The Coward Dies a Thousand Deaths

One of the joys of writing this column is getting comments, both complimenting and agreeing with me as well as criticizing and disagreeing with me.

Of course, I prefer the former — who wouldn’t? — but I find the latter also worthwhile for two reasons. First, sometimes — but not too often, so I like to think — the critics are right. But either way, there certainly are parts of my columns that, based on criticisms, I’d like to revise, correcting factual errors, adding nuances, constructing phrases more carefully, and tightening or even rethinking arguments. Second, behind every critique there are two undeniable facts: the critic actually read what I wrote, and even more significantly, cared enough about it to comment. There’s not much more a writer can ask for (except, perhaps, being paid).

There is, however, one caveat (sorry, legal jargon still is in my bloodstream). While the internet unfortunately has made anonymity the default identification rather than the exception — one of my pet peeves about the internet — I still reject anonymous criticism, strongly believing that it is at best worthless and at worst highly offensive and all too often unfairly damaging.

I raise this point because after my February 15 column, “How Jews Should Argue” appeared, an envelope was delivered to my door, hand-addressed to me. It had no return address, and when I opened it, I saw it was signed not with a person’s name but by “a member of one of Yeshiva University Boards.” And while it said it was addressed “to those parents and students of the Frish (sic) High School that showed Hakos (sic) Hatov to the President of the USA and the USA for acknowledging Jerusalem as the capital of Israel,” neither I nor the only other recipient of the letter that I know of is such a parent or student. (If you know whether it was, in fact, widely distributed to such parents and students, please let me know.)

The thrust of the letter, as you can deduce from the group of people it allegedly was directed to, was yet another attack on Rabbi Ozer Glickman for, in my opinion, his thoughtful, nuanced, and moderate reaction to the “thank-you letter” affair that for a short period of time bedeviled our community. It was also an implicit attack on my criticism of the tone and language used by some of R. Glickman’s critics in letters to the editor to the Jewish Standard in which his views were quoted.

Based on the letter’s numerous grammatical and logical errors, non sequiturs, poor organization, and factual mistakes, were I grading it as a high school sophomore English paper assignment, I’d give it a D. And if I took off points for transliteration spelling errors (it’s hakarat or hakaras hatov, not “Hakos Hatov” as erroneously repeated six times, although hakarat hatov is one of the letter’s major themes), I’d lower the grade to an F, even though I’ve always considered myself an easy grader.

I don’t know, of course, whether there’s any truth to the letter-writer’s claim that he actually is a member of a YU board, but if he is (and my strong sense is that it is a he), then YU needs to up its game and vet its board members more carefully. Semi-literacy really should merit disqualification.

But it wasn’t the semi-literate nature of the letter that riled me; indeed, it was so bad that it was almost humorous. What truly angered me was that I don’t like interacting with cowards, and that’s exactly what this anonymous letter writer is — a coward. You disagree with what I write, you think I’m wrong or even an idiot, you believe my political views are indefensible and my heroes have clay feet, you’re of the opinion that the Standard and Times of Israel shouldn’t give me a platform, you’ve concluded that I don’t show the proper amount of hakarat hatov or love for Israel and Yerushalayim that I should? Okay, then tell me so, explain why, support your argument with evidence and logic. I’m a big boy, and if I like spouting my opinions in public — which I do very much — there’s no justification for me to complain if any errors are thrown back in my face.

But if you do so, at least have the decency and courage to put your name behind your opinion, the way I do when I express mine. Why hide behind “a member of one of Yeshiva University Boards”? Tell us your name, so in addition to evaluating your arguments we can weigh your credentials, investigate your consistency, and judge your authority.

You’re not ashamed of your response to R. Glickman and me, are you? So what are you afraid of? And you’re certainly afraid of something, since, as an ancient Jewish adage teaches, too much fear makes a person a coward.

I haven’t dealt, nor will I deal, with the substance of any of the letter’s arguments (if they can be called that) because cowards are not worth caring about. They deserve to be shunned, not engaged with. They merit our scorn, not our thoughts and analyses. They have earned the dubious privilege of serving as role models of everything we want our children — and ourselves — not to be.

And I’ve already wasted too much time and ink on this one coward’s drivel.

Two of our greatest writers have taught us an important lesson about cowards. Shakespeare: “Cowards die many times before their death. The valiant never taste of death but once” (Julius Caesar, Act II, Scene II). Or as paraphrased centuries later by Ernest Hemingway: “A coward dies a thousand deaths, the brave man dies but once” (A Farewell to Arms).

I don’t know if I can say, like Robert Louis Stevenson, that “the world has no room for cowards.” But I can, and do, say it about our community. So, “member of a YU board,” crawl back under your rock. The Jewish community has no room for you.

About the Author
Joseph C. Kaplan, a regular columnist for the Jewish Standard, is a long-time resident of Teaneck. His work has also appeared in various publications including Sh’ma magazine, The New York Jewish Week, The Baltimore Jewish Times, and, as letters to the editor, The New York Times.
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