The Curious Attachment to Mockery

Mockery, including cavalierly demeaning or even personally insulting others or ridiculing their beliefs, has become an all too familiar feature of public discourse. Many have become addicted to these vituperative outbursts, whether as a spectator or active participant in group character bashing sessions.

What’s worse, it appears these negative affectations have detracted from the willingness of many to do the hard work needed to solve a problem. It takes little energy to demean someone; just moving lips and shallow thinking. The effect is often infectious, drawing others into the web of disreputable behavior, thereby reinforcing the toxic atmosphere and emboldening the participants. However, expressing contempt serves no useful purpose; it’s wholly negative. Indeed, as the mocking pronouncements become more strident, caustic and less rational, numbness may set in. Little or no opportunity is permitted for quiet, reasoned discussion. The repetitive invocation of a barrage of the same banal talking points doesn’t induce people to act any differently; instead, it often triggers a sort of immunity.

So why do it? Does it make the mocker feel superior to those he or she mocks and is that a part of its attraction? Does this alone explain the attachment many have to verbally abusing others or is there more to it?

Addiction to mockery appears to be a condition that is ancient in origin. It was a feature of one of the most notorious forms of idolatrous practice depicted in the Bible[i], known as the ‘Attachment to Ba’al Peor’. Many succumbed to its less than obvious charms. Indeed, the central feature of its worship was a lack of any respect, sanctity or decorum[ii]. Instead of dressing up and bowing towards the idol as a sign of respect, the odious ritual called for uncovering, squatting backwards before the idol and defecating. Some shunned this repulsive conduct; but others tried it on a lark. They reasoned what harm could there be in ridiculing and showing such obvious disrespect to an idol? Yet, they became caught up in the display of extreme mockery and it took over their lives. The vile nature of these practices and their addictive quality are alluded to in the Bible[iii], Prophets[iv] and Writings[v] and described in the Mishna[vi], Talmud[vii] and Midrash[viii].

Kabbalists[ix] juxtapose and contrast the Biblical Zimri and his attachment to the cult of Ba’al Peor with Rabbi Akiva of the Talmud and his role in elevating people and preserving Judaism. They also link Zimri’s twenty-four thousand followers to Rabbi Akiva’s original set of twenty-four thousand students. The underlying theme is the vestigial elements of the obnoxious and destructive practices associated with Ba’al Peor that still infect society.

The Bible[x] describes Zimri, as the head of the Tribe of Simon. He then embraced the abhorrent practices of Ba’al Peor, which led to his precipitous decline. His attachment to this cult manifested itself in his haughty self-important attitude, self-righteousness and shamelessness. . This emboldened him to justify his intemperate actions, by mocking and disrespecting Moses in an effort to delegitimize Moses’ moral authority[xi]. He was also an extremely divisive figure and his misbehavior was infectious. It created an atmosphere where his followers felt free to mock and demonize Pinchas[xii].

Rabbi Akiva was a seminal figure in the aftermath of the tragic destruction of the Second Temple and during the Bar Kochba revolt and its devastating failure. Before he met his wife Rachel, he was unlearned[xiii] and an iconoclast, who mocked the Sages[xiv]. Rachel recognized his inner virtues of modesty and refined character. At her insistence, he devoted himself to Torah[xv] and developed into an extraordinary individual, who inspired so many others through the generations by his example. He was a paradigm of nobility and dignity. His manifold achievements included becoming a saintly, erudite and preeminent Sage[xvi], material success[xvii] and exceptional public service[xviii]. His broad-minded perspective on life is depicted in his famous dictum[xix] that it is a fundamental principle of the Torah to love your neighbor like yourself[xx]. His positive attitude to life is well expressed in his teaching[xxi] that a person must always accustom himself to say everything that God does is for the best. He also lifted the spirits of his fellow Sages, enabling them to cope with the destruction of the Second Temple and carry-on[xxii]. In one of his final acts of courage and resolve, before his untimely and horrible death, he acted to assure the continuity of the Jewish people. He did this by ordaining his five principal students, who are credited with preserving Judaism[xxiii].

Rabbi Akiva ben Joseph was the antidote to the loathsome behavior of Zimri ben Salu[xxiv].

The parallels between the tragic end of Rabbi Akiva and his original set of twenty-four thousand students and the story of Zimri and his cohorts are uncanny. Both had twenty-four thousand followers[xxv] who died, because of their misbehavior. The Kabbalistic works noted above even describe Rabbi Akiva’s students as the spiritual successors to Zimri’s followers. It is suggested that the spiritual damage resulting from the malevolent conduct of Rabbi Akiva’s students, of disrespecting and mocking each other[xxvi], may not be so different from that caused by the attachment to Ba’al Peor by Zimri’s followers. In essence, both suffered from the same spiritual malady of mockery.

Mutual respect is a critical building block in all relationships. The Talmudic text[xxvii] dealing with Rabbi Akiva’s students goes on to describe not only the obligation to love a spouse like oneself, but also to accord a spouse greater respect than oneself. The Mishna[xxviii] notes the need to respect all people as dearly as oneself[xxix]. Unfortunately, the sin of Ba’al Peor was not rectified in Rabbi Akiva’s time. The pernicious disease of disrespect and other mockery continues to infect our times.

Maimonides[xxx] focuses in on the addictive nature of speaking ill of others, gossip and other inappropriate speech, indignation, bad intentions and scheming, as well as, consorting with the wicked. He observes that these negative activities become ingrained in the heart and it is particularly difficult to correct these kinds of habitual behavior. The Shelah[xxxi] adds[xxxii] to this habit-forming mix the propensity of a person to elevate his or her self-esteem and position by demeaning or casting aspersions on others and then justify this abusive conduct.

Is the underlying theme of the Ba’al Peor ritual and the various forms of mockery it inspired really that different from the more modern practices of making a public mockery of the institutions, leadership or symbols of our society? The mockers of old may have actually defecated on their idols; but is the figurative version any less disrespectful? It is discomfiting to witness an actual mob compulsively shouting shame, defamatory slogans or other contemptible expressions at a government official. The effect of a virtual mob online is no less jarring. Similarly, watching the verbal pyrotechnics of pundits or cable TV hosts, vying for our attention, by making outrageous remarks deriding others. The net effect is not to inspire good behavior; but rather to undermine respect for any moral code of conduct.

It manifests itself in so many diverse ways, including the propensity to be divisive and just mock the efforts of others, instead of coming together and working hard to solve problems. I remember well when the Yosef Mendelowitz, who had been a Soviet Prisoner of Conscience, was finally released. Soon thereafter, he addressed us at the Young Israel of Staten Island. A member of the audience asked him whether we should be marching against a particular refugee aid organization that intercepted Soviet Jewish emigrants on their way to Israel. It seems they were trying to convince them to immigrate to the US instead of Israel. His response was most instructive. He said don’t be against someone or something; instead, be in favor of something.

It’s tiring to hear the seemingly omnipresent refrain of protestors merely calling attention to a problem and shouting calumnies. Doesn’t it make more sense to do something to solve the problem, like volunteering to help? The cure for Ba’al Peor negativity is displacing it with devotion to a positive activity. It is referred to as adherence to G-d[xxxiii] and the Talmud[xxxiv] explains how this esoteric notion is accomplished in practice. Embracing G-d means seeking to emulate G-d’s ways. This is accomplished by following the Torah and performing the Commandments[xxxv], precisely as prescribed. There’s no subtracting or even adding; both of which are proscribed[xxxvi].

Let’s join together to cure the problem. As Rav Kook[xxxvii] counseled[xxxviii], true and pure saints don’t curse evil, rather, they increase noble behavior; don’t decry atheism, but instead occupy themselves with increasing faith; and don’t condemn crudeness, but instead increase wisdom. They thereby encourage good behavior.

It’s time to focus our efforts on doing good and not mocking others. As the popular adage advises, talk is cheap. By doing good deeds, we not only help people, we also genuinely inspire others to do so, as well. Working together to achieve common and positive goals will also help overcome the issues that appear to divide us and reinforce mutual respect. We owe it to our children and ourselves to try. Am Yisroel Chai.

[i] Numbers 25:3.

[ii] Rav Samson Raphael Hirsch, in his commentary on Numbers 25:3, interprets the term ‘Peor’ to mean shamelessness.

[iii] Ibid. See also Numbers 31:15, as well as, Deuteronomy 4:3.

[iv] Joshua 22:17 and Hosea 9:10.

[v] Psalms 106:28.

[vi] Mishna, Tractate Sanhedrin 7:6.

[vii] Babylonian Talmud, Tractate Sanhedrin, at pages 64a and 106a.

[viii] Sifrei, Numbers 131:2 and Numbers Rabbah 20:13.

[ix] See Sefer Gilgalei Neshamos (at page 30, Section 76, under the heading Kozbi), by Rabbi Menachem Azariah Fano, a 16th century Kabbalist; Sefer Hagalgalim (Chapter 67, at page 91, under the heading Pinchas), by Rabbi Isaac Luria (known as the Arizal), a 16th century Kabbalist; and Chesed L’Avraham (Section 5, Chapter 25, at page 59), by Rabbi Abraham Azulai, a 16th Century Kabbalist. See also Seder Hadoros (at page 155, corresponding to English pagination of page 310), by Rabbi Yechiel Heilprin, a 17th century Kabbalist and historian and Yaarot Devash I, 2:11, by Rabbi Yonatan Eybeshitz, an 18th century Talmudic Scholar, Halachic expert and Kabbalist.

[x] Numbers 25:14.

[xi] See Targum Jonathan on Numbers 25:6

[xii] Babylonian Talmud, Tractate Sanhedrin, at page 82b.

[xiii] Ibid and see Avot D’Rabbi Nathan 6:2.

[xiv] Babylonian Talmud, Tractate Ketubot, at page 62b and Tosafot commentary thereon.

[xv] Babylonian Talmud, Tractates Ketubot, at page 62b and Nedarim at page 50a.

[xvi] Even Moses marveled at his brilliance (See Babylonian Talmud, Tractate Menachot, at page 29b).

[xvii] Babylonian Talmud, Tractate Nedarim, at pages 50a-b.

[xviii] See, for example, Babylonian Talmud, Tractate Kiddushin, at page 27a; Mishna Maaser Sheni 5:9; Tosefta Brachot 1:4; and Sifrie, Deuteronomy 43:12.

[xix] See Jerusalem Talmud, Tractate Nedarim, at page 30b, based on Leviticus 19:18 and Sifra, Kedoshim, Chapter 4:12.

[xx] I note in passing, Hillel restated this principle as don’t do unto others that which is despicable to you, which he described as the essence of the Torah (See Babylonian Talmud, Tractate Shabbos, at page 31a).

[xxi] Babylonian Talmud, Tractate Brachot, at page 61a.

[xxii] Babylonian Talmud, Tractate Makot, at page 24b.

[xxiii] Babylonian Talmud, Tractate Yevamot, at page 62b.

[xxiv] Numbers 25:14.

[xxv] In the case of Zimri, see Numbers 25:9, which records 24,000 died in the plague that resulted form the sin of Ba’al Peor. In the case of Rabbi Akiva’s 24,000 students, see Babylonian Talmud, Tractate Yevamot, at page 62b.

[xxvi] Babylonian Talmud, Tractate Yevamot (page 62b) speaks of the failure to show each other mutual respect. Genesis Rabbah (Chapter 61) describes the condition as having a malevolent (crooked eye) disposition one towards the other. The Talmud reports that the students were stricken with askara (diptheria), which constricts the mouth and throat. The Maharsha (on Yevamot 62b) explains that, in essence, the mouth and throat that acted as the vehicle for expressing the mockery were effectively shut down, in an example of ‘Middah K’Neged Middah’ (measure for measure) justice.

[xxvii] Ibid.

[xxviii] Avot 2:10.

[xxix] See also Sefer HaTashbetz, Part I, 178:2.

[xxx] Mishne Torah, Hilchot Teshuva 4:5.

[xxxi] Shenei Luchot HaBrit, Aseret HaDibrot, Rosh Hashanah, Derech Chaim 71, by Rabbi Isaiah HaLevi Horovitz, a 16th century Talmudic scholar, known as the Shelah, an acronym based on the first letters of the title of this work.

[xxxii] From Maimonides, Mishne Torah, Hilchot Teshuva 4:4.

[xxxiii] Deuteronomy 4:4

[xxxiv] Babylonian Talmud, Tractate Sota, at page 14a. See also Shenei Luchot HaBrit, Aseret HaDibrot, Pesachim, Ner Mitzva 106.

[xxxv] See Deuteronomy, Chapter 4.

[xxxvi] Deuteronomy 4:2 and see Kli Yakar commentary thereon.

[xxxvii] Rabbi Abraham Isaac HaKohen Kook, a 20th century sage and the first Chief Rabbi of Israel in modern times.

[xxxviii] Arpelei Tohar, on page 20 of PDF version, online at, Sifriah Virtualit.

About the Author
Leonard Grunstein, a retired attorney and banker, founded and served as Chairman of Metropolitan National Bank and then Israel Discount Bank of NY. He also founded Project Ezrah and serves on the Board of Revel at Yeshiva University and the AIPAC National Council. He has published articles in the Banking Law Journal, Real Estate Finance Journal and other fine publications.
Related Topics
Related Posts