publisher Yashar Books and as the Managing Editor of OU Press. Rabbi Student has served two terms on the Executive Committee of the Rabbinical Council of America and currently serves as the Director of the Halacha Commission of the Rabbinical Alliance of America. He serves on the Editorial Boards of Jewish Action magazine, the Journal of Halacha and Contemporary Society and the Achieve Journal of Behavioral Health, Religion & Community, as well as the Board of OU Press. He has published five English books, the most recent titled Search Engine volume 2: Finding Meaning in Jewish Texts -- Jewish Leadership, and served as the American editor for Morasha Kehillat Yaakov: Essays in Honour of Chief Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks.

71 comments

  1. Since one never knows how great is the Torah is of the person with whom one is disagreeing, respect (and a degree of humility) is always warranted. I don’t see any value-add to referencing “great scholars” (whatever that phrase means to you).

  2. As an interesting aside into the Talmudic mindset on the issue of deference to one’s teacher:

    Rambam famously explains that one takes 3 steps back at the end of the Amidah: וקבעו שייפטר מן התפילה, כמו שיהיו נפטרין מלפני המלך (Hilchot Tfilla 5:10).

    But, the Talmudic source is quite a bit different: משל לתלמיד הנפטר מרבו אם חוזר לאלתר דומה לכלב ששב על קיאו (Bavli Yoma 53b).

  3. gil – “..the many Talmudic examples of sharply worded arguments.” you are being too kind here. violence between scholars can be seen as a norm in the talmud. e.g. in bava kama 81b – r’ hiya is annoyed toing a legal stringency. he was informed its r’ yehuda ben qenosa whose deed are for the sake of heaven.r’ hiya answers to r’ yehuda- if it were not you i would cut off your legs with an iron saw. or the matter in hagiga 3b – r’ elizar demands r’ yose to extend his hand and pull out his eye socket after being insulted by him. war imagery is frequently used to describe debates in the talmud (tanur shel achanai).
    no doubt both violence and tough language (including shaming colleagues by asking tough questions) are juxtapose with stories of humility (why halacha is according to beit hillel and not beit shammai is not because hillel was smarter) in our tradition. as in many other areas its dealing with these tensions that makes everything more complex than what appears on the surface.

  4. Can’t a simple distinction be made between those greater than a person and those who aren’t? IH, I respectfully disagree with you that “one never knows how great is the Torah is of the person with whom one is disagreeing.” In classic Torah discussions one usually has a general idea of the other’s level of learning and breadth of knowledge, especially if we are talking about two people who studied together in the same school. I would say that humility is warranted when someone might possibly be greater than you, but otherwise – אין משוא פנים בדין.

    (And of course, there are the many rishonim and acharonim, besides for the Sha’agas Aryeh, who are known for their scathing attacks on others, which cannot be discounted.)

  5. Moshe Shoshan

    Dov
    This is a sick idea. Does a person have a right to insult someone just because they know less Torah?

  6. Moshe: Presumably the idea is that by discrediting a person you further discredit their ideas (which you think are incorrect and sometimes dangerous). I don’t think that is a “sick” motivation, even if the bottom line is that insults are wrong because of their other effects.

  7. Moshe Shoshan

    Shlomo,
    who said that a person who is pweson who is not as great as you deserves to have their ideas discredited? Even if their ideas do need to be discredited, why should that allow for the discrediting of them personally?

  8. Baruch Friedman

    I have been searching for the work “Chasidmus” for some time. I’m happy to see it quoted- is it on the market today? How did you get to it? Thanks.

  9. ” I don’t think that is a “sick” motivation,”

    It’s called an Ad hominem and is the lowest form of debate possible. Not befiting a Torah scholar of any caliber.

  10. certainly there are talmudic sources that must be reconciled on this issue (what issue isn’t that true for?). at the end of the day we each need an internal modus vivendi. kach mkublani mbeit avi abba – treat and speak to everyone as if you are speaking to a child of a great benefactor of yours, because you are (tzelem elokim etc.)
    KT

  11. Actually most (but not all) of the Talmudic sources (including several of the ones cited above) do distinguish between harsh criticisms of what someone does or says and personal attack. Thus all the ones that start “If you were not (Choni, Todos, R. Yehuda) we would …” are attacks on rulings, statements or practices rather than persons. The “were you not …” part is a way of saying that while the person is worthy of respect, his particular words or deeds are worthy of condemnation. And many of the exceptions, for example, R. Yochanon telling Resh Lakish that as a former bandit he had particular expertise in the dinim of tumah of weapons or ma’aseh d’Bruria end badly for all concerned. Surely the Talmud is teaching us to avoid ad hominem attack even in the face of serious disagreement.

    Similarly, in a later period, while one can often find Ramba”n in his peirush to Chumash, saying that R. Abraham (Ibn Ezra) is “giving false testimony,” I cannot recall ever seeing him call Ibn Ezra a liar. The attacks, while strong, are on Ibn Ezra’a words, not his person.

  12. mike s. – ” Surely the Talmud is teaching us to avoid ad hominem attack even in the face of serious disagreement.”

    i agree but the question that comes up is why the talmud has to teach us this after so many examples of sages that constantly shame and humiliate each other (including one up-manship). it seems that was the culture of their time and the talmud looked down on it. my point is that it seems to be the norm of the bavli to a certain degree. i stand corrected on my previous post not connecting the talmud conclusions of it being unacceptable via their concluding remarks or examples.

  13. It was pointed out to me that this article starts off with a wrong statement. “One of the twenty four elements necessary for successfully mastering Torah, the Sages (Avos 6:6) tell us, is humility” It’s 48 elements not 24. There are 24 elements for the priesthood. In some fun twist of irony I feel the need to go off on an ad hominmen attack. 🙂

  14. Moshe Shoshan –

    This is a sick idea. Does a person have a right to insult someone just because they know less Torah?

    I don’t think it’s a sick idea. Ordinarily a person shouldn’t be insulting anyone. But when the person who knows less is promulgating a halacha that the one who (knows that he) knows more believes to be patently false, it is the latter’s obligation to inform the people of just how big of an idiot the other person is. Arguments often legitimize both sides, and sometimes a scholar correctly wishes to preclude that.

    Obviously such a thing needs to be done with tact, and certainly only by one who is truly מכיר מקומו.

  15. Dov,

    You are an big idiot. You could not be more wrong. Embarrassing a person is like murder. Nobody has a right to correct another person unless that person is the other person’s teacher. “The quiet words of the wise are heeded” (Eccl. 9:17), not the inane ramblings of people who think it’s ok to loudly call other people idiots. Only a complete moron would think it’s ok to call another person idiot or moron in public, or think that teaching Torah by telling other people that they are stupid, such that you yourself are, is a good way to educate people. Perhaps if your head was not so far up your rear end, you would recognize that publicly berating another person, is never acceptable, no matter what argument they are suggesting. Besides, how could an idiot such as yourself argue that it’s ok to talk trash against another person, but not even point out the fact that the original post had a factual error in it?

    Sorry, I couldn’t resist 😛

  16. “Ordinarily a person shouldn’t be insulting anyone. But when the person who knows less is promulgating a halacha that the one who (knows that he) knows more believes to be patently false, it is the latter’s obligation to inform the people of just how big of an idiot the other person is. ”

    But is it effective?

  17. Avi: You are correct! Thanks for the correction of this silly mistake.

  18. I dunno. I feel that this behavior of Chazal is a perfect demonstration that sometimes we learn how to behave from our forebearers, and sometimes we learn how NOT to behave…

  19. r’ aiwac,
    exactly how I would reconcile.
    KT

  20. I join in aiwac’s analysis.

  21. AIWAC

    yes, bur how so well tell tell difference?

  22. AIWAC

    yes, but how do we tell difference?

  23. Using the fifth chelek of the Shulchan Aruch.

  24. Our American venue is relevant. Good manners, congeniality, compromise, and informality are positive values. Strident argumentation is not. President Obama will win the next election against either Governor Romney or Speaker Gingrich.

  25. Moshe Shoshan

    “Using the fifth chelek of the Shulchan Aruch.”

    Is there an Artscoll version?

  26. “Using the fifth chelek of the Shulchan Aruch”

    You are aware that when the CI said this, he was justifying a chumra, right? 🙂

  27. R. Shoshan,

    With good old שכל ישר.

  28. avi –

    So I suppose the Raavad, Re’ah, Maharshal, etc. etc. were all idiots and morons then?

  29. S. –

    But is it effective?

    In some cases, certainly. For example, if one fears that his students will follow a certain individual whom he believes is completely wrong, to simply say in the shiur, “I hold this because of x, y, and z even though he holds that,” might not be as effective as sticking in an ad hominem attack as well. Of course, depending on the situation, it might be much more effective not to – which is why I said that obviously such a thing needs to be done with tact.

  30. Dov,

    Even if I accepted what you say, such a tactic could only be used in extreme circumstances and as a last resort (kinda like physical violence, really). In all other cases, it must be avoided.

    I am extremely skeptical of the ability of people to avoid doing so; The evidence of Chazal and the Rishonim suggest that even people as great as they are not immune to unjustifiable insult and defamation.

  31. aiwac –

    Even if I accepted what you say, such a tactic could only be used in extreme circumstances and as a last resort (kinda like physical violence, really).

    I do not disagree. I am merely defending the principal of the matter – so that we should not judge unfavorably certain great rishonim and acharonim who engaged in such methods. I too am skeptical of the ability of most people to do so in a proper way.

  32. “So I suppose the Raavad, Re’ah, Maharshal, etc. etc. were all idiots and morons then?”

    They never did what you suggest.

  33. avi –

    Huh? Have you never seen the Raavad make a disparaging comment about the Rambam? Have you ever opened a Toras Habayis and looked at the Bedek Habayis? Ever looked at the Yam Shel Shlomo’s introduction to Chullin? Please, if there’s anyone here who has and thinks I’m wrong, speak up.

  34. BTW,

    A sad examplar of this kind of behavior was the Charedi Hero, the Brisker Rav. I think the Rogotchover also criticized everyone very harshly.

  35. “Huh? Have you never seen the Raavad make a disparaging comment about the Rambam?”

    No, he never made an ad hominem attack.

  36. avi,

    Spend some time looking at the Rashba-Raah wars. Or the fights between the Maor and everyone else.

  37. aiwac, just provide a quote of an ad hominem attack. I assume you know what such an attack looks like. Where they attack a person rather than their ideas.

  38. avi –

    Never is a strong word.

    וראיתי זה האיש כל מה שיקשה עליו בדברי רבותנו יאמר מדבריהם הוא זה ואינו ד”ת והם אמרו

    זה המחבר משבש את המשנה מדעתו

    זה האיש משבש במקומות שאין להם צורך ומניח המקומות הצריכים

    ראיתי זה האיש משנה את המליצות ומסבב אותם לעניינים אחרים ומתוך כך הוא משתבש

    I’m sure that with your major beki’us you know where all those are, right?

    Oh, and by the way, you didn’t say I was wrong about the Re’ah and the Maharshal. So ולטעמיך my comment still stands.

  39. Seriously, there is no way in the world you could not call the Bedek Habayis’s attacks on the Rashba, ad hoiminem. They are vicious.

  40. And there are better examples than the ones I supplied. I simply chose Hil. Tumas Mes.

  41. The truth is the Mishmeres Habayis’s retorts are usually much more vicious. Anyway.

  42. “Never is a strong word.”

    I’ve seen stronger words on a subway wall.

  43. To be honest, I’m looking back at the Toras Habayis and seeing that the Re’ah remains pretty calm in the Bedek Habayis. But the Rashba’s responses are chock full of ad hominem attacks. Just open up to any page and look.

  44. Lawrence Kaplan

    The Hazon Ish used the Fifth Helek of the SA to determine that Sherut Leumi is forbidden. For the HI, this fifth helek is in the exclusive possession of those talmidei hakhamim who have already mastered the other four halakim. See Brown, The HI, p.90.

    What I believe my brother is suggesting is that, contra the HI, even plain baale batim, lo alenu, and not just Gedolei Yisrael, can use that fifth helek.

    Dov: In none of the places you cite does the Rabad call the Rambam a moron or an idiot.

  45. Lawrence – Are you denying that they are ad hominem? Also, I remember better examples in other places; I’ll have to look.

  46. “For the HI, this fifth helek is in the exclusive possession of those talmidei hakhamim who have already mastered the other four halakim”

    The CI’s criteria for such people were extremely arbitrary. There were many talmidim chachamim whom he passuled outright whose knowledge of halacha was just as good as his (R. Amiel comes to mind).

  47. By the way, for much sharper ad hominem attacks made by the Raavad one has to look no further than his letters to the Baal Hama’or, found in the sefer ראב”ד: תשובות ופסקים. I don’t have it with me but there should be a table of contents which should make it easy to find.

  48. Lawrence Kaplan

    Dov: Even the Rabad’s famously sharp criticsm of the Baal ha-Maor, “aval zeh kelal gadol, she-me’olam lo hitzliach be-hiddushav” does not say that he is a moron or an idiot or even an am ha-aretz. The Rabad criticized the Baal ha-Maor in the matter of the date-line for relying on Halevi and Bar Hiyya who are not me-anshei ha-Talmud. Evidently for all his exceptionally sharp criticisms of the Ba’al ha-Maor, the Rabad considered him to be one of anshei ha-Talmud.

  49. Lawrence –

    Evidently for all his exceptionally sharp criticisms of the Ba’al ha-Maor, the Rabad considered him to be one of anshei ha-Talmud.

    But isn’t that even greater proof against Avi et al who are insinuating that ad hominem attacks are never the way to go? If the Raavad used this method for someone whom, as you say, he considered to be from the “anshei haTalmud,” how much more so would he use it in a disagreement with someone he actually believed to be an am ha’aretz!

    Let’s put aside the terms “idiot” and “moron” (not a word I chose, btw) for a moment. Do you agree that it was not unheard of for various rishonim and acharonim to engage in personal attacks as part of their method of refuting another’s view? Because that is really my entire point here.

  50. I don’t understand. Some people are more caustic than others, and some cultures are rougher, or have a more caustic style that is considered acceptable. Do we really not realize that many elements of derech eretz are culturally conditioned? Are we obliged to sharpen our tongues so that we can learn to speak or write like the Raavad or the Rogachover? Are there not more genteel models that are more suited to our conceptions of derech eretz?

  51. S. –

    Are we obliged to sharpen our tongues so that we can learn to speak or write like the Raavad or the Rogachover?

    Certainly not. But some here seem to think that such a style is inherently a no-no, and would therefore not be acceptable for anyone at any time. That, I think, is a mistake.

  52. IIRC, on more than occasion, one of the Tanaim suggested in a very sharp manner to none less than R Akiva that he avoid suggesting interpretations in Aggadic passages, and return to the study of Negaim and Ohalos. One can argue that sharply worded critiques among Talmidei Chachamim are not a 21st Century development.

  53. More than one poster has mentioned Raavad, but did not mention his Hasagos on Rambam in the Yad. There are certainly more than one occasion when Raavad uses very strong language in dismissing a particular Halacha in the Yad as incorrect in substance and logic.

  54. Lawrence Kaplan

    Generally, in the strong attacks referred to here, it is the particular views of one’s opponents that are termed foolish, distorted, baseless, etc. Harsh enough. Still, it is not the oponnent himself who is personally attacked.

  55. Joseph Kaplan

    Putting aside the issue of derech eretz, or the lack thereof, calling an argument foolish, distorted, baseless etc. is very poor argumentation and reflects poorly on the one using such terms. Telling someone an argument is foolish is weak; making your argument based on sources and logic so convincing that the reader/listener thinks it’s foolish is how a solid argument that brings credit to the one making it is made.

  56. Joseph Kaplan: You are right when it comes to a club of equals where it’s agreed that anyone is qualified to have an opinion if they can convince others of its truth. The world of the rishonim was not like that. Everyone in Provence was expected to follow the Raavad’s opinions whether they considered the opinions to be logical or not. The debates we are talking about are really over power to enforce communal norms, rather than scholarship. And while that sounds ugly to modern ears, there is really nothing negative in it as long as the power was desired and used only “leshem shamayim”. We who live in an era of constitutionally limited government are wary of those who want special power for ideological purposes, but in the pre-modern world there was no alternative.

  57. Should have added: And a struggle over power will necessarily have a different form than a conversation about scholarship.

  58. Lawrence Kaplan

    Shlomo: On waht basis do you say that everyone in Provence Provence was expected to follow the Rabad as opposed to the Baal ha-Maor? Moreover, the Rabad prided himself on his search for truth and would constantly change his views in response to criticism. And how does your notion explain the nasty things the Bedek ha-Bayit says about the Torat ha-Bayit and the Mishmeret ha-Bayit says about the Bedek ha-Bayit? And the nasty things the Shagat Aryeh says about the Shakh and the Taz? Power struggle? I think not. In my view, it was a matter of personal tempermant and cultural style.

  59. Michael Rogovin

    It is ashame that some contemporary YU RY use terms like “Amalek” when describing rabbis with whom they strongly disagree. Does the admonition apply only to Torah greats who precede us? Or can we be respectful with whom those we disagree and not resort to name calling (including non- or post- orthodox). stick to the merits.

  60. Joseph Kaplan –

    Telling someone an argument is foolish is weak; making your argument based on sources and logic so convincing that the reader/listener thinks it’s foolish is how a solid argument that brings credit to the one making it is made.

    While I do agree with that point, one must note that in nearly all cases cited an argument is presented based on sources and logic, and is simply prefaced by other things.

  61. That’s true. But — again putting aside derech eretz — in such a case the preface detracts from the source and logical part of the argument rather than adding to it. All in all, there are good reasons why we teach our children not to insult others and, in almost all cases, no good reasons to insult.

  62. All in all, there are good reasons why we teach our children not to insult others and, in almost all cases, no good reasons to insult.

    Absolutely.

  63. “Should have added: And a struggle over power will necessarily have a different form than a conversation about scholarship.”

    According to many very smart people, there is no such thing as a conversation which is not a struggle over power. Everything is about power, and everything is politics.

  64. Lawrence Kaplan

    Avi: These very smart people are not so smart in my view. They are cynics posing as realists. As if people are not motivated by ideas and ideals!

  65. “Avi: These very smart people are not so smart in my view. They are cynics posing as realists. As if people are not motivated by ideas and ideals!”

    And what are those ideas and ideals? And why are you having a conversation about them? The obvious answer is to influence others and hopefully bring about some change. And what is politics other than a means we use to effect change and influence others?

  66. “And what are those ideas and ideals?” This should have read , “And what are the reasons for those ideas and ideals?”

  67. Lawrence Kaplan

    Avi: You’ve defined politics so broadly as to make it meaningless. So, if you are my havruta and I try to persuade you that my interpretation of Tosafot is the correct one and not yours, it’s politics. Fine, but you’re not saying anything then.

  68. Lawrence,

    What is the difference between you trying to persuade your havruta that your interpretation is correct, and you trying to persuade your havruta that political policy A is correct? I haven’t defined anything as meaningless. But more importantly, the people who teach this view, also have not defined anything as meaningless.

    If you want to stay out of politics, you could easily let your havruta interpret Tosofot the way they want.

  69. avi –

    I don’t think Lawrence means that you are defining politics as meaningless, but that your definition of politics makes the term ‘politics’ a meaningless label, because it is so broad.

  70. ” the term ‘politics’ a meaningless label, because it is so broad.” Yes, I understood that. The argument is that it’s not broad because you can choose to not exert or be part of a conversation which involves different degrees of power and influence.

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