I was recently the beneficiary of a remarkable act of generosity. Three weeks ago, this column was devoted to a discussion of an exchange in the Jerusalem Post between sociologist Samuel Heilman and Rabbi Berel Wein about the reasons for the increasing chareidization of American Orthodoxy.
Though one might have deduced from the two pieces that Heilman was less sanguine about these developments than Rabbi Wein, the analysis of both men was fairly objective. In fact, I agreed with, and cited without dissent, Heilman’s four factors leading to the rightward swing in American Orthodoxy. Yet because of the assumption of other commentators on the Heilman - Wein exchange that Heilman’s op-ed piece was in reality a lament, I added a further assumption of my own: that Heilman was the same sociologist of American Orthodoxy who had once given a passionate denunciation of the "chumras" foisted on Orthodoxy by the chareidim and fondly recalled the more lenient Orthodoxy of his youth on a panel at a convention of the Orthodox Union. And so I added an allusion to that speech to my discussion of his op-ed piece in the Post.
The Sunday after my piece appeared, Professor Heilman sent me an Email in which he noted that he had never spoken or written about mixed dancing in the ‘50s. I sent back an Email in which I described the OU panel, which had included Rabbi Ilan Feldman of Atlanta. He replied that he had never spoken to the OU or appeared on a panel with Rabbi Ilan Feldman. With that my stomach sank through the floor.
A little bit of further research revealed that I had confused Professor Heilman with another sociologist of American Orthodoxy whose name also begins with "H." When I shared this fact with Professor Heilman, along with my profuse apologies, he contented himself with the laconic comment that I was not the first to make that mistake. Not one word of remonstration. No expressions of righteous indignation, threats of suit, letters to the editor demanding the firing of an obviously incompetent journalist. Nothing.
When I considered how I would react if someone insulted me in print on the basis of statements that I never made, my amazement at Professor Heilman’s calm only grew. Our Sages teach us, "One who is insulted and does not return the insult, who hears his disgrace and does not answer . . . , about him the verse says, ‘Those who love Him are like the powerfully rising sun’ (Shoftim 5:31)." (Shabbat 88b) But how many of us would fail to respond to a public insult, when the means to do so were readily at hand? Had I been Professor Heilman, I cannot imagine having let me off without at least making me sweat and grovel a bit. (One friend, citing the well-known halachic principle that damages for embarrassment are determined by the status of the one who caused the insult and the one insulted, helpfully suggested that Professor Heilman simply considered me too beneath contempt to be worth the bother.)
I WRITE THE DAY BEFORE TISHA B’AV. Tomorrow night, we will all have to contemplate the impact of the sinat chinam (causeless hatred) for which the Second Temple was destroyed, and the ways in which we ourselves are guilty of prolonging the Exile through the same sin. The extraordinary manner in which Professor Heilman rose above any trace of hatred, (even that with a cause), will serve as a good place to start my own self-examination.
While I’m busy contemplating my own sinat chinam, I won’t overlook one more thing: my slight of Professor Heilman was entirely gratuitous. It added absolutely nothing to any point I was trying to make. Worse, it was only one of two such gratuitous remarks that marred an otherwise sane piece – the other being a psychological characterization of Efraim Zuroff’s attitudes towards chareidim. (Zuroff’s comments on the Heilman-Wein exchange were the real subject of my piece.)
Zuroff and I have crossed swords in both public debate and print many times in the past over his descriptions of American chareidim (and, by implication, the European-trained Mizrahi rabbis who constituted the rank-and-file membership of Vaad Hatzala) as concerned only with rescuing roshei yeshiva and allowing yeshiva bochurim stranded in Shanghai and Soviet Asia to carry on studying, while millions of fellow Jews perished. Doubtless he and I will do so again in the future. But his personal feelings about chareidim are entirely irrelevant to this historical debate, and only serve to distract from the issues.
Nor does discussion of those attitudes constitute effective advocacy for my position. As I wrote to Zuroff privately: Either your words and actions speak for themselves, in which case no characterization by me is necessary, or they do not, in which case no characterization by me will be effective.
My two gratuitous swipes in one column were not entirely accidental. The style of Israeli op-ed pages – in the chareidi press as well – favors those who spice up their writing with sharp comments. The temptation to show that we too can wield verbal rapiers, however, is one that we succumb to at the cost of our souls.
Beyond the cutting style of Israeli advocacy journalism, there is a more general tendency to let our mouths, (or our fingers), work far in advance of the more reflective part of our brains. Here is where Torah Jews have a special duty to show that the pleasure of a witty remark at another’s expense is one that we are commanded to forego, even in the heat of battle.
As a young man, Rabbi Moshe Sherer, the great leader of Agudath Israel of America for nearly forty years, pseudonymously penned a number of wicked satires of the American Jewish leadership of his time. Yet by the time he assumed the mantle of leadership two decades later, he completely abandoned that sarcastic style. Despite being the staunchest opponent of the heterodox movements on the American scene, he never made the ideological/theological battle personal. And for that reason, he commanded respect from even his ideological adversaries. On many occasions, that respect translated into concrete benefits for the Torah world on such bodies as the Claims Conference.
In our contentious times, and especially during this period of mourning for the Bais HaMikdash, Rabbi Sherer offers a model of how to conduct an argument leshem Shomayim.