When I assumed my first position as a synagogue rabbi, I was a man with many opinions. Fresh out of rabbinical school, I felt I had access to the whole truth and nothing but the truth. If someone wrote an article with which I disagreed, I wrote back a sharp response to indicate the intellectual weakness of the writer’s argument and the truth of mine. I could not resist not being silent. I knew the right answers and it was my mission to let everyone else know of the correctness of my position as well.
Very soon, thankfully, I became aware of the arrogance and silliness of my ways. I received an acidic letter from someone whose article I took issue with. He accused me of narrow-mindedness and insensitivity. As I reflected on his comments, I realized he was right. There was no reason for me to publically criticize someone else just to demonstrate the correctness of my position. I forgot the maxim of our Sages that silence is a fence to wisdom, and that my overall success in the rabbinate did not depend on my diminishing the reputation of others. There was no point to my diatribes. I should have remained quiet, and from then on, I did.
The issue of silence is critical in A Man for All Seasons, the story of Thomas More and his quarrel with Henry VIII, King of England, who wanted More, in his capacity as Lord Chancellor of England, to ask Pope Clement VII to annul his marriage to Catherine of Aragon, who did not bear him a male child. More resigned rather than take an Oath of Supremacy declaring the King as Supreme Head of the Church of England, an oath that would allow the King to dispense with the need to ask the Pope for the annulment.
More chooses silence as his response to the political pressures around him. He is cautious about his words and serves as a sterling example of the man who measures carefully each and every word he utters, knowing that the wrong word can ruin him in this world and possibly in the next.
However, he cannot escape the entreaties of the king, and ultimately More is branded a traitor for his unwillingness to take an oath supporting Henry’s new marriage to Anne Boelyn. More’s silence is construed as high treason against the king.
At his trial, the matter of silence is a key argument of Cromwell, the prosecutor, who explores the different interpretations of silence: “Gentlemen of the jury, there are many kinds of silence. Consider first the silence of a man who is dead. What does it betoken, this silence? Nothing; this is silence pure and simple. But let us take another case. Suppose I were to take a dagger from my sleeve and make to kill the prisoner with it; and my lordships there, instead of crying out for me to stop, maintained their silence. It would suggest a willingness that I should do it, and under the law, they will be guilty with me. So silence can, according to the circumstances, speak.” Cromwell then attacks More by suggesting that his silence is a clever denial of Henry’s authority as Supreme Head of the Church of England.
More responds that his silence should not necessarily be interpreted as denial, but rather as the silence of consent. In truth, he should be acquitted for he has never said a word against the King.
Jewish tradition has much to say about silence. The Ethics of the Fathers offers several pithy statements: “There is nothing better for a man than silence. Silence is a fence to wisdom. He who increases his words increases sin.” Clearly, the thrust of Jewish tradition is to weigh one’s words. Once uttered, they cannot be recalled. Therefore, it behooves us to carefully consider the value and purpose of our speech before opening our mouths to offer an opinion. I am thankful I learned this lesson early in my career.