The Varieties of Anonymity

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by R. Norman Lamm

This essay is excerpted with permission from Derashot Ledorot: A Commentary for the Ages–Exodus. All brackets and ellipses are added by the editor. This essay was written in 1974 but seems even more timely today in the Internet age.

In the Bible, as in all Semitic culture, a name is more than a means of identification. It is somehow related to essence, it is mystically identified with the substance, with the individual. Therefore, the Torah usually explains why a specific name is given to a certain individual.

It is for this reason that I have often wondered about those occasions in Jewish life, and general life, when the reverse occurs, when a name is covered up, deliberately omitted. It may be instructive, therefore, to analyze the varieties of anonymity…

[1.] I suggest that the anonymity the Torah employs here [Ex. 16:20] is a way of denying to the arrogant and the wicked the very publicity they seek. Thus, Datan and Aviram considered themselves leaders, but the Torah referred to them as merely anashim, (ordinary) people. They wanted to make a name for themselves, so the Torah denies them that which they most wanted. Hence, their anonymity.

People who do not have the courage of their convictions, and are not willing to engage in serious dialogue, do not deserve to have others listen to their monologue

Similarly, the Talmud removed the name from the greatest heretic of the Talmudic era, Elisha ben Avuyah, and refers to him simply as “Aher,” “the other one.”

Perhaps too, this is the reason why the Torah does not name the Pharaohs of Egypt who are so prominent in the Exodus story…

[2.] [Another reason…] The Torah cloaks Pharaoh in anonymity not in order to provide a livelihood for historians, antiquarians, and anthropologists who will build careers on the problems of identifying Pharaohs. Rather, it is a challenge to this historically, rather than individually; to attempt an overall view rather than being lost in picayune details. Had the Torah mentioned the name of the individual Pharaoh, we would have discovered details of his biography, and then depth psychology would have taken over and we would have found individual reasons for his malice… [T]he lessons of history recede and are lost on us. So the anonymity is there in order to fix the moral responsibility for one’s actions. No matter what the reasons, man cannot escape the guilt for the consequences of his decisions on society and history…

[3.] The third variety of anonymity is fairly obvious: modesty. A man who performs a good deed and does it for its own sake signifies this absence of ego-dividends by obscuring his own name.

Thus, one of the highest forms of charity (Bava Batra 10b) is matan beseter, one who gives secretly, so that he does not know the recipient, and the recipient does not know him…

The anonymous letter has the same value as a check signed by “Anonymous”

[4.] Similar to this is the fourth variety: sensitivity to the feelings of others. The Vilna Gaon, in his halakhic writings, made it a practice never to mention the names of those with whom he disagreed, or those whose these he disproved. What was important was the shakla vetarya–the reasoning and dialectic, not the personalities involved…

In this respect, it is interesting to notice a significant difference in practice between Anglo-Saxon case law and Jewish law. In American law, whether in the law-books or newspapers, cases are titled by the names of the litigants. As a result, all the dark secrets of a couple’s domestic difficulties are spread out for all the world to see, satisfying a casual reader’s prurient interest as much as teaching students legal principles… How different, how much more sensitive, how much more moral, is the practice of Jewish law, the responsa literature. In the great majority of instances, cases are not discussed by using the real names of people, but instead Jewish respondents will use fictitious namess, especially those of the first large Jewish family, for example Reuven, Simeon, Levi, Rachel, Leah, Sarah… The real names of the individuals are protected by the anonymity which comes of sensitivity.

[5.] Finally, the fifth variety of anonymity is that of fear, or better, cowardice. Anonymity is often the cloak of the spineless and gutless…

Related to this form of cowardly anonymity is the anonymous letter writer. As a public figure, it has not been unusual for me in the course of the years to receive an occasional anonymous letter.

I confide to you: I never pay attention the them. I never try to figure out who the writer is, never try to decipher his handwriting or discern how he changed his style or punctuation or spelling in order to disguise his identity. I just don’t care. People who do not have the courage of their convictions, and are not willing to engage in serious dialogue, do not deserve to have others listen to their monologue. I consider them nothing but pathetic.

And yet I recognize that it is often difficult for a person to voice criticism and place himself squarely behind it…

Sometimes I think that the anonymous letter-writer is really revealing his true identity as symbolized by his anonymity: namely, nothing, the absence of personality, or better–the absence of character. The anonymous letter has the same value as a check signed by “Anonymous”…

[6.] I wish to conclude with a species of anonymity which is radically different: divine anonymity…

The Name of God cannot be revealed as long as the name of Amalek is not erased. God suffers partial anonymity as long as the Amaleks of life still defy Him, still disturb the peace of mankind, still have “a name” in the world. The struggle is between the Name of God and the name of Amalek; between the anonymity of the One and the anonymity of the other.

Our prayer therefore is that, regardless of the varieties of human anonymity, God no longer be anonymous in our lives. “May the Lord be acknowledged as King over the entire world; on that day the Lord will be One and His name will be complete” (Zechariah 14:9).

About Norman Lamm

Rabbi Dr. Norman Lamm is the Chancellor Emeritus of Yeshiva University and Rosh Ha-Yeshiva of its affiliate, the Rabbi Isaac Elchanan Theological Seminary.


  1. Rav Hirsch wrote during the Austritt debate(Collected Writings, vol. 6, pg. 198):

    “Any replies written anonymously or signed with a fictitious name will not receive any consideration from me. One who lacks the courage to sign his true name to his views must be aware that what he is saying is meaningless and that he therefore cannot expect others to take notice of it.

    Let the anonymous gnats buzz happily in the sunny meadows. I certainly do not want to spoil their pleasure.”

    Two questions on this:

    (1)The Rambam says:

    ושמע האמת ממי שאמרה

    As reiterated by R. Shem Tov ibn Falaquera (13th century, quoted in Mosad HaRav Kook’s Shemonah Perakim, translation from Jewish Virtual Libray):

    “It is appropriate to accept the truth from any person, even if he is on a lower level than oneself or from another nation…It is not proper to look at the speaker, but rather at what is said” (Sefer HaMa’alos, pp. 11–12)

    See link to Sefer HaMa’alos:

    Similarly, see link to R. Shem Tov’s Iggeres HaVikuach pp. 13-14 below, referred to above in Sefer HaMa’alos:

    Sefer HaMa’alos differs from the Rambam in that he is in favor of mention of the names of philosophers, as noted in Mosad HaRav Kook’s edition of Shemonah Perakim mentioned above, nevertheless, the statement itself is the most important according to all. How do the above, which emphasize the truth or lack thereof of the statement, agree with RSRH’s critique of anonymity?

    (2) A reader on Cross Currents asked, “How does the initial anonymous publishing of THE NINETEEN LETTERS fit into the quote from Rav Hirsch?
    This has bothered me for over 20 years.”

    R. Adlerstein responded to the second question (Comments to “What R. Samson Raphael Hirsch Would Say About Comboxes”, Cross Currents, October 5th, 2010):

    “If it has bothered you that long, I will venture a guess (besides the obvious answer that he changed his mind as he got older!).

    R Hirsch’s quote took aim at people who hid behind their anonymity to avoid criticism of their controversial – and sometimes unsubstantiated – claims. He published Nineteen Letters anonymously not to avoid controversy (there was little that was controversial, other than a few items about Rambam), but out of humility. Nothing wrong with humility for a young man. Rav Hirsch opposed cowardice, not humility.”

    An excerpt from R. Dr. Asher Meir’s response to “I’m thinking of starting a blog, but I prefer to remain anonymous. Is there anything unethical about an anonymous blog?”(“The Jewish Ethicist – Anonymous Blogs”,December 22, 2007):

    “There is nothing wrong with using a fake identity, as long as the people you talk about also have fake identities….However, the ethical line is drawn when a blogger hides behind an anonymous identity is used to disperse irresponsible and unsubstantiated statements about real people.”

    (Take the above pseudonymous items– ie, my question from the Rambam and R. Shem Tov ibn Falaquera– for whatever they are worth; the other sourced aspects of this comment , however, are certainly worthy 🙂 )

  2. In the December, 2001 “Address by Yeshiva University President Rabbi Dr. Norman Lamm at 77th Annual Hanukkah Dinner”, R. Lamm spoke of one of the works he planned on reading after his retirement,

    “I’d like to go over in detail and in depth the Federalist Papers which will tell me more about America, the country I love.”

    Ironically, in “Anonymous comments are an American tradition”(Letter to Washington Post, 1/14), the author argues

    “…consider Publius and Brutus.

    The former is the pseudonym under which the Federalist Papers were published. The latter is the pseudonym under which some of the anti-federalist papers were published. Writing anonymously has a deep and rich history in this country. Indeed, Founding Father Benjamin Franklin used the pseudonym “Silence Dogood” in writing to New England newspapers.”

    In “The Psychology of Online Comments”(New Yorker, 10/13),Dr. Maria Konnikova, author of “Mastermind: How to Think Like Sherlock Holmes”, notes that

    “Popular Science announced that it would banish comments from its Web site. The editors argued that Internet comments, particularly anonymous ones, undermine the integrity of science and lead to a culture of aggression and mockery that hinders substantive discourse. “Even a fractious minority wields enough power to skew a reader’s perception of a story…

    …On the other hand, anonymity has also been shown to encourage participation; by promoting a greater sense of community identity, users don’t have to worry about standing out individually. Anonymity can also boost a certain kind of creative thinking and lead to improvements in problem-solving. In a study that examined student learning, the psychologists Ina Blau and Avner Caspi found that, while face-to-face interactions tended to provide greater satisfaction, in anonymous settings participation and risk-taking flourished.”

    Konnikova cites the “online disinhibition effect”, but also the 2008 American Behavioral Science Journal regarding dealing with communication abuse,

    “New communication technologies do not fundamentally alter the theoretical bounds of human interaction; such interaction continues to be governed by basic human tendencies”

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