When is mockery legitimate?

24 bAdar

What do you do when you enjoy a colleague’s witty, acerbic satire of other Jews, but you feel that perhaps one should not mock people, even if you believe their derekh is mistaken? That is how I felt when I read Eytan Kobre’s article Playing (for Time) (March 19) deriding the Conservative movement’s current quandry below in Cross-currents.

In the Purim issue of the Jewish Observer R. Yisrael Rutman analyzed the statement from the Talmud Megilla 25b “All ridicule is forbidden,except the ridicule of idol worship.” R. Rutman cites the Talmudic examples of when mockery is legitimate.

Rather than proferring derision, I suggest we offer a life-preserver to those who are on the Conservative movement’s ship which is about to break apart due to the eventual legitimization they will give (sooner or later) to ordaining rabbis who engage in mishkav zakhar (sodomy) and related activities. There are a number of rabbis and lay people who could fit into the milieu of the modern Orthodox and modern haredi lifestyle.

For example, several decades ago I lived in a city in Israel in which there were many modern Orthodox along with a dozen families of rabbis and lay people who had been associated with JTS and the Conservative movement. Since the only game in town in those days was the national-religious school and synagogue, those Conservative Jews davened with the Orthodox and sent their children to the Orthodox schools. While many of the parents never switched ideological loyalty, their sons went to yeshivot hesder and yeshivot gedolot, their daughters attended ulpanot, covered their hair after marriage and raised large families. The young men and women were learned and serious. Most of the generation that grew up in Israel are strictly observant today.

A few years ago I talked with Prof. Ismar Schorsch (soon to step down as Chancellor of JTS) at a brit milah of a mutual friend. He noted then that since the JTS rabbinical students come there after at least 4 years on US college campuses where mishkav zakhar is condoned, it isn’t surprising that they will push for similar legitimization of these activities when they get to JTS (he added somethng to the effect that the modern Orthodox will soon have this problem also). He strongly opposes such legitimization of a halakhically forbidden activity.

He gave a poignant speech this week at the Conservative Rabbinical Assembly meeting in Mexico City, as reported in the Forward — Conservative Rabbi, in Swan Song, Warns Against Liberal Shift. The Forward wrote:

Prof. Schorsch offered the most specific articulation of the meaning of Conservative Judaism during his speech Sunday. Conservative Jews, he argued, are primarily distinguished by a commitment to Emet V’Emunah — truth and faith — an embrace of critical Torah scholarship coupled with a view of Halacha as a binding, albeit evolving, process.
“The Orthodox surely have Emunah,” Schorsch later told the Forward, “but they don’t accept critical scholarship. And the Reform certainly have critical scholarship, but they don’t accept the legitimacy of the halachic system. We’re distinctive because we are trying to wed both.”

I don’t agree with his statement, but I understand his pain. Again, I suggest we find ways to help those who want to continue to live a life of halakha and talmud Torah to feel comfortable in Orthodox homes and institutions. We can learn a lot from them (about organization, planning, derekh eretz) and they from us. I do not suggest we be patronizing or engage in noblesse oblige.

Is this possible?

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 www.cross-currents.com.

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15 Responses

  1. Bob Miller says:

    Part of my own Jewish growth (not to suggest that I’ve reached a high level!) was in realizing what ideas, leaders, institutions, and organizations were phony. In my earlier, more ignorant condition, how would I have reacted to sharp attacks against these things? In fact, I became very aware that others rejected them, and that actually made it easier for me to detach from them. I’m very glad for my own sake that the Torah world did not smother these leaders, institutions, and organizations with love. This is not to suggest that everyone reacts like me, but it’s at least a counterexample to the theory above.

  2. HILLEL says:

    As usual, a great post by one of my favorite writers.

    The issue of ridicule of fools and evil-doers is addrssed by the great commentator Malbi”m in King Solomon’s book of Proverbs (Mishle).

    The Malbi”m explains that, when you are contending with such people, you must not talk to them seriously, because the onlookers might get the mistaken idea that there might be some truth in what your opponent is saying.

    Instead, says Malbi”m, you must ridicule him to the effect that his confusion arises from his weak and drunken mind.

  3. joel rich says:

    I think you mean we SHOULD engage in Noblesse Oblige = Benevolent, honorable behavior considered to be the responsibility of persons of high birth or rank.


  4. Steve Brizel says:

    The chancellor of JTS does protesteth way too much. R D Saul Lieberman, despite his expertise in critical scholarship, had zero influence on the drift away from the pretensions toward halacha that one found in the Conservative movement.Every year, we see more seforim printed from Kisvei Yad of Rishonim and the Shulchan Aruch. Noone who considers himself a serious lamdan learns without a Frankel Rambam, Mossad HaRav Ritvas, etc etc.

    Many alumni of Camp Ramah and USY in the US switched to MO a long time ago without any fanfare when they saw that Conservative Judaism was not going to be a coherent movement. Ask R Y Rosenblum for his experience in this regard. IIRC, R Bulman ZTL handedhim a copy of Dr Sklare’s work on CJ and that clinced the argument against CJ. Perhaps, in EY, R and C are perceived as American imports that just lack any attraction to the average not yet frum Israeli.

  5. mycroft says:

    I agree ith Mrs. Schmidt. Scarcasm has no place in public discourse-BTW it should be banned in chinuch. Many went “Off the Derech” due to scarcasm of people who shouldn’t do it.

  6. DovBear says:

    Though I am someone who sees sarcasm as his blogging bread and butter, I still must salute Shira Shmidt’s thoughtful, measured, and sensitive post.Though Shira doesn’t present it this way, I agree that those we wish to influence, and welcome and include, should not be afflicted with our withering sarcasm. It’s a lesson the other members of Cross Currents would do well to heed, unless, as, has been suggested, they’ve completely written off irreligious Jews.

    (Cynics will say that I am appluding this post because it’s views coincide with my own. Nothing I can do about that.)

  7. Yaakov Menken says:

    While a reality check has never previously been known to affect DovBear, I’ll try anyway: no one who has “written off” irreligious Jews would see reason to write for Cross-Currents.

    I am, though, relieved to note that DovBear hasn’t been trying to influence us in all this time. I thought it a small tragedy that he was wasting so much effort for naught.

    Though there’s no further need to ask my opinion on whether sarcasm is sometimes appropriate, I do have more to write on the subject.

  8. Yosef718 says:

    >>>But being smug and sarcastic isn’t going to win you any supporters, nor is it going to win your form of observance any supporters.

  9. Jewish Observer says:

    My proposal for a Cross Currents guideline regarding sarcasm:

    Allow sarcasm aimed at Conservative, Reform and Modern Orthodox but nothing insensitive about Charedim.

  10. David N. Friedman says:

    I applaud Shira Schmidt’s posting and as a Jew on the ramp up towards increased involvement, I am looking for the ways and means to “jump ship” to Orthodox Judaism. Policy changes at the JTS may short-circuit my development and force the issue. Chancellor Schorsh has managed to fend off liberlization by holding the gate and this will likely come to an end with the end of his term. Liberal politics overwhelms Jewish tradition in the Conservative world and Jews in the Conservatove movement will soon be paying the price.

    From the latest edition of United Synagogue Review, the JTS trips over itself to re-explain and define itself. One can see that all the straining and all the posturing to explain oneself comes at the price of coherence and therefore, it is not surprizing that at least two of the authors pre-emptively object to the accusation of incoherence.

    Consider this statement by one of the authors:

    “It is harder too affirm a middle point on any spectrum, for then it is necessary to have the maturity, intelligence, psychological security and wisdom to exercise judgment and to live with inconsistencies. On the other hand, the great advatage of affirming most middle positions is that life is usually neither one extreme nor the other, but somewhere in the middle. So the neatness, clarity and psychological security that is sacrificed in taking a middle position is more often made up for the fact that it describes the real world and offers insights into how to live in it. It may be easier and more comfortable to pretend that the world is simpler and to live your life that way, but ultimately that requires shutting yourself off from the real world. There is a considerable price to be paid for doing so.”

    The author therefore contorts the issue completely and states to himself that clingint to what he considers to be a middle ground regarding truth and the law that he is avoiding the supposed pain of a supposedly simpler life in favor of a worldview that appears to the author to be more sophisticated and nuanced. This is obviously the midset of many liberals who cling to a brand of ivory-tower elitist thinking that has its own logic and rules. It appears that the very notion of objective, revealed truth is what is most abhorent in their eyes because it might bring about clarity and psychological security whereas the goal of psychological insecurity and ambiguity is the desired mental state. Perhaps the goal of ambiguity is a dodge that masks deeply held beliefs that are contrary to the stated norms in the same way that a man who does not wish to marry a certain woman will see only ambiguity instead of love. Ambiguity merely puts a soft face on sincere doubt and heretical belief. I have a very hard time coming to terms with all the talk in the JTS about tradition, the claim of autheticity and moral purpose since if this brand of Judiaism was truly authentic, the thick stack of explanations and re-definitions would not be necessary.

    Jews once believed we had a mission in the world and we were a people united by a doctrine. Now we are a people divided by those who seek to have a supposedly pleasing mental state based upon a posture that is clung to in fear of appearing to be unsophisticated in the eyes of liberal peers who lack any kind of real knowledge or sophistication in the first place.

  11. Charles B. Hall says:

    I could add an additional reason why we should not engage in mockery: It is bad for our own midot. Engaging in mockery is a path that leads to us becoming cynical people with negative attitudes toward everything that isn’t the way we like it. Not only is that bad psychologically, it isn’t consistent with the admonitions of our great mussar literature. Mockery can encourate lashan hara and sinat chinam. It divides religious Jews from other religious Jews of different hasgafic practice and alienates non-religious Jews. It is a self-inflicted wound. It can give us a momentary shot of self-satisfaction, but it drives people away from Torah. And it can even drive religious Jews away from other religious Jews; note the antagonism between religious Zionists and charedim, or between right and left wing modern orthodox. All unnecesary.

    I also differ with David regarding the paragraph he quotes. To the contrary, we are obligated to follow the middle path in most character traits; see Rambam’s Hilchot De’ot. Arrogance is the one trait for which we are forbidden to follow a middle path. Can anyone engage in mockery not based on arrogance? Judaism — and I’m speaking of mainstream rabbinic “orthodox” Judaism, not the heterodox movements — is not a religion for someone who needs to avoid paradox. We in fact live with paradoxes both in basic beliefs as well as in some halachic practices. HaShem is all-knowing yet we have free will. HaShem is all good and all powerful yet evil is real. It is a mitzvah for a man to wear tefillin on chol hamoed if he is a German Jew, but it is a mitzvah for a man NOT to wear tefillin on chol hamoed if he is Sefardic. Shabat ends 45 minutes after sunset on Saturday night — or 72 minutes. “These and these are the words of the living God.” While we agree with the existence of objective truth, we are limited in our ability to perceive and understand it. And we should let our arrogance to allow us to pretend otherwise.

  12. Harry Maryles says:

    Prof. Schorsch offered the most specific articulation of the meaning of Conservative Judaism during his speech Sunday. Conservative Jews, he argued, are primarily distinguished by a commitment to Emet V’Emunah — truth and faith — an embrace of critical Torah scholarship coupled with a view of Halacha as a binding, albeit evolving, process.

    This quote from “The Forward” made me reflect on the very nature of the differences of theology between Orthodox and Conservative. It would seem clear that the change in the way the Conservative Movement innovates Halacha …and attribution of all biblical narrative as allegorical makes this theology heretical in nature. This is in fact the Orthodox posture. But the distinctions between the two have been somewhat blurred as of late. Does the blurring of these distinctions make a difference in how we should look at the movement? Should our attitudes towards the movement change or remain the same? For those interested I wrote an essay on my blog at http://haemtza.blogspot.com/2006/03/conservative-movement-is-theology.html dealing with this question.

  13. Bob Miller says:

    David N. Friedman,

    In view of your objections to the direction of Conservatism these days, do you personally feel offended now when an Orthodox writer verbally attacks leaders (as opposed to followers) of the Conservative movement? The movement itself?

  14. David N. Friedman says:

    To Bob Miller, I believe Conservative leaders must be criticized and it is my belief that the criticism must come first from Conservative Jews.

    To Charles Hall, as I believe I stated Judaism indeed calls for the “middle path” and it moderation is the goal for many pursuits–this is why Jews ahve a healthy attitude towards eating and drinking, sex and charity to the stranger–just to cite a few examples. This is not at all what was discussed byt the Conservative, Elliot Dorff, regarding the middle path since he was speaking about the law. A middle gorund on homosexuality calls for ignoring or moderating the law so that we are ambivalent. A middle ground on Sabbath observance means that when it is convenient, we can violate the Sabbath. If we are speaking about moderation, we need to be specific about what we are moderating. In another context, moderation in the defense of liberty is no virtue as Barry Goldwater said, and for the Left, they will seek no middle ground when it comes to their own sacred cows. 40 million abortions is not extreme in their eyes.
    One might be Orthodox but it is “extreme” to be “fervently Orthodox” and to be Orthodox is to be extreme in the first place. If one has the belief that their was revelation on Har Sinai, this is fundamentalism and “moderation” requires ambivalence about God. This is what Ellit Dorff has in mind when he is speaking about moderation. He is not suggesting that one should eat modestly and buy a less extravagent home than one for $5 million. He is saying one must assume the position of ambivalence towards normative Jewish beliefs.

  1. March 24, 2006

    […] Shirah Schmitt finally brings reason back to Cross-Currents. And so, it seems, has Ismar Schorsch. in Shirah’s case, I’m glad someone has decided to call for an end to the mockery going on. It’s all fine and well if you don’t agree with the derech chosen by the Conservative movement, and as long as you express your disagreement in a civil manner, I have no problem with that. But being smug and sarcastic isn’t going to win you any supporters, nor is it going to win your form of observance any supporters. The liberal movements cannot be expected to show you the respect you deserve if you don’t return the favor. By being sarcastic, you only encourage more derision, and that derision isn’t going to stop unless either side recognizes that there’s no need to express disagreement by descending to the level of rudeness. Derech Eretz is a mitzvah too. I also agree with Rabbi Schorsch when he says that the past shouldn’t be discarded lightly. And what is this with folks going to seminary to become rabbis in order to push their own agenda? Correct me if I’m wrong, but a rabbi’s job isn’t to push a personal agenda. It’s to lead a congregation, and/or make Halachic rulings, emphasis on Halachic. If you think the Conservative movement is twenty years behind Reform, then join Reform. Activist rabbis are like activist judges: We don’t need either. […]

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