The Immorality of Moralizing Absent Dialogue and Engagement

Expressing moral indignation by tweet, shouting or holding up placards with pious slogans or strident cries of outrage may be among the least effective means of winning hearts and minds.

I presume it makes the moralizers feel extremely virtuous; because otherwise why do it? Yet, it must be frustrating for some to realize they are not really reaching people. Perhaps, this feeling of impotence accounts for some of the violent outbursts contrived to attract attention. However, this course of action is even more ineffective in convincing people of the justice of a particular cause. If anything, it only serves to draw attention to the pernicious actions of the offenders; negating any reasonable consideration of the principles they purport to espouse.

It is curious that many activist leaders often refuse to participate in any real debate. What are they afraid of? Don’t they understand that their aloofness is perceived to be a sign of arrogance and lack of real concern? Moreover, it is often taken to mean that the asserted legitimacy of their cause cannot be defended.

What happened to engaging listeners and having a genuine dialogue about a matter? I miss the debates where each side presented cogent arguments supported by evidence and moderators posed challenging questions to elucidate the positions and enlighten the audience. In my experience, the most effective debater was one who respectfully and forthrightly presented the other side first and acknowledged what might be correct about their position. He or she then challenged what was asserted to be incorrect and backed it up with solid facts and arguments. The credibility earned by this kind of a balanced approach was incomparable. Is it any wonder that the Talmud[i] extols this kind of approach[ii]?

How about personally helping someone in need, instead of just talking about it or bemoaning the deficiencies in others? The Mishna[iii] encourages us to talk less and demonstrate, by personal example and effort, the good deeds that can be performed to help others. It also counsels us to engage everyone with a pleasant countenance. The combination of doing good with a smile is a powerful method of communication and one worthy of emulation. The inspirational effect can be infectious; unlike rebuke and recrimination that are often just punishing and produce no salutary result. Indeed, harsh admonishment can be paralyzing and, instead of motivating positive action, the consequence all too often is inaction.

Given this entirely predictable result, the morality of choosing this inappropriate means, over personal engagement, dialogue and positive example, is questionable. So is the disdain or even hate exhibited by some moralizers in response to those who don’t agree with their sentiments, which is even more morally suspect. Why engage at all when solace can be found in a separately identified group that often coalesces around a single issue with single-minded determination? Never mind that these groups hardly ever accomplish anything of substance; it feels good to belong to a self-identified elite group of self-proclaimed virtuous and like-minded people and loudly condemn everyone else. Does this then account for the balkanization of politics? Is the proliferation of virulently anti-Jewish/Israel fringe groups, purporting to speak as Jews, a by-product of this trend?

These choices may be examples of ‘Sinat Chinam’, the mysterious syndrome that was reported to be a cause of the destruction of the Second Temple in the Talmud[iv]. The Hebrew words are often loosely translated as baseless hatred, although that definition may not do justice to the import of the term. Gratuitous may be a more accurate way of defining the word ‘Chinam’. It adds a layer of nuance because, although hate may have some basis, it is hardly ever fully justified, necessary or appropriate. Gratuitous hatred also rarely has any purpose and taking action based on or in response to it can be reckless, because of the real possibility of unintended consequences[v]. There is also the divisiveness it engenders. Thus, the Bible[vi], as interpreted by Resh Lakish in the Talmud[vii], enjoins us not to divide into numerous disparate groups. There’s room for everyone to express their diverse opinions; there’s no need to separate.

The Mishna[viii] decries any form of hatred of another person, which Bartenura[ix] characterizes as gratuitous hatred. The Bible[x] also enjoins hating someone in your heart; better to reprove[xi] the offending individual. This does not mean shouting rebuke and calumny. Hence, the Bible uses the Hebrew word L’Hocheach, meaning to prove and not other terms like to disgrace or shame, which are reprehensible. Reproof requires close personal engagement, establishing a rapport and marshalling and effectively communicating cogent arguments and supporting proofs. A high degree of skill is needed and the Sifra[xii] reports, even by Talmudic times, no one was genuinely capable of properly reproving another nor was anyone truly able to accept reproof. The Talmud[xiii], upon reflection as to the efficacy of reproof, is even more circumspect; concluding there is a duty to withhold reproof when it is unlikely to be heeded.

The Talmud[xiv] views publicly shaming another as wholly unethical and reprehensible; and it excoriates anyone who does so. Delivering a tirade in rebuke of another may generate a feeling of moral superiority; but it is pretentious and wrong. So too is the resentment it often triggers in the rebuked. The net effect is separation. Thus, as Rabbi Yonasan Eybeshitz[xv] so eloquently points out as to Biblical Joseph and his brothers[xvi], instead of sitting together, speaking and remonstrating with each other and eventually making some sort of peace with one another, they refrained from talking and listening to each other. In essence, like so many today, they demonized each other. It was tragic then and it is every bit as unfortunate when it occurs today. Moreover, as the Talmud[xvii] so poignantly concludes, the unintended consequences may be catastrophic. It was this kind of sordid behavior that was one of the major causes of the destruction of the Second Temple and the exile.

The Mishna[xviii] records Hillel’s sage counsel not to separate from the community, rely just on your own judgment or ever be judgmental about another person. To put this in perspective, the Talmud[xix] exquisitely records that despite the profound and fundamental disagreements between members of the Schools of Hillel and Shamai, they did not refrain from marrying into one another’s families. There’s one big tent, which accommodates so many different points of views.

The Netziv[xx] advises that suspecting someone because they act differently was the source of the separation among people that doomed the Second Temple. It appears this non-constructive attitude continues to dog us even today. There is no excuse for this kind of behavior. It matters not that the person does this out of a sense of extreme religious piety or socially righteous indignation. The result is the same; it undermines the social cohesion of society and brings civilization to ruin.

New ideas, creative thinking and unique perspectives may lead to innovation, which is fundamental to the development process. However, it is important to remember that it takes sign-on to bring a thought to fruition.

To those who say they are proud to be disloyal Jews and separate from their brethren, I urge you to reconsider. Come back, engage and start a dialogue. You may be surprised to find some common ground. Then again, you may also find that lonely judgments are subject to flawed reasoning or a lack of reliable data. The process of discussing ideas refines them, which is the traditional Jewish way of approaching the complex decisions of life. In any event, what counts most is the good people do, not what they think. Don’t be alone; let’s sit together and celebrate our manifold perspectives on life.

[i] Babylonian Talmud, Tractate Eruvin, at page 13b, which praises Beit Hillel for this kind of approach. See also Babylonian Talmud, Tractate Shabbos, at page 63a, where Resh Lakish notes that G-d listens when two scholars listen to each other. Rashi (on this Talmudic text) explains that they learn from and understand each other. The Shelah (Shenei Luchot HaBerit, Shaar HaOtiyot, Chaver Tov 5) notes that through this collaborative process, they both gain understanding and knowledge of the matter under discussion.

[ii] This ancient, time honored and treasured process of analyzing ideas and their manifold expressions is still practiced in the Beit Midrash, where academic freedom still reigns supreme. Personal attacks are proscribed; it’s all about discerning truth, after thoughtful discussion and incisive analysis.

[iii] Avot 1:15.

[iv] Babylonian Talmud, Tractate Yoma, at page 9b and Jerusalem Talmud. Tractate Yoma 1:1, at page 4b.

[v] See, for example, Babylonian Talmud, Tractate Gittin, at pages 55b-56a and Maharsha commentary thereon, as well as, Maharal, Netzach Yisrael, Chapter 5, Chiddushe Aggadot on Gittin. See also Eicha Rabbah 4:3. See also

[vi] Deuteronomy 14:1.

[vii] Babylonian Talmud, Tractate Yevamot, at page 13b.

[viii] Avot 2:11.

[ix] Ibid and see Rabbi Ovadiah of Bartenura’s 15th century commentary on this Mishna. See also the Pele Yoetz (a 19th Century ethical work, by Rabbi Eliezer Papo,) Chapter 356.

[x] Leviticus 19:17-18.

[xi] The Hebrew word ‘Hochiach’ is often translated as rebuke. However, it also means to prove; hence, the term reprove, as more fully discussed above.

[xii] Sifra 89a-b. See also Babylonian Talmud, Tractate Arakhin, at page 16b.

[xiii] Babylonian Talmud, Tractate Yevamot, at page 65b.

[xiv] Babylonian Talmud, Tractate Bava Metzia, at page 59a.

[xv] An 18th Century Talmudic and Halachic authority, in his Tiferet Yonatan commentary on Genesis, Parshat Vayeshav (Verse 37:4), at page 73.

[xvi] Genesis 37:4.

[xvii] See Babylonian Talmud, Tractates Yoma (page 9b), Gittin (page 55b-56a), and Shabbos (page 119b).

[xviii] Avot 2:4.

[xix] Jerusalem Talmud, Tractates Kiddushin 1:1, at page 4a and Yevamot 1:6, at page 8b.

[xx] Rabbi Naftali Zvi Yehudah Berlin, the noted 19th century sage and dean of the Volozhin Yeshiva, in his Haemek Davar commentary on the Bible, Introduction to Genesis 3.

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.
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