Friday, January 8, 2010

Shemos 2:14. Achein, Noda Hadavar. Leeches and Piranhas

What is it about the internet that brings out our dark side?  I used to think it was the anonymity, the magnified thrill of doing in public what you had been constrained to do in private, the childish desire to open your mouth while chewing to elicit the disgust of the other people at the table.  But now people attach their real names to uncharacteristically intemperate essays, writing things that a moment's reflection ought to have cut off.  It seems that the internet doesn't only allow writers to turn over the rock and reveal the squirming decay and ugliness that decency had hidden.  It seems that the internet actually does damage to the soul.

Let's take the most recent example.  Let's say we have an honorable individual who has founded and directed a rabbinical organization for years.  He has antagonized people on both sides of the Orthodox spectrum, from those who hate him for his unwillingness to bend the rules, to those who hate him for what they consider to be his willingness to bend the rules.  The hatred he has attracted is not unique; Moshe Rabbeinu was accused of fattening himself off of the sweat of the Jews, and Yechezkel Hanavi was accused of having an adulterous affair with a married woman.  This is to be expected.  Every ethnic group has its weaknesses, and devouring our leaders is one of ours.  As related in this week's parsha (2:14.), when Moshe Rabbeinu confronted Dassan and Aviram, 
וַיֹּאמֶר מִי שָׂמְךָ לְאִישׁ שַׂר וְשֹׁפֵט, עָלֵינוּ הַלְהָרְגֵנִי אַתָּה אֹמֵר כַּאֲשֶׁר הָרַגְתָּ אֶת הַמִּצְרִי וַיִּירָא מֹשֶׁה וַיֹּאמַר אָכֵן נוֹדַע הַדָּבָר

'Who made you our prince and judge?' retorted [the other]. 'Do you mean to kill me as you killed the Egyptian?' Moses was frightened. 'The matter has become known,' he said.

Rashi there explains,

Moses was frightened: [To be explained] according to its simple meaning [that Moses was afraid Pharaoh would kill him]. Midrashically, it is interpreted to mean that he was worried because he saw in Israel wicked men [i.e.,] informers. He said, Since this is so, perhaps they [the Israelites] do not deserve to be redeemed [from slavery]. [From Tanchuma, Shemos 10]
Indeed, the matter has become known: [To be interpreted] according to its apparent meaning [that it was known that he had slain the Egyptian]. Its midrashic interpretation, however, is: the matter I was wondering about, [i.e.,] why the Israelites are considered more sinful than all the seventy nations [of the world], to be subjugated with back-breaking labor, has become known to me. Indeed, I see that they deserve it. [From Shemos Rabbah 1:30]

 So, nothing is new as far as how we treat our rabbinic leaders.  Dassan and Aviram were also among the greatest of the Jews, or Pharaoh would have ignored them, and the Jewish people would have ignored them as well.  It must be that they had some achievements and skills that elevated them in peoples' eyes.  And even so, their behavior towards Moshe Rabbeinu was so repugnant that he was moved to despair; "If this is how the Jews behave, no wonder they suffer so much; I wonder if they deserve to ever be redeemed."

Compounding the problem is the Mishna in Pirkei Avos 5:17:  כל מחלוקת שהיא לשם שמים סופה להתקיים

Literally, that means that any dispute that is motivated by a desire to serve Hashem will have positive lasting results.  In my experience, it really means that when people fight in the name of Hashem, they have no moral limitations, and they will never compromise, and the fight will be dirty, and it will never end.  And the parties will never regret it.  "It was le'sheim shamayim!!!!"

I wonder; when accusations were made against this individual, did people say to themselves "this accusation, if it spreads and is taken to be true, will kill this man.  His reputation will be destroyed, his wife will divorce him, his children will hate him, his yeshiva will fall apart, he will end up penniless and despised.  So I had better be more than certain that the accusations are true before openly saying I believe them, and I better not publicize them."  Or, "I will not open my mouth unless the evidence is so compelling that if the accused were my own father, I would believe it."  Or, "Publicizing this is morally indistinguishable from disemboweling him.  Is this something I'm comfortable doing?"

These are rhetorical questions.  I actually am not wondering at all.  What has happened, at least in the case of the guardians of our morals, our righteous fifth column, is that they accepted evidence that would not have been accepted in any court in any civilized country, to say nothing of the extremely strict procedural rules in a Beis Din dealing with capital punishment.  When the government of Iran distributes Photoshopped illustrations of missile launches, when any talented ten year old Goebbels could dice and splice an innocuous telephone conversation into a damning depravity, what evidentiary value do photographs and taped conversations have?  Is it for nothing that the Torah requires live witnesses?  We're not talking about "kabdei'hu ve'chashdei'hu," respect but suspect.  We're talking about making a person into a graf shel re'i.

This is not a case where the accused is a clear and present danger to others, as in the case of child molestation or marital violence.  In those cases, of course, the suspect should immediately be placed where he cannot do any harm.  Our hypothetical suspect presents no danger to anyone.

What if it turns out that the accusations were true, and not part of an orchestrated smear campaign funded by an extremely wealthy nemesis?  Will that justify retroactively the behavior of the lynch mob?  No, it won't.  The question is, was this behavior justified on the basis of the evidence presented.  If the initial evidence was faulty, later proof of guilt will not justify anything that was done before the real proof was presented.

So, I was just wondering.  Assuming this is the fate of Klal Yisrael, and that this kind of blithe willingness to participate in a man's destruction is just another iteration of the behavior Moshe Rabbeinu saw so many years ago, here is the real question. 

Which is better; a piranha or a leech? 

On the one hand, a piranha is a nice looking fish, with glittering silver scales and bright red markings on its belly and ventral fin.  With a little imagination, you can even see a coy smile on its face.  On the other hand, when is smells blood in the water it horribly rips its victims to shreds, leaving nothing behind but striated bones and a faint echo of pain and despair. 

A leech, on the other hand, is an ugly boneless slug of cartilage, lacking even a rudimentary spine, but at least it doesn't rip its victims to pieces, it only sips a bit of their blood.  

It's a tough choice.


  1. Regarding the Mishna in Pirkei Avot, there are some who claim or may even fool themselves into believing that what they do is l'Sheim Shamayim while in reality it is anything but that. We should all pray that Hashem grants us the wisdom to not make that mistake.

  2. Is it of any comfort to the piranha's victims that they too were considered piranhas at a time? probably not. But for an outsider to these ugly fights it puts things in perspective. A certain Mishna in Avot comes to mind.

  3. I'm surprised you feel that way; but hearing it from you shows the extent to which the EJF alienated the very people I would have thought would have supported them. You know that geirus has become a mine field of uncertainty for geirei tzedek, and as a result, many sincere geirim have gone through terrible suffering. An organization that would set standards for geirus would have been a life saver and would have prevented much chillul Hashem. In any case, I still think that the man was destroyed not because of what he was accused of doing, but instead because the accusations enabled the enemies of the EJF to destroy the organization-- the ends justified the means.

  4. I know close to nothing on the EJF, or the differences in policy between it and its opponents, but I have a feeling my own stand is closer to the first. Yet, being right does not mean you're supposed to lynch whoever thinks otherwise, which is (from my far-away, uninformed, perspective) exactly what former victims of this time's victim has claimed he has done to them in the past (Leshem Shamayim obviously). I don't know the details of the following either, but I understand both N. Slifkin and R. Nathan Kamenetzky claim he was active in the ban of their respective books. They both claim a totally unfair process, bearing some resemblance with the critic of the current process coming from proponents of R. Tropper. Too bad it's easier to see the pitfalls of the system when one is personally damaged.

  5. Now I understand what you mean. But as far as I know, the current victim was not the rodef; the rodef was his associate who lives in Yerushalayim. And the effect of that redifah was to reinforce the inevitable negative prejudice of one community, and to increase the popularity of the books in the other community.

  6. Whether these people were successful or not is besides the point, they definitely meant to harm, Leshem Shamayim (and at least in R. Kamenetzky's case, I think they did).

    Maybe I falsely accused R.T. for these two events (from what I understood, at least the victim point to him as bearing responsibility), but I still have a feeling he would have acted similarly if the need arises in his eyes (e.g. if he would have thought someone not to adhere to EJF standards).

    Someone who actively uses the byzantine royal courts system that overtook the Torah world recently to crush whoever he finds unfit does not have the right to complain when he gets hit by the inevitable pitfalls of the very same system. The irony is (I'm quite sure) the very same person is still, today, proud of his former attacks, viewing them as his ticket to Gan-Eden.

  7. All of which does present a coherent case for condign justice, but it doesn't excuse the instruments of that justice, just as Pharaoh couldn't excuse himself by arguing that he was merely an instrument of divine will. And so the ateift/atfuch/yetufun cycle goes on endlessly. The perfect engine of perpetual motion.

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  9. As someone who is always eager to learn more, I was happy to come across your site even if a lot of it is over my head.

    However, after reading your defense of Tropper, I realize that you seem to be one of many who, despite obvious intellectual gifts, can't recognize pure evil.

    This man was called a 'menuval' by people far greater than either of us, had destroyed lives many times in the past, and was well on his way to cornering the 'worldwide market' for geirus -- not to mention the horrible Chillul Hashem of holding someone's geirus over them in return for sexual favors.

    All decent people should be shouting for joy that such an individual has been unmasked.

  10. Joseph, thank you for writing. My problem is twofold. First, I find it hard to believe that he could have done any of the things he's acccused of. I'm not naive, and I'm not immune to the effect of male hormones. But what he's accused of goes beyond anything I can comprehend. Besides the spiritual perfidy, nobody with an ounce of sense would put themselves in a postion of such great likelihood of exposure to public humiliation and damnation.

    Second; I have a very close personal relationship with Harav Reuven Feinstein. Despite his friendly demeanor and easy going manner of speach, he is razor sharp and constantly assessing the people with whom he is dealing. I find it hard to believe he was so terribly misled.

  11. Well what can I say except that it might be time to get your BS detector re-calibrted?

    All the Best,