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.