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Laying Out the Middle Path on Speaking Up

Taking the middle path, avoiding extremes—the wise course laid out for us by Aristotle, Rambam, and most others since-- doesn’t sound hard, but it turns out to be.  Let me demonstrate with one example, the question of when to speak or write publicly about a disagreement with how a fellow Jew or Jews live their lives.

The extremes would be to weigh in each time we don’t like how someone else acts or to never do so, and today’s world has Jews at each of those extremes.  We have those ready to blast the other side in every controversy, whether or not it involves them, whether or not they have anything worthwhile to say, whether or not they can hope to influence anyone on the issue.

In my circles, the other extreme is more common, Jews comfortable with rejecting the value of ever giving voice to their discomfort with other Jews’ conduct. Repeatedly, people will say we shouldn’t judge others, we should live and let live, etc.  By showing why and how that extreme is wrong, I believe I can also lay out useful guidelines for a middle path. I note that I am not claiming to have achieved that middle path, only that I think I can articulate a balance for which to strive.

The Ethos of Tochachah

As Jews, saying we shouldn’t judge others seems to me a simple error, since it loses sight of the Torah’s contrary view. Hashem, after all, commanded us to remonstrate with our fellow Jews when they seem to be sinning or otherwise acting less than optimally.  I don’t raise that as a sort of halachic trump card—that the Torah says we should, case closed. The mitzvah leaves enough ambiguities to justify most of the ways caring Jews handle the question, as we’ll see. 

Rather, the mitzvah of tochachah reminds us that the Torah preferred we create a society in which we are open to hearing others’ remonstrations, and to be sensitive and gentle enough when offering constructive rather than offensive criticisms or concerns.  The Gemara already knew how few of us are able to handle either side of that interaction properly, but that doesn’t change the fact that the Torah thought it was optimal.

We can’t impose reality nor can we ignore our inadequacies, but we can remember the Torah’s ideal society.  It wasn’t one where others’ actions are none of our business, as if by right we shouldn’t form an opinion about others’ ways of life.

What Happened to Constructive Criticism?

The chief reason we allow ourselves to refrain from tochachah today, is by virtue of the fact that we assume it will be unproductive in two ways. First, the Gemara says that if one knows a person will continue doing whatever they are doing, מוטב שיהיו שוגגין, it is better to leave him in an ignorant state, when his sin is less of an affront to Hashem, than tell him what wrong he’s doing, thus converting his actions into willful and deliberate ones.  

Second, the halachah is that we only need remonstrate with others to the point that they lash out at us physically or, possibly, even just curse us or make their displeasure clear.  (It is unclear whether that applies across the board, or topic by topic—if I cursed someone for pointing out my lashon hara, does that pre-emptively absolve that person of the obligation to remonstrate with me about my other failings?).  If so, we may early on become convinced, maybe accurately, that any tochachah we offer will produce that reaction, and thus settle back into a frustrated silence, wishing we could be constructive, knowing we couldn’t.

True as that may be for the private actions of our fellow Jews (and vice versa for them to us), the calculus changes when we enter the public arena.  If one Jew takes a public action, there might be reasons to respond other than whether that Jew is open to hearing how he or she went wrong.  When someone acts publicly, there are three groups of people involved.  Some fully agree with the original action and won’t be swayed by anything that might be said to the contrary. There is no need or value in writing or speaking to them, since their minds are made up and closed. 

The two other groups warrant our attention.  There are those who agree that what those Jews did was wrong or suboptimal, but may waver without support or strengthening. We tend to assume other people have good reasons for what they do, so if we see people we like or respect act a certain way, we might tend to wonder whether we should rethink our position, to see how they’re either right or a reasonable alternative. 

The last few decades have shown a remarkably rapid shift in Western attitudes on several questions of morality, teaching us how vulnerable our well-reasoned moral opinions can be  simple to peer pressure.  Not responding to someone else’s breach of existing standards sometimes eases the way for bystanders to begin to question their prior views.

There is also often a middle, people who do not see or understand what’s at stake.  Their first instinct might be to assume both sides have good reasons for their choices, and be agnostic between them. We can hope that clear and effective presentations will show such people that what looks like a two-sided debate is sometimes actually a question of right or wrong.

It thus seems to me that the most crucial part of the calculus of entering a controversy is whether there is an audience who will be well served by our doing so.  The next question is whether we have anything productive to add, other than being another signature on a list.  Let me share some rules of thumb for how we can decide.

Target Audience

The first question, I think, is whether our contribution will find an audience—if the only ones who will pay attention to what I write or say are already in full agreement with me, who would never question their views, I would question the value of wading in.  To decry problems in communities far to the right or left of me, for example, where my only readers would be those who obviously agree, and who are so distant from those communities that it is hard to imagine their being influenced by them, smacks a bit of schadenfreude.

I can’t really pretend Satmar Hasidim or Reform Jews are going to take seriously my ideas about how they should fix their religious world.  To publish articles about them doesn’t have any clear productive element to it.

Unless, that is, I have reason to worry that people in my own community, however I define that, are being influenced.  If Reform Jews were pushing the idea that there will not be an individual we call Mashiach who will lead the final redemption, and I saw Jews in my own community (broadly defined) coming to accept that idea, it might be worth addressing.  The same would be true if problematic ideas from the right were making their way into communities with which I affiliate.

Within my community, broadly defined, is a different story. Even here, it would seem futile to write or speak about a problem no one will address, but we can wonder at the percentages of the words “no one.”  If 10% of readers will think carefully about an article, is it worth upsetting many others to reach that otherwise ignored populace? What if 90% of readers would be stimulated to think it through again? Where in between are our lines?

Something to Say

The next important question is whether we have anything to contribute.  For people with a certain influence, just announcing their view is enough, since some people will accept their say-so. For most of us, though, the fact of adding our voices to a debate has little impact (the plethora of bloggers notwithstanding).

There are two ways even people without inherent influence can enrich a conversation. First, we might have an importantly different way of looking at a topic, which can point to useful ways to think about it that others have not yet noticed.  Second, we might see an unequivocal aspect of the debate—where one side has failed to notice an explicit and normative source. Putting that out there, too, seems worthwhile.

Saying It Well and Not Too Often

We should also be careful with how we speak about a topic, and how frequently. While it is often tempting to speak or write snidely or snarkily, and I have certainly been guilty of this, there are several reasons to avoid it.  It distracts and detracts from the important question at hand—people avoid rethinking their positions, and tone and tenor offer them an easy out. It also can lead to turnabout, poisoning the civility of a conversation.  Finally, it calls into question a crucial element of all this, that we be sure we’re doing it for the sake of finding the best ways forward for all Jews, not to lash out at others who irritate us.

Perhaps along the same lines, it’s vital to pick our battles.  To always have a complaint is to be a curmudgeon, dulling our impact when we do speak up. Choosing our spots carefully can maximize the likelihood that we will contribute meaningfully when we do feel impelled to enter a fray.

As I said at the outset, there are no universal road signs to the middle path.  By first eschewing the extremes of jumping into every controversy, going ballistic about every wrong or, on the other end, justifying an apathetic silence by enunciating a false ideal of not judging others, we force ourselves to ask the tough questions that help us find the middle road.  Our answers may differ, but asking the right questions is the indispensable first step. I hope I’ve helped show what at least some of those questions look like.

Rabbi Dr. Gidon Rothstein received semicha from Yeshiva University (RIETS) and a PhD from Harvard. He has authored several books, including We’re Missing the Point, Murderer in the Mikdash, Cassandra Misreads the Book of Samuel, and Educating a People: An Haftarah Companion As a Source of a Basic Theology of Judaism, available online.