The Chazon Ish’s Advice for Columnists
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.