Denouncing Wrongdoing

“Hypocrisy is the homage vice pays to virtue.” A variation of Voltaire’s famous maxim might be that unequivocal public criticism is the price the virtuous community must pay to vice.

David Klinghoffer challenged me to produce sources to demonstrate that it is ever appropriate to criticize other Jews. In my last two posts, I have tried to show that there are indeed circumstances in which the obvious prohibitions – lashon hora, ona’as devarim, public embarrassment, and self-aggrandizement through the shame of another – all do not apply. The next step is to show why denouncing wrongdoing is sometimes not just permitted, but is laudable.

Truth be told, my major disagreement with David is whether there is a need to cite chapter and verse at all. The Gemara often states that no Scriptural proof-text is needed for a position that is rationally demonstrable. Denouncing evil within our community – by the right people, at the right time – in my mind is so clear, that no further proof is necessary. I wonder whether David’s residing on Mercer Island in Seattle leaves him out of touch with the realities I experience in my part of the galaxy.

Those realities are best introduced by a story. Some years ago, a non-Jewish journalist of great influence did a piece that many of us found strongly offensive. I wound up taking him to lunch, and broaching the subject of our disagreement only at the end of a very amiable meal. I learned that he was much closer to an appreciation of Israel’s predicament than I had thought, but still made some one-sided demands upon her that I thought were unbalanced and unfair. I called him on it. Why was he so ready to demand what he thought was the moral high road from Israel, without any parallel demand on the Arabs?

I will never forget how he leaned across the table, amazed that I could be so stupid. “Why do I expect more from Israel? Because you are Jewish!”  (For the record, he is extremely bright, and has no malice towards Jews.  His remark was uttered in complete innocence.  We have since become fast friends.)

I vigorously protested the double standard, which I had to do. It is public suicide to accept the notion that we should be tolerated only when we live up to more exacting demands than the rest of the world. But my heart was not completely in it. He had touched an important reality – one that I knew had a strong basis in Torah thought.

The world expects Jews to take righteousness and principle more seriously than they sometimes do. We should not be surprised. It is an occupational hazard of a people that volunteered to take the Word of G-d and take it to uncharted territory.

How can Hashem call us a special “treasured people,” because “all the earth is Mine?” If all people are His, then no one is special! The Meshech Chochmah explains that the notion of a single Creator is so widespread that indeed all of the earth is His. The Jewish people are treasured because they demonstrate the difference between lip service to G-d, and genuine G-d consciousness. This is the raison d’etre of the Jewish people. We are not the only ones who have heard this.

Consciously or otherwise, large parts of the world understand that the Jewish people act as G-d’s PR agency. We are all employees thereof. The failure of any one Jew in that role is a stain on the Torah’s record. The more affiliated, the more visibly Jewish a person is, the greater his or her capacity to disappoint the expectations of a critical world. This is what we call chilul Hashem, desecrating G-d’s Name.

David asks if we are less likely to be human than others. I find this entirely irrelevant. A large part of our task is to elevate and even transcend our humanity, through the content and discipline of the Torah. To say that we are only human is to deny the teaching of the Gemara Kiddushin: “I created the evil inclination; I created Torah as its antidote.”

Am I embarrassed when a high-profile Jew is caught in the public eye acting in a less than perfect manner, fully aware that I am at least equally imperfect? You bet I am. I am embarrassed not for myself, but for the Shechinah.

What happens when Jews mess up? The worst Jew haters wheel out the Collective Guilt machine for double duty. The good folks out there – both non-Jewish and Jewish! – expect at least a condemnation of the misdeed from other Jews. Perhaps they think we are all created in the image of the Biblical Prophets, who never ceased inveighing against misconduct in their own community. Perhaps they feel that protesting is the very least that people can do after a crime is committed; it is the only defense against the repetition of the sin by others. Perhaps they feel that those who are truly repelled by evil would not and could not sit by the sidelines and observe it without comment.

The expectation is both routine and harsh. When we fail to condemn, they don’t miss the opportunity to condemn us. “See those nasty Orthodox! If they wouldn’t accept the shortcomings of person X or group Y, the least they could do is criticize.” Even within the Orthodox community, a failure to speak out is met with chagrin by many people.

Need everyone get into the act? Of course not. But it is important to realize how widespread is the expectation that good people decry evil, even when it is too late to change its course. Many understand the need for community leaders to issue some sort of statement. (I do not recall David protesting when national leaders were strongly critical of a major Torah figure for what struck some as intemperate, inaccurate, and otherwise non-PC statements about the spiritual cause of Katrina’s devastation of New Orleans.) But we should not be oblivious to the fact that many of the rest of us may be leaders in a smaller sense in our own orbits. If a group of coworkers standing around the water cooler happen to be talking about a malefactor whose Jewishness, for whatever reason, has also become a matter of public discussion, it might be prudent to seize the initiative, and forcefully distance oneself from the behavior. The individual perpetrator does not even have to be named, but it might help to say that Judaism finds that kind of behavior repugnant, and that is what we teach our kids.

If David still wishes sources, I’ve marshaled two, and hope our readers will come up with more. The first is a Nimukei Yosef to Yevamos 65B. The Torah makes it obligatory to rebuke a sinner. Much of the halachic discussion surrounding this obligation deals with sinners who will simply not listen to any rebuke offered. Is there any point in rebuking, when the rebuke will fall on deaf ears? Nimukei Yosef writes there is, so as not to offer an “excuse” to the evildoers. Although he deals with someone who is in a position to rebuke before the commission of the crime, not after, his essential point may be applicable. Failure to speak out against some transgression is taken by observers to indicate less than complete resolve against that evil.

A second source concerns Dovid (the king, not Klinghoffer) and the Givonim. Dovid sought Divine counsel regarding a devastating famine. He was told that two transgressions were the cause of Divine retribution. One was the suffering endured by the Givonim (a group whose mass conversion was suspect, and were not accepted as full members of the community.) They lived in the employ of Kohanim (priests), and when Shaul wiped out the city of Nov and its Kohanim, the Givonim suffered greatly.

Dovid attempted to appease them. They refused all offers, insisting instead on the execution of seven sons of Shaul. By Divine instruction, Dovid had to comply. (The blood lust of the Givonim, however, ended the halachic debate concerning their status. Since compassion is one of the three defining characteristics of the Jewish soul, Dovid took their behavior as proof positive that the Givonim’s conversion had been a sham, and that they could be regarded thereafter as definitely non-Jewish.)

After the executions, the bodies of Shaul’s sons were left on public display for months, in apparent contradiction to the Torah law that demands that a body not be left in disgrace, but buried expeditiously. Rav Yochanan explains, “It is better that a letter of the Torah be erase than that the Name of Heaven be desecrated.” The Gemara reports that a huge number of people converted to Judaism in the aftermath, so impressed were they that the Jewish community was so determined to right a wrong committed against “spurned converts,” i.e. a marginalized group outside the usual protection of the law. (Sounds like Indian tribes, doesn’t it?)

It was the public display of the bodies – not the retribution exacted against Shaul’s family – that was the cause of the kiddush Hashem. It was the public declaration that we distanced ourselves from the evil committed by another Jew.

What still needs to be resolved is who should be making such declarations, and upon what occasions. I thought that they are called for whenever the Jewish identity of a wrongdoer is itself part of the news. Rabbi Bleich, to whose wisdom I bow, disagreed. The actions of a single Jew are best left uncommented upon, he said. Decent people will not blame the Torah community for the misconduct of an individual here or there. People who are not decent are not going to be influenced by our condemnations. Misconduct by large groups of Jews, or by very rabbinic looking figures, or by national leaders – like Shaul, in the Gemara’s example – are different.

I continue to believe that those of us who speak or write primarily within the Jewish community – at least those of us who are read beyond the limits of the observant community – have a real mandate to publicly distance ourselves from Jewish wrongdoing, within the parameters of otherwise permissible speech.

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19 Responses

  1. HILLEL says:

    While we should not justify what Abramoff did, we have an obligation to put his deeds in context–“He-ve dan es ha-adam lekaf ze’chus.”

    Abramoff is basically a decent person who stayed in Washington to long. He was corrupted by the easy-money, easy morals atmosphere of power and privilege that pervades the place.

    He convinced himself that it was O.K. to take the money of Indian gambling interests, since that money was not really legitimate earnings, anyway.

    We should also look at the issue of selective prosecution. Why was Abramoff singled-out for prosecution; who singled him out, and why?

    The answer, as you may realize, is that the left-wing press singled him out in order to use him as a tool to attack the Republican Party’s majority in the House of Representatives–scandal works in politics, as witness what just happened in Canada with the ousting of Liberal Party prime Minister paul Martin in the wake of financial scandal.

    Abramoff os being used as a tool to discredit Republicans in Congress who are simply doing what almost everone else does there–raise political funds by taking short cuts and catering to special-interest lobbyists.

    Abramoff assumed that he was not doing anything unusual, and, indeed, if not for the campaign against Bush and the Republicans by the left-wing media, he would have been allowed to continue.

    I personally think we are obligated to make these points, so that Abramoff will be seen in the correct context– a victim, not a predator.

  2. ori says:

    HILLEL is partially right. Since Abramoff has free will, I don’t think he can be viewed as a victim. However, the fact is that living in a corrupt community corrupts – that’s why when Abraham haggled with G-d for Sodom, he stopped at ten righteous men. If there aren’t nine other righteous families in a city, one shouldn’t live there.

    Staying too long in Washington politics is dangerous to one’s morals. We should probably recommend to people to avoid that.

  3. Bob Miller says:

    Hillel, are your comments above based on specific facts you know about Abramoff’s thoughts and motivations or are they stated to be melamed zechut where you don’t know the specific facts? Also, do you believe that, in his position, you would have or could have acted as he did? (These actions include his decisions in choosing clients and lobbying methods)

  4. southern belle says:

    I am astounded. Hillel, Ori, are you for real?

  5. HILLEL says:

    I am not a close personal friend of Abramoff, but I know a number of people who are.

    Abramoff has championed many noble political causes for decades. He has given charity generously.

    As a volunteer worker for conservative Republicans, he made many important connections among up-and-coming conservative politicians who genuinely admired and respected him.

    It was just too easy to parlay these connections into lobbying for cash. This is what virtually everyone else does in Washington–former Senators and Congressmen become lobbyists, so do former generals and colonels.

    It is totally normal in Washington. There is no other way for politicians to raise the mega-millions needed to run a media-intensive poltical campaign in America today.

    Honest politicians, like Senator Tom Coburn, who is a practicing Gynecologist, are the exception, not the rule.

  6. David Klinghoffer says:

    Rabbi Adlerstein has responded eloquently and intelligently as always to an important question — but I must say, with respect, not yet the question I asked.

    I asked for a source giving us the obligation or permission to keep publicly reviling and humiliating a fellow Jew AFTER he has already confessed, repented, abased himself, apologized, and accepted a severe punishment. That is the case with Jack Abramoff. If I’m not mistaken, neither of the sources cited above addresses this set of circumstances. Cross-Currents, among other Jewish voices, was still categorizing JA as an “evildoer” almost 2 weeks after he publicly repented. Of course this was mild compared with the writings of another Orthodox rabbi, associated with the Edah, in the Jerusalem Post. Here is the relevant Washington Post article with the language of JA’s quite moving act of contrition:

    Well, I’ll keep waiting.

  7. EV says:

    Hillel says, “[Abramoff] convinced himself that it was O.K. to take the money of Indian gambling interests, since that money was not really legitimate earnings, anyway,” notes his charitable work, and further argues that Abramoff should be seen as “a victim and not a predator.”

    Please, these are shameful apologies for someone who took wrongful advantage (with glee if his emails are indicative) of people who only until recently have been able to keep their heads above water. This is not a case of a Robin Hood taking from the rich to give to the poor.

    I hail from West Texas, Tigua and Kickapoo Indian territory. Until gaming possibiities opened up, these were struggling communities, especially the Kickapoo who, until the last few years were about as poor as can be imagined. A community of hundreds lived landless, in cardboard huts and sharing a single spigot of water. Their rise from complete destitution to self-sufficiency has been compassionately related by the city manager of Eagle Pass here:

    What Hillel calls “not legitimate earnings” was the Kickapoo’s first real crack at making a living for themselves. I won’t exonerate the gambling industry, but if one goes by the city manager’s account, it could be argued that these Indians’ earnings were more legitimately gained than by what Abramoff stooped to.

  8. Ori Pomerantz says:

    Southern Belle,

    As far as I can tell, I’m real, and the views I express are my own. Of course, I could be a purely imaginary construct in somebody else’s mind / computer who thinks he is real. I can’t disprove that.


    You said: It is totally normal in Washington. There is no other way for politicians to raise the mega-millions needed to run a media-intensive poltical campaign in America today.

    That is precisely the reason why avoiding the profession of politics is a good idea for people who are corruptible. Very few people set out to be corrupt politicians, yet most of those who succeed end up there.

    We need some level of government, but probably less than what we have. If people trusted politicians less, expecting them to be corrupt, we’d be able to downsize it.

  9. Yitzchak Adlerstein says:

    David –

    And I thought you were going to give me a much harder time. Apparently you’ve conceded the argument, save for the fact that you think that JA has repented. I think you will have a difficult time sustaining your position. We’re talking about chilul Hashem here. The repentance of the wrongdoer does nothing to mitigate the chilul Hashem! How could it? (Perhaps this is part of the reason why the Gemara Yoma says that teshuva is ineffective for chilul Hashem.) Again, the point of any public criticism is not to punish. Punishment is not our business. Our job is to distance ourselves from the behavior. I completely agree with you that there is no need or justification to dwell upon the details concerning the wrongdoing. Our task is simply to say to whomever is looking at us critically “lo zu haderech” – this is not the way of Torah Judaism.

    Besides, even if repentance were an issue, it is something only G-d can factor in. Human beings can’t and don’t make it part of their equation. (See Maharal, Nesiv HaTeshuvah, chapter 2.) Those who do make this argument generally do so from within the thinking of a religion that spun off from Judaism quite a while ago.

  10. David Klinghoffer says:


    Actually I haven’t conceded anything.

    Before JA admitted guilt, I said let’s give him the benefit of the doubt. Now that he’s admitted guilt and berated himself in public, I wondered what moral good there is in our continuing to berate him before the world. If this were a case of a convicted but unrepentant Jew, I would agree with Rabbi Adlerstein. But certainly in Torah, circumstances and precedents count for something, don’t they? I asked for something quite clear and simple, which was a Torah precedent for continuing to kick a fellow Jews after he’s already abased himself in public. Alas, you still haven’t given me a source or a precdent. If the case for kicking is so clear, why can’t you give me a source? I think I’ll leave it at this. Anyone who wants further information can see my articles in the Forward and the L.A. Jewish Journal, here:

  11. David Klinghoffer says:

    I would also ask, at what point does the total absence of empathy in the Jewish response to a repentant sinner itself become a chilul Hashem?

  12. Eliezer Barzilai says:

    The Talmud in Mo’eid Koton 16a discusses the laws of ‘nidui’ and ‘cherem,’ which are categories of excommunication. These laws are set out in Shulchon Oruch Y’D 334. The Rambam in 24 Sanhedrin 7 states that an essential purpose of this public objurgation is to educate the community as to the severity of the behavior. The Bayis Chodosh in Ch’M 2 states that there are two types of ‘cherem;’ one is imposed as a punishment, and the other primarily as an deterrent example. It is, therefore clear that the Talmud not only allows but also requires public condemnation both as punishment and as a lesson to the community. A deterrent is of little value (pace Peter Sellers) if it is not made public. I think that most would agree that a lesson that teaches both the evils and the dangers of chilul hashem is of vital importance.

  13. Eliezer Barzilai says:

    The concern about our heatlessness reminds me of a story I heard about Rav Aryeh Levin, known as the Tzadik of Yerushalayim, the Saint of Jerusalem. During the British Mandate, he often visited Jewish prisoners. An acquaintance once found that he was visiting a particularly vile inmate, and he asked R’ Aryeh, how can you show him any pity? The Rambam says about such people that it is “prohibited to have mercy on them!” R’ Aryeh answered, “what a pity on such a man, who is so lost that it is prohibited to have mercy on him. I must visit him more often.”

    I wouldn’t worry about “a total absence of empathy.” If anything, excessive empathy is one of our weaknesses.

  14. HILLEL says:

    David Klinghoffer is right.

    Abramoff has publicly repented. So why are we still beating him up?

    Because the left-wing media need him as a battering ram to destroy the Bush Preisdency and the Republican Congress. They will keep this issue alive till the next election.

    Why are we Orthodox Jews playing the role of “useful idiots” in this left-wing attack on the President and his party?

  15. Steve Brizel says:

    Hillel-Since when is Chillul HaShem excusable or even jsutifiable? Your comments would excuse many known past , present and future instances wherein our community should condemn, rather than rationalize such conduct, if taken to their logical conclusion. I think that we should have long ago dispensed
    with the view of blaming the messenger, rather than admitting the conduct in question was wrong.

  16. HILLEL says:


    I believe you misunderstood my comment.

    I did not excuse the behavior. I said that Abramoff had acknowledged his misbehavior and apologized, so why are we still beating up on him?

    I suggested that we are walking, mindlessly, in lock-step with the radical left-wing media, who seek to keep the issue alive as a club with which to beat-up the President and the Republican Congress.

    Is this prudent behavior on our part? What does this have to do with Chilum Hashem?

  17. 4jkb4ia says:

    Good post.

    Hillel, one corrupt lobbyist will not bring down the Republican Congress this year. It depends how many Congressmen can be tied to him. On (cough) Kos (cough) the issue has slightly moved on to the corruption of Blunt and Boehner, the two candidates for Majority Leader.

  18. HILLEL says:

    Dear 4J:

    One corrupt lobbyist will not bring down the Republican Congress, but 1,000 articles about the lobbyit will!

  19. greenBubble says:

    Rabbi Adlerstein
    I tihnk the concept that Chilul Hashem isn’t forgiven without death is a matter of Bain Adam LaMakom. However, it does return a person to a Cheskas Kashrus vis-a-vis his peers.

    The Gemara says that if you see a Tzadik sin at night, assume in the morning that he did Teshuvah and is again a Tzadik. The Gemara does not distinguish between Bain Adam LaMakom and Bein Adam Lachaveiro. If a person gives Kidushin on condition that he is a Tzadik, it is valid; we presume he did Teshuvah. If he stole, Hirhur Teshuva would not help. Ergo, you must distinguish btween forgiveness and being a Tzadik.

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