Of Flattery & Falsehood

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by R. Moshe Kurtz

Lomdus on the Parsha: Masei

Based on the Acclaimed Sefer Chavatzeles HaSharon

Q: May a synagogue call up a sinner to the Torah?

You are not to corrupt (lo sachanifu) the land that you are in, for the blood—it will corrupt the land, and the land will not be purged of the blood that has been shed upon it except through the blood of him who shed it. (Numbers 35:33)

The Sifrei (ad loc) interprets the term “sachanifu” as referring to “chanifah”, which is commonly translated as flattery (see also Bahag, no. 167; Sefer Yereim, no. 248; and Sefer Chareidim, Negative Commandments 4:48.) The locus classicus for the sin of flattery in the Talmud is found in Tractate Sotah (41a-41b), which lists many examples throughout the Bible and Jewish history when figures such as Yaakov, Yirmiyahyu and others appeared to have engaged in some form of flattering a powerful figure. The discussion begins with an elaboration on the passage in the Mishnah which describes how the Jewish people sought to allay King Agrippas’ concerns that he was not qualified to serve as a Jewish King:

King Agrippas arose, and received [the Torah scroll], and read [from it while] standing, and the Sages praised him [for this]. And when [Agrippas] arrived at “You may not appoint a foreigner over you” (Deuteronomy 17:15), tears flowed from his eyes. They said to him: Fear not, Agrippas. You are our brother, you are our brother.

The Gemara comments that the Jewish people incurred a severe decree for this transgression of false praise:

It was taught in the name of Rabbi Nosson: At that moment the enemies of the Jewish people, (a euphemism for the Jewish people themselves), were sentenced to destruction for flattering Agrippas.

Rabbeinu Yonah (Sha’arei Teshuvah 3:187-188) interprets this opinion in the Gemara as a mandate to put oneself in life-threatening danger, rather than resort to flattery:

The flatterer who recognizes or sees or knows that there is injustice in the hand of his fellow…And behold this is a criminal offense in the hand of the foolish flatterer, for he was not zealous against falsehood, but rather assisted the falsehood, and said about the bad, “Good,” and made darkness, light…For when he, the flatterer, said to him in front of people, “You are pure, without transgression” – he has profaned and disgraced the religion and the law. And a person is obligated to give himself over to danger, and not to place guilt like this upon his soul.

How can we make sense of these seemingly very radical teachings? While the proclivity to flatter is a negative character trait, as it expresses dishonesty, how does it rise to the level of requiring one to endanger their very life to avoid it?

Tosafos (Sotah 41b, s.v. Kol) actually infers the opposite from a story in Nedarim (22a) in which the sage Ulla was forced to flatter someone in order to protect himself:

Ulla, on his ascent to the Land of Israel, had two residents of Chozai join him. One arose and slaughtered the other. [The assailant] said to Ulla: Did I act properly? He said to him: Yes, and open the place of the slaughter (i.e., cut it more so that he will die faster). When [Ulla] came before Rabbi Yochanan, [Ulla] said to him: Perhaps, Heaven forbid, I strengthened the hands of sinners (by commending him)? He said to him: You saved yourself.

R. Moshe Feinstein (Responsa Igros Moshe O.C. 2:51) was asked whether a shul may ingratiate themselves with a major donor who was intermarried by calling him up to the Torah. In the midst of his deliberations on the parameters of flattery, R. Feinstein tries to make sense of why Tosafos even had a question in the first place – certainly one should not be required to forfeit their life rather than flatter someone else? What gave Tosafos’ this initial impression that one be expected to forfeit their life? R. Feinstein answers, based on the Yam shel Shlomo (Bava Kamma 38b | 5:16), that if by flattering someone they are misrepresenting laws of the Torah then they are guilty of distorting and denying God’s will, which amounts to heresy.. Thus, when the Jewish people reassured Aggripas that he could legitimately rule as king, they were guilty of misrepresenting the Torah. This is also clearly what Rabbeinu Yonah was referring to when he states that one who flatters “has profaned and disgraced the religion and the law.”

Accordingly, R. Feinstein elucidates that Tosafos held that Ulla only circumvented the issue by not explicitly stating that murder was permissible, had he done so he would have been in violation of distorting the Torah and actually expected to surrender his life.

Based on what we have reviewed, R. Mordechai Carlbach outlines two classifications of flattery. (A) There is flattery that is simply indicative of a negative character trait. (B) There is flattery that distorts the Torah and, thus, one must be willing to forfeit their life rather than commit this affront to God.

End Note: Returning to R. Feinstein’s case in which a shul was deliberating whether to honor a major donor who was intermarried: R. Feinstein essentially ruled out the possibility of offering him an aliyah to the Torah, as one needs to subscribe to the binding sanctity of the words of the Torah in order for his reading to be a legitimate mitzvah act. However, he concludes that such an individual may be honored with opening the ark since it is a functional, rather than ritual, deed. R. Feinstein further suggests that granting this honor would not constitute a form of flattery, since both the congregation and honoree know that it was given role due to his good deeds rather than as an approval of his transgressions.

The concern for flattery does not only have halachic implications, but more urgently, presents serious ethical and moral challenges for all non-profit organizations which survive on donations. Religious institutions need to fund basic operations – but what happens when the source of its donations comes from sources not aligned with the institution’s principles; what happens when those with less means are implicitly regarded as less than those who have more? God willing, I plan to address this question in a longer-form essay in the future. In the meantime, for more on this topic, see: Responsa Bnei Banim (2:9), Igros Malchei Rabbanan, p. 34, Pesichas HaIgros, p. 156, and “Ethics in Philanthropy: Should Synagogues and Mosdot Chinuch Accept Tainted Funds? (Orthodox Forum, Vol. 19), by R. Kenneth Brander.

Note: This series is not intended to dispense practical halachic conclusions. The Torah presented here is but a small extraction from the breadth of the sefer Chavatzeles HaSharon and is not affiliated with the author in any official capacity. Translations are adapted from Sefaria, Chabad.org, Mechon Mamre, and my  own. Contact: [email protected] 

About Moshe Kurtz

Rabbi Moshe Kurtz is Assistant Rabbi at Congregation Agudath Sholom of Stamford, CT. He welcomes questions, feedback and speaking requests at: [email protected].

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