World of the Sages: Brazen attacks on contributors

What is the most appropriate response to audacious criticism?

mishna 88 (photo credit: )
mishna 88
(photo credit: )
Community leaders often have to face brazen individuals who, under an altruistic guise, shamelessly try to destroy anything positive, besmirching the good name of contributors without regard for the damage inflicted or anguish caused. To be sure, leaders are not infallible; as we all know, they can err. Effective leaders recognize their shortcomings, should be able to admit blunders and appreciate constructive critique. Nevertheless, for people who give of their time and energy for the betterment of their environs, a scathing personal attack can leave deep scars. Bald-faced attacks on leaders are not a new phenomenon. Upon concluding his silent Amida prayer, the great leader Rabbi Yehuda the Prince would add the following supplication: "May it be Your will, God our Lord, and the Lord of our ancestors, that You save us from brazen individuals and from the trait of brazenness, from an evil person and from an evil mishap, from the evil inclination, from an evil companion, from an evil neighbor, and from the destructive Satan, and from a harsh judgment and from a harsh legal adversary, whether it be a member of the covenant or whether it not be a member of the covenant" (B. Berachot 16a). Having completed the requests enshrined in the Amida for communal well-being, Rabbi Yehuda, known simply as Rebbi, would add a heartfelt request for Divine protection from all manner of evil, first and foremost from brazen individuals. What is the nature of this brazenness? Commentators explain that these are people who issue heartless personal attacks that are often difficult to counter (Abudraham, 14th century, Spain, and others). Indeed, the Talmud comments that Rebbi would offer his prayer, even though he had bodyguards by the order of the Roman emperor Antoninus. These personal guardians protected Rebbi from those who stood against him, but could not safeguard the scholar from scathing personal onslaughts. From such harm, Rebbi turned to the Almighty for protection. Thus Rebbi followed in the footsteps of King Solomon, who acknowledged: "Unless God watches over the city, the watchman keeps vigil in vain" (Psalms 127:1). Elsewhere the Talmud relates that Rebbi was confronted by a brash personal assault (B. Shabbat 30b). An individual approached Rebbi and charged: "Your wife is really my wife, and your children are really my children," thus insinuating that the accuser had an affair with Rebbi's wife, and the children Rebbi assumed to be his own were in fact the issue of the accuser. The charge was a serious one, for not only was the accuser casting aspersions on the fidelity of Rebbi's wife and endangering the future of their relationship, but had the charge been true it would have rendered the children mamzerim, forbidding them to marry within the general Jewish community. The Talmud continues, relating how Rebbi saw no use in retorting or refuting the scandalous claim for this would only have embroiled him in a fruitless argument. Rebbi even refrained from calling the accuser a liar, for surely the accuser would retort: "It is not I who am the liar, but you, Rebbi, who is the liar!" If anything, honoring the allegation with a serious response would only have succeeded in giving credence to the accuser and weight to his words. Instead, Rebbi offered him a glass of wine, as if to thank him for bringing the matter to his attention. Unsuspectingly, the accuser drank the wine and his body exploded, putting an end to the accusations. A further anecdote relates how Rebbi's student, Rabbi Hiyya - and according to some versions of the story Rebbi himself - was once accosted by a similar charge: "Your mother is my wife, and you are my child," insinuating that the scholar's lineage was doubtful and he should be considered a mamzer. Once again we are told that the accuser met his demise after drinking a proffered glass of wine. Rabbi Aharon Levin, one of the leaders of Polish Jewry before World War II who served in the Polish Sejm and tragically perished in the Holocaust, related to the challenges facing community leaders through the lens of Rebbi's prayer. He notes that people who steer clear of communal responsibility are never the target of the scornful attacks. Conversely, people who contribute to society are almost perforce going to be criticized, for it is impossible to satisfy the whims of everyone. Furthermore, detractors are often the types of people who exude negative energy, always complaining and never acknowledging positive endeavors. What is the most appropriate response to audacious criticism? Rabbi Levin states that leaders need to be aware and prepared for such assaults that come with public office. Moreover, they should try their utmost to ignore callous individuals, for they seek only to destroy and harm, not to build and repair, and their words are naught in the face of achievement. Rabbi Levin's approach may indeed reflect the bitter experience of those who give of their time and energy for the betterment of the community. It is little comfort, however, knowing that the words of these bad-mouthers should be ignored, blown away as chaff by the wind. When we give of ourselves to the community we leave the privacy of our own domain. It is at these moments that we are so vulnerable, as we have given of mind, body and soul, providing an opening for inconsiderate criticism. It is at these times that the nasty, stinging words of such ungrateful constituents hurts most. Indeed, character assassination may be inevitable, yet when it comes we are still wounded. Alas, most leaders do not benefit from the Divine protection afforded to Rebbi, and our false accusers do not miraculously burst. The only solution, therefore, is to turn to the Almighty, beseeching Him to save us from such bitter people. It is interesting that Rebbi formed this appeal as the conclusion of his silent prayer. We have adopted this request as part of the first blessings with which we open our day before stepping out into a landscape that often appears heartless. The writer is director of Advanced Programs at the Pardes Institute of Jewish Studies, teaches at Midreshet Lindenbaum and is a rabbi in Tzur Hadassah.