Does Silence Signal Agreement? The Limits of Self Restraint

In the Babylonian Talmud, the ancient rabbis taught that silence, while a sign of humility and often wisdom, can also have a darker side. Sh’tika k’hoda’ah damei, they said. Remaining silent can, in the wrong circumstance, indicate your agreement with or surrender to what has been said. Silence can be a two-faced sword.

I’ve been thinking a lot about that ancient teaching lately.

In a variety of contexts, particularly on some of the listservs that I either subscribe to or monitor, there seems to be no ethic of silence. People just scream at each other (in the cyberspace sense) endlessly, often voicing the same arguments over and over as if the very repetition of the arguments is likely to beat the other people involved into submission.

Democrat versus Republican, liberal versus conservative, pro-peace process in Israel versus anti-peace process, Orthodox versus non-Orthodox…

Sometimes it has to do with certain people who simply can’t leave well enough alone, and feel as if they just have to have the last word. We all know people like that. But other times it symbolizes something much profound, and dangerous- the deepening polarization within our society as a whole along ideological lines, and a similar phenomenon occurring simultaneously within the religious community.

The question that gnaws at me is, when do you simply ignore what people are saying about you and people like you, and when do you respond? When does your silence indicate humility and wisdom, and when does it indicate weakness?

I so wish I knew the answer to that question! I struggle with it all the time.

In the religious community within Judaism, there is an active and often acerbic back and forth between the various streams. The good news about that is that it sets us apart from Islam, where, far too often, one finds a systemic failure of the more moderate elements to speak out openly against the extremists who have so brazenly asserted themselves via jihad. Yes, the good news is that our religious community does not lack open and vigorous debate. But the bad news is that our religious community does not lack open and vigorous debate. Again- a two-faced sword.

I would love to be able to sit back and allow those who would insult me based on what I believe to have their say, without responding. There’s something so Gandhi-like about that kind of posture, so spiritually above the fray; it seems like an exalted state of being.

But when I allow such a feeling to take over, I am always brought back to that ancient rabbinic teaching of sh’tika k’hoda’ah damei. I would not want my silence to be interpreted as a tacit admission of agreement, or submission. It’s not about having the last word, but more about not allowing an untruth to be declared as truth and not challenging it. That, too, is a posture of spiritual strength, I would hope.

I do hope.

About the Author
Rabbi Gerald C. Skolnik is the Rabbi Emeritus of the Forest Hills Jewish Center in Queens.