To Ignore or Confront Controversy?

When controversy erupts in the Torah world, should we refrain from discussing it or should we engage in respectful but frank debate? I was ambivalent about which way to go with respect to the recent brouhaha involving Rabbi Ovadia Yosef. I discussed the two options with rabbinic authorities familiar with media issues, and they indicated that both options were good choices in this instance. I opted for the public discussion approach. I wonder now whether the benefit/cost ratio (a technique we honed during my engineering school days) might be higher with the “be silent and let the controversy die down of its own accord” approach.

My op-ed article on the issue appeared in the Jerusalem Post Tuesday, 4 bAdar II (March 15) “Translating Rabbi Ovadia Yosef” . In the essay I tried to discuss the controversy from the viewpoint of a translator, although some readers saw the essay as engaging in apologetics (a respected branch of rhetoric that defends and justifies theological positions).

In the essay I analyzed the furor caused by a statement of former Chief Rabbi Yosef that the press interpreted as wishing ill to Prime Minister Sharon. Those who were in Israel last week were treated to hourly news bulletins on the subject during a 48-hour media feeding frenzy, until a clarification by Rabbi Yosef was broadcast wishing Sharon a long life and the wisdom to recant the unilateral disengagement.

I pointed out that

Most of us also communicate in different registers, according to the circumstances. Rav Ovadia’s constituents admire the often blunt, no-holds-barred straight talk that the Rabbi uses in public sermons. M.I.T.-trained Dr. Moshe Leibler points out that Rav Ovadia’s spoken language is both popular and populist. Scholars and academics admire the sophisticated and nuanced literary level of the Rabbi’s written oeuvre and his stunning output in breadth and depth in dozens of carefully argued volumes of halakhic writings. One is reminded of Mozart who composed divine music, while his correspondence often contained scatological expressions.

In the past months there have been other controversies; the ban by top Rabbinical authorities on various books is an example. Does the airing of controversies in the haredi and general media contribute to rihuk rehokim, distancing further those who are already distanced from Jewish tradition, as one of my critics charged? Or does public discussion demonstrate that the Orthodox world is self-critical and heterogeneous, as well as relatively open-minded and confident enough not to fear controversy?

In the matter of Rav Yosef, there were two extremes. The (secular) Israeli radio and television discussed the subject obsessively, with every talk show, call-in radio program, news bulletin, and daily newspaper highlighting it. In contrast, I combed three haredi dailies and weeklies and could not find any mention of the controversy at all. Perhaps there is nothing better than silence in such cases (“Lo matzati laguf tov mishetika”)? Maybe vis-a-vis my Jerusalem Post analysis one could say s’charo yotze bhefsed? (benefit/cost ratio less than 1.0)

I am ambivalent.

Shira Schmidt

Shira Leibowitz Schmidt was raised in an assimilated Jewish home in New York, and became observant while studying at Stanford University in California. In June 1967 she told her engineering school professor she would miss the final exam because she was going to Israel to volunteer during the Six Day War. “That’s the most original excuse I have ever been offered,” he responded. She arrived during the war and stayed, receiving her BSc in absentia. She subsequently met and married the late Elhanan Leibowitz, and they raised their six children in Beersheba. Mrs. Leibowitz acquired a Masters in Urban & Regional Planning from the Technion, and an MSc in Civil Engineering from University of Waterloo. Today she lives with her husband, Dr. Baruch Schmidt, in Netanya. She co-authored, with Nobel prize-winning chemist Roald Hoffmann, Old Wine New Flasks. She has co-translated from Hebrew to English (with Jessica Setbon) From the Depths (the autobiography of Rabbi Israel Meir Lau); The Forgotten Memoirs (memoirs of Rabbis who survived the Shoah, edited by Esther Farbstein); and Rest of the Dove (Parashat Hashavua by Rabbi Haim Sabato). She and her husband appear in the documentary film about the Sanz-Klausenberger Rebbe, “Hidden Face.” She is available to lecture in Israel and in the US and can be contacted via

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3 Responses

  1. shira X says:

    “in apologetics (a respected branch of rhetoric that defends and justifies theological positions).”

    this here appears to be your mistake. do you think your apologetics were defensible – that is, do you really believe ROYs statement was acceptable if properly understood? If so, you are engaging in explanation, a legitimate defense of a misunderstood position.
    If you are apologizing defensively, the article was a mistake and you’d have been better off being quiet.
    The article reads like (b); you “Explain” or translate ROY and then basically chastise him for not following Bruria’s and his own advice.
    So why did you expect to win converts?
    You basically think he was wrong.

  2. Menachem Petrushka says:

    Living Gedolim are not “ArtScroll” Gedolim. They are saintly human beings not demi-gods.
    Rashi in Parshas Shoftim addresses the issue by telling us that the Torah demands we adhere to the judges(Gedolim) in our time even if they are not “ArtScroll” Gedolim.

  3. Michoel says:

    One of us needs to re-read that Rashi.

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