Should We Criticize Jewish Evildoers? – An Exchange With David Klinghoffer Part I

What started as a poorly constructed blog entry of mine has morphed into an ongoing exchange with David Klinghoffer.  Some of it has been public; some in the form of private correspondence between us.  With David’s permission, I am making bringing to light the originally non-public part of the exchange, for the edification and comments of our readers.  Since David intends to publish more pieces about the issue, I think this thread may be worthwhile.

It all began with an exchange on between Rabbi Eliyahu Stern and David.  Rabbi Stern excoriated Jack Abramoff for putting Jews and Judaism in a bad light.  David (hereafter DK) responded:

DK – Stern [Rabbi Eliyahu Stern] calls Jack Abramoff an “embarrassment to Orthodox Jews.” Why should we be embarrassed? Are we supposed to be so naive and childish as to think that no one wearing a kippah will ever act in an unethical manner and end up in the news columns for it? Am I supposed to be embarrassed that Orthodox Jews are human too?

Here’s where I came in.  I actually intended to praise Abramoff, not bury him.  I wrote that my guess on his much-commented-on donning of a black hat was a product of his wanting to minimize the chilul Hashem of appearing before the entire world in a yarmulke.  I wrote about this approvingly.  (David has since informed me that my guess is just plain wrong, and he will be publishing the real reason in a forthcoming piece.)  I then went on to differ with David about whether the rest of us should feel embarrassed by Abramoff.  (Unfortunately, I then made the mistake of writing about yet another issue.  What I wrote proved to be a bust, which I hope I recovered from through my explanation.  In any event, it deflected attention from the chief point of my blog – that the actions of any public Jew are seen by others as emblematic of Jewish values, and are therefore always potentially a chilul Hashem.)  I will reproduce what  I  (hereafter, YA) said, leaving out all the other areas we discussed besides the issue of denouncing malfeasance publicly:

YA – I am embarrassed that he is not embarrassed.  Of course we should be stung, pained, embarrassed when the activities of any Jew tarnish the reputation of the Ribbono Shel Olam Himself!  This is the essence of chillul Hashem:  diminishing the image of G-d’s greatness through the misadventures of those who, like it or not, are seen as His ambassadors.  The world expects more of observant Jews, and rightfully so.  We claim to live by His Word.  When that Word seems to be insufficient to prevent mischief, G-d Himself is seen as inadequate, c”v.   Being human is a reality, but not an excuse.  The world expects more of us, but so does Hashem.  He gave us a Torah to allow us to transcend our weaknesses.  When we fail to utilize the tools that He gave us to rise above our coarser selves, we have only ourselves to blame, not our humanity.

David replied by email:

DK – Hi Rabbi,  I was just reading your analysis of Abramoff and BTs. I’m writing a piece about JA for the Jewish Journal — may I ask you a few questions?  I’m aware of the idea of judging charitably as a big theme in hazal, as well as avoiding making oneself into a chilul Hashem, but I’m not aware of a Torah directive to publicly denounce another Jew (a la Jeff  Jacoby in the Boston Globe and on the Aish website, Rabbi Stern, etc.) when you feel he has become a chilul Hashem. Or am I missing something?

I couldn’t pass that one up.  Here is what I sent back:

YA – Well, I wouldn’t have phrased it so indelicately, but as long as the words are yours – gosh, yes.  You are indeed missing something.  Jews have been denouncing evildoers in their midst for as long as we’ve been around.  I can’t remember a period in my lifetime in which newspaper articles, wall-posters, etc weren’t denouncing some person or people.  (Admittedly, the process very often gets out of hand, and people are denounced not for genuine misdeeds but for unpopular opinions or – perish the thought – relying on the wrong eruv.  I’ve been on the denouncee list often enough to know.)
There is very good reason for this, and it goes back to where you and I part company on the chilul Hashem issue.  The actions of all Jews reflect on all other Jews, and more importantly, upon Torah and HKBH Himself.  This is certainly true of the actions of those who identify themselves as observant.  When we fail to criticize what needs to be criticized – publicly and forcefully – we are accused of agreeing, mbracing, covering up, etc.  We are seen as complicit accomplices when we do not take the minimum step or resisting wrongdoing: speaking out against it. Speaking out indeed is commonplace.  A list of incidents in which the speed and strength of such statements was or continues to be an issue is available upon request.

That did not satisfy him:

DK –  With respect, Rabbi, I believe you didn’t answer my question. You cited to me popular practices, and ones that many of us consider ugly and unfortunate. I meant to ask for proper Torah sources for denouncing the chilul Hashem of others, not least where the offender has admitted his offense and already faces heavy secular penalties. Please, give me sources to match in clarity and authority those that advise us, “He who judges his fellow man favorably is himself judged favorably [by God]” (Shabbat 127b); “In the measure with which a man measures, so is he measured” (Sotah 8b). Surely any obligation to criticize is over when the Jew in question has publicly abased himself, admitted his deeds, and is only waiting to find out his sentence. Obviously, Rabbi Lapin’s statement is an exception insofar as Toward Tradition, of which JA had been chairman for a while, needed to clarify its position in relationship to him on certain points. As for other Jews who never met Jack or had anything to do with him, they may feel embarrassed but where is the mitzvah to announce their embarrassment to the world? I would ask, Which is the greater chilul Hashem? One man who in a plea (which Time Magazine itself says was “squeezed” out of him) says he conspired to bribe public officials? Or Jews getting in line to kick a repentant fellow Jew after he’s already been publicly humiliated? My gut tells me, the latter.

P.S. I am embarrassed that you are embarrassed that I’m not embarrassed about Abramoff. Meanwhile you’re probably embarrassed that I’m embarrassed that you’re embarrassed that I’m not embarrassed. Well I’ll have you know that I’m embarrassed that …oh never mind. Shavua tov. 🙂

The last line proving that we can have this disagreement as friends, as it should be.

At this point, I propose to give David the answer he asked for, in the form of a non-authoritative halachic analysis.  It will take two more postings.  The first will try to show why condemning malfeasance is not halachically objectionable.  The second will show why it is necessary and called for.

Stay tuned.

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7 Responses

  1. Jonathan Rosenblum says:

    Anyone remotely connected to journalism must ask himself David’s question frequently. I can hardly wait for Yitzchak’s response.

  2. The Town Crier says:

    Reminds me of a conversation this past weekend when i dared to say “loshon hora” about jack abramoff to a person who in the same discussion talked trash about that “rasha” ariel sharon.

  3. shmuel says:

    Lobbysits buying influence in the government is almost as shocking as finding gambling in a casino.

  4. Larry Lennhoff says:

    I’m not aware of a Torah directive to publicly denounce another Jew
    More proof people don’t read Neviim. :>) Nathan and King David, anyone? Just one example, I’m sure people can come up with lots of others.

  5. mb says:

    “I’m not aware of a Torah directive to publicly denounce another Jew”

    Pinchas comes to mind. A rather extreme form of it though

  6. Anonymous in LA says:

    Has anyone considered recommending Abramoff consider the Mission Impossible option to satisfy headcovering halacha by wearing a toupee?

    One was used by actor Steven Hill in the series in 1966, who appeared on Mission Impossible before Peter Graves started in the second season.

  7. Shira Schmidt says:

    16 bTevet
    When Yitzhak Rabin was murdered, Rav Aharon Lichtenstein gave a sicha to his students at Yehsivat Har Etzion (the Gush). You can read it at

    There are many differences between the two cases (Jack Abramoff and Yigal Amir). Two are
    a)the former is innocent until proven guilty, confession (“adam mesim et atzmo rasha”) being halahically problematic; b) Amir murdered Rabin in the name of Judaism, whereas if Abramoff did what he is accused of, he didn’t do it in the name of Judaism.

    Nevertheless, the self-examination such a situation prompts might be in order. Here are a few segments from the lengthy analysis Rav Lichtenstein wrote a week after the Rabin assassination:

    Last week I visited mori ve-rabi Harav Aharon Soloveitchik … As soon as I walked in, he repeated over and over – “A badge of shame, a
    badge of shame.” For two days, he hadn’t slept, out of shame
    and humiliation. This shame, that our state, our people,
    should have fallen to such a level, should be felt by everyone
    – religious, secular, right and left. For to the extent that
    we feel any sense of unity within Am Yisrael, to the extent
    that we feel like a single body, then the entire body should
    feel shamed and pained no matter which limb is responsible for
    this tragedy.
    But naturally, this shame should be felt by our camp…It is indefensible that one who is willing to take credit when the sun is shining should shrug off responsibility
    when it begins to rain. Let us face our responsibility not defensively, but as Chazal would see it……Concerning one who worships the Molekh, the verse states, “I shall put my face against that man and his family (Lev. 20:5).” The gemara asks, “If he sinned, did his family sin? This teaches you that there is no family that includes an extortionist where they are not all extortionists, and none that includes a robber where they are not all robbers –
    because they protect him (Shevuot 39a).”
    Let us not fool ourselves – to a great extent we are all his family.

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