The Chazon Ish’s Advice for Columnists

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Rabbi Shlomo Lorincz relates in his fascinating memoirs a story involving the Chazon Ish that should be required reading for anyone involved in public speaking or writing.

At the outset of his long career in the Knesset, Rabbi Lorincz sought the Chazon Ish’s approval for every speech. On one occasion, the Knesset scheduled a debate on the nomination of Chaim Weizmann to a second term as president. Rabbi Lorincz prepared a hard-hitting speech explaining why Weizmann, a long time opponent of the Old Yishuv in Jerusalem and someone who had rebelled against Torah observance in his own life, was not fit to be president.

On his way to the Knesset to give the speech, he stopped at the house of the Chazon Ish to review the speech with him. The Chazon Ish was unavailable so Rabbi Lorincz gave the speech to one of his friends, and asked him to show it to the Chazon Ish. Meanwhile he continued on to the Knesset.

Soon after arriving in the Knesset, Rabbi Lorincz received notification from the Speaker that he was scheduled to speak next. Since he had not heard anything from the Chazon Ish, he assumed that the speech had been approved. Just then, a Knesset usher brought Rabbi Lorincz a telegram that the Chazon Ish wanted him to “bury” the speech. No reason was given.

When Rabbi Lorincz next saw the Chazon Ish, the latter shared his cardinal rule for any public speech: “Before a person speaks, he must know what he hopes to achieve with his words.” Then the Chazon Ish applied his rule to the case at hand.

The speech, the Chazon Ish pointed out, would not prevent Weizmann from being re-elected. His election was already a foregone conclusion. Nor was there any duty to protest in the case at hand, or hope that the protest would be heeded. Therefore the only possible effect of the speech would be to leave Weizmann bearing a grudge against the Torah community – a grudge he might be in a position to act upon sometime in the future.

ANOTHER EXAMPLE FROM DAYS LONG GONE, demonstrates the potential adverse consequences from failing to take the Chazon Ish’s strictures to heart. Over the years, the Law of Return has been debated many times, and various amendments proposed that would have explicitly defined a convert for purposes of the law as “one converted according to halacha.”

During one of those debates on “Who is a Jew?” a chareidi MK began quoting from a Reform “siddur” to highlight its many deviations from the traditional nusach. In the course of his speech, he became increasingly heated, until he threw the “siddur” on the floor.

When Rabbi Moshe Sherer, the president of Agudath Israel of America, heard what had happened, he immediately knew that trouble was brewing. He was right. The throwing of the “siddur” became an international cause celebre. The press even added a few juicy details of its own, including as a false report that the MK had spit on the “siddur.”

Rabbi Sherer wrote to a colleague in Israel that he would have strongly advised against the action in question because “anything that is so extreme always has the opposite effect.” His rule might almost be considered a corollary of the Chazon Ish’s principle that one must always evaluate every word in terms of the ultimate goal. Certain actions and words, by their very nature, are bound to distract attention from the speaker’s original intent.

Thus the extreme expression of contempt for the Reform movement, rather than highlighting Reform’s deviations, only served to put the accuser on the defensive. Instead of being able to make his case, he spent the next week forced to defend or clarify his actions. And that was Rabbi Sherer’s point: Extreme statements or actions tend to focus too much attention of the propriety of the statement or action, and remove all attention from the point being made.

Making the type of calculations demanded by the Chazon Ish has become even more difficult. In times past, one could more or less limit one’s calculations to the impact on one’s immediate audience. Today any speaker or writer can count on the fact that his words will be broadcast around the world. As a consequence, he must take into account not only his impact on his immediate audience but on a whole slew of other possible listeners or readers, and balance the two.

A few years ago, a certain speaker at a convention of Agudath Israel of America, with whom I am close, made fun of the Reform movement’s claim that it can serve as an antidote to the alienation of Israel’s Jews from all things Jewish. Given the abject failure of Reform in America, he said, that was akin to bringing the mass murderer Pol Pot back for a second try at running Cambodia. A strong analogy no doubt, and red meat for the immediate audience.

Little did the hapless speaker know that the editor of the Federation-sponsored Jewish Week was in the audience. His remark ended up as a banner headline in the next week’s Jewish Week, where it did little to convince anyone of the dangers of religious pluralism in Israel and much to fan hatred of Orthodox extremists.

I was reminded of these long-forgotten incidents when a rabbi in Cleveland who is actively involved in kiruv work, wrote me that a certain line in a recent column had the potential to become fodder for angry sermons in heterodox congregations all over America, and would thereby distance many non-observant Jews even further from any interest in Torah.

The bon mot in question – a play on the similar sound of “rabbi”, as in “reform rabbi” and “rabbit” in English – was perhaps mildly amusing, maybe it even sharpened the point being made. But whatever was to be gained by its inclusion – primarily the author’s self-indulgence – was far outweighed by the potential cost.

Any writer trained by the Chazon Ish would have instantly recognized that. The trouble is that too few of us knew the Chazon Ish or have taken his dicta as ner l’ragleinu.

Originally published in Mishpacha September 13.

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17 Responses

  1. Baruch Horowitz says:

    ja,

    I agree with you. That’s why I think that ideally there should be a non-internet forum in the broader Charedie and Orthodox communities where grass-roots discussions can take place. The forum should be open to a very broad spectrum of opinions.

  2. Avigdor M'Bawlmawr says:

    To those who say we must protest a wrong, indeed, but who said it must be out loud? Sometimes it is enough to protest to one’s self, or a friend. When must it be public? That takes a chacham, and one must always be on guard for lashon hara “l’toeles.” If it gives you pleasure to say it instead of pain, perhaps one is not speaking l’shem Shamyim. Don’t we all the Agudas HaRabbonim debacle of a few years ago? Most secular Jews don’t understand the differentiation between Judaism and being Jewish. Famously, the comedian Billy Crystal, made public comment about it, to the effect that the orthodox had written him off as a Jew.

    When I think of powerful and effective tochachah, two famous stories of the Chofetz Chaim come to mind. I’ll just allude to them here, for brevity’s sake, assuming they’re broadly known. The first with the yeshiva bochur in Radin who was caught smoking on Shabbos. The second with the cantonist at the inn. In both cases, the Chofetz Chaim conveyed tremendous ahava, love, to the one to whom he was giving rebuke. Perhaps we, who couldn’t dream of such ahavas Yisrael, might try this in our own small way.

  3. Jewish Observer says:

    “The idea that we can shame someone into better behavior by throwing out crude epithets ”

    – you are obvisouly right. no one could have ever thought that better behavior would be the outcome. it is clearly about the need, justified or not, of the epithet thrower to do his thing

  4. ja says:

    We should all try to remain aware that blog posts and comments on the internet are public and can be widely disseminated and are occasionally mined by journalists. The potential audience is very diverse.

  5. Bob Miller says:

    It’s especially harmful to the cause of truth when claims made in its name against its enemies are exaggerated or not backed up by careful research.

    I’d like to extend the discussion to inter-Orthodox matters. How much ink and how many pixels have been wasted in making stereotype-ridden, nonsensical, even childish points against one another while we collectively face some really daunting threats.

    The idea that we can shame someone into better behavior by throwing out crude epithets was probably flawed even in the good old days.

  6. Jewish Observer says:

    “I think that the nature of any response depends on the forum.”

    take it a step larger. the decision to perform any action at all should be made within the context of the “end game”; i.e. does it get you closer to your goal, whatever that is. I agree with the poster who said that this piece of common sense is not that common, and that the CI should certainly get credit for stating it. my point is that once we hear something like this that makes good sense, it should become obvious and we should assimilate it as common sense. Then we won’t have to come on to treating it as the “guidance of a godol”, which is not as potent a stimulator to our own behavior as something we ourselves feel in our gut to be true.

  7. The Hedyot says:

    Your sentiments are much appreciated, however the reality of the situation is much less clear. So many of those who would do well to heed your advice can easily counter with examples from Rabbinic leaders where they proudly displayed their acerbic wit, mocking their opposition with as much gusto as they could muster, displaying an almost admirable indifference to the potential fallout from their statements.

    In addition, they can also point to the notion that many people feel that vocally protesting a wrong is imperative even if no constructive effect will be achieved, merely for the goal of not allowing oneself to be desensitized to the situation. They feel that one must not remain silent in the face of an anti-torah position or situation, even if their protestations have no effect on the situation.

  8. Baruch Horowitz says:

    I think that the nature of any response depends on the forum. As Rabbi Rosenblum points out(I can cite other examples as well), history has proven that ad hominem attacks, or derisive remarks in general, detract from the strength of one’s position. Orthodox spokesmen are then left putting their energy into defending ill-conceived remarks made, instead of dealing with the issues and advancing arguments. Mocking avodah zara has its place, but rabbonim familiar with the secular world should advise writers or speakers when it is appropriate, and when it is not.

    In debates in the secular world, if a person makes derisive remarks about a person or a position, then they lose points in the audience’s eyes, because it makes their argument look weak, even if it is in fact not. Hella Winston indeed criticized such less than intellectual critiques of heterodox theology in a New York Times Op Ed this past April.

    I think that we can do better than just using derision against heterodox movements. Torah is called Toras Emes(Torah of Truth), and its superiority is strong enough to allow us to make intellectually rigorous arguments for it. When showing weaknesses in heterodox theology as well, our arguments can be made without resorting to derision.

  9. YM says:

    Of course the Chazon Ish should be credited for stating what some consider “common sense”. This is a sense that is unfortunately not so common. I try to follow these words at meetings at work.

  10. Jewish Observer says:

    How would we have thought we should be behave if not for this “chiddush” of the Chazon Ish?

  11. HILLEL says:

    The net effect of your article is to preclude any hard-hitting ridicule of the Reform and Conservative movements.

    This would be a tragic error, since many ignorant Jews think that those groups represent Judaism.

    The MALBI”M on Mishle specifically advises the use of ridicule when addressing a purveyor of foolhardy ideas, in order to show the audience that those ideas are not to be taken seriously.

    The Chazon is, according to your article, specifically allowed this to be done when “there is a duty to protest.”

  12. Joe Fisher says:

    On the other hand the Gemorah in Avoda Zara recommends that we make up nicknames that are davka sarcastic, not just euphemisms, for Avoda Zara. The laws of lashon hara recommend that in some circumstances it is advisable make fun of someone who publicly denies the Torah.

    And Rashi in Beraishis says HaShem wrote ‘naase…Adam’ even though ovdei avoda zara could indeed claim it was evidence for them. BeDavka.

    So. How scared do we have to be of our enemies? I would distinguish between forums. It may be a mistake–not an aveirah!–to tease reform clergy to their faces. But maybe it is okay to make fun of them on our own fora. We can’t be afraid to oppose what we do not believe in just as much as we support what we do believe in.

  13. Rabbi without a cause says:

    As a darshan I can offer a resounding AMEN to these comments.

    More, as a parent I must agree as well. How many times do we try to convey important ideas to our children, but accidentally add other ideas or actions that serve to distract from, and weaken, the key message?

    In my experience, all speech is a form of chinuch, and the rules that apply to one apply to the other in some measure.

  14. L.Oberstein says:

    Once again Jonathan has shown that he is the right person to explain Chareidim to the outside world. If only his American Democratic values were shared by more people in our world. The stridency and deprecation of the other person’s opinion is too much fun, it seems, for many of our speakers and writers. It is to Rabbi Sherer’s lasting credit that he kept the Agudah in the US one group and didn’t let it split like in Israel. maybe we can be so altruistic here because it doesn’t involve all the money that is tied into Israeli politics.
    Rabbi Berel Wein has been saying for years that we should stop writing these stupid articles exposing how devient Reform is. Now, the Conservative Movement is about to impload due to their total disavowal of halacha when they allow gay marriages ,etc. It is the end of Historical Judaism and the start of neo historical Judaism. By that I mean, they no longer can claim any relationship to halacha except in a way that insults halacha and those who take it seriously.
    However, that being said, I think there are enough honest Conservative Jews to argue the case.We don’t need to put in our two cents and make them martyrs.

  15. Ori Pomerantz says:

    All of the negative examples in this column were motivated by anger and lack of respect to their targets.

    One method to avoid this is to take the Chazon Ish’s dictum to heart and consciously judge the effect of each word on every possible audience on every public occassion (from speaking in the Knesset to commenting in a blog). This is difficult because it makes it impossible to speak spontenously and passionately.

    Another method is “Heve Dan Kol Adam Likaf Zchut”, judge everybody favorably. If you assume that people are doing bad things because they are evil, you will naturally be angry and have to fight your evil inclination to avoid expressing this anger. If you assume they are misguided and trying to do their best under mistaken assumptions, you will have a more respectful attitude and be more likely to convince them, or at least people who are neutral.

    Of course, this does not apply to clear enemies such as the Hamas or Al Qaeda. However, nobody in the Orthodox camp wants to go “Eliyahu” on Reform Rabbis, complete with a show off on Mt. Carmel and subsequent slaughter (I Kings 18). Opponents deserve a respect that enemies do not.

  16. Shmuel Bergenfeld says:

    Correct me if i’m wrong, but is putting Reform “siddur” in quotation marks, implying scorn and derision for Reform Judaism, a very good example of “evaluat[ing] every word in terms of the ultimate goal??”

    Then again, being that you are a spokesman for the Agudath Israel, your criticism probably applies to yourself as well :)

  17. Dov Kay says:

    I agree with everything you write. However, the PR lesson being taught could be found in any decent PR manual or, I daresay, by resorting to common sense. I don’t see the point of invoking the great Chazon Ish merely to prove that one should exercise common sense before opening one’s mouth. Common sense does not become more cogent just because it is practised by great people, and I do not believe it does great people credit to cite their common sense, as if we should be surprised.

    It is also somewhat ironic that it is the Chazon Ish being used as an example of moderation, given his well known praise of kana’us (extremism) and denigration of moderation as a mindset. Perhaps only a Chazon Ish could know when extremist behaviour was called for, which would explain why his acolyte needed to have his speeches vetted, and why this leaderless generation should just stick to common sense.