Sunday 5 December 2021

361) What Can't be Said: Social Engagement in the Torah World


"Microphone" by visual.dichotomy is licensed under CC BY 2.0 


The internet crowd has been busy of late grappling with the question of how - or if - the exchange of information should be controlled. Should anyone be free to publish anything, anywhere? Is there an objective way to define things like "harmful misinformation" and even "truth" and "lies" so that filters could be applied fairly?

This post (which also appears on my Substack publication, B'chol Darchecha) will not address those questions, but they were its inspiration. So I'd like to explore how Torah law and practice might address the matter of free speech. How, in other words, citizens committed to Torah values might come to interact with each other. In a way, this post continues on from my Who Makes Decisions for a Jewish Community piece: that one deals with communal authority, while we're now going to think about whether that authority can be brought to bear on the way we share ideas with our peers.

What are the limits to free speech in halachic terms? Although it can be tricky to define, slander (loshon horah) is clearly forbidden. Speech that leads to property damage or personal harm is similarly off-limits. Exceptions exist when the speech is intended to protect a naive victim.

But what about ideas, facts, and civil dissent? What about coerced conformity? Should there be gatekeepers with the power to prevent the publication of offending speech? And who determines what's offensive?

All those questions are most applicable within a kind of formal kehila that, for all intents and purposes, doesn't exist. Most of us live in largely decentralized Jewish communities where we're more or less free to decide for ourselves what to read, hear, and adopt. But for two reasons, it's worthwhile thinking about how these things should be organized: because, one way or another, we may one day find ourselves living the kehila life. And because, for a number of reasons, a fully free exchange of ideas isn't always possible even now.

What's the Problem?

Why get all worked up? What's wrong with a community that errs on the side of caution? After all, the mishna in Avos (1:17) does teach us:

כל ימי גדלתי בין החכמים ולא מצאתי לגוף טוב אלא שתיקה

"All my life I grew among wise men and I found nothing better for the body than silence."

I suspect the source of that thought - Rabbi Shimon ben Gamliel - never intended for it to be applied as a public policy: it's an idea that wouldn't scale well. That's because an individual choosing to carefully reflect and consider consequences before speaking is showing admirable prudence, but imposing silence on a community is coercive and corrupting.

19th Century political philosophers like John Stuart Mill and Alexis de Tocqueville worried about the tyranny of the majority. That is, the risk that members of a dominant social faction might use their position to actively suppress the views of minority groups. While majority rule is a perfectly legitimate form of social organization, it can be misused to effectively eliminate all dissenting voices.

The delicate balance between respecting the will of the majority while not ignoring the legitimacy of dissent can be hard to find.

How Things Work in the Jewish World

Torah sources assume and allow for diverse opinions among people. Rabbi Aharon of Barcelona, author of Sefer Hachinuch (Mitzva 67), made two connected observations:

· The Torah's requirement that judicial disputes be resolved according to majority opinion demonstrates that disagreement is unavoidable.

· The fact that those in the minority are - for most purposes - not expected to abandon their positions, suggests that the system permits the creation of practical legal policy without altogether eliminating minority opinions.

This acknowledgement goes beyond legal issues. The Talmud (Berachos 58a) tells us that, in general, people think differently from one another just as their faces are different. So now, given the universality of disagreement and dissent, how are we to manage the public conversation within the Torah world?

Let's begin by talking about how things are managed right now. In a practical sense, the public speech we're exposed to is largely controlled by platform gatekeepers. Those include:

· Newspaper, magazine, and book publishers and the owners of popular Jewish internet sites who decide what should be published

· Prominent rabbis who offer or withhold their approbations (haskamos) to publishing projects

· Leaders of educational institutions who, through public addresses or private mentor relationships, express their preferences

· Public bans or pleas associated with groups of rabbis

There's nothing intrinsically wrong with any of that. Effectively, those are all private platforms - in many cases they're for-profit businesses - whose members (or customers) voluntarily chose to participate. With very few exceptions, none of them even claims to represent the full Jewish community. And even if their policies or language reflect only narrow beliefs or practices, they don't and can't shut down or forbid all excluded speech.

Thus, there's nothing stopping anyone from building a new platform and using it to share his own thoughts with anyone who might be interested. If you don't like a lot of what passes for public discourse in the Jewish world these days and have a different message you'd like to share, go right ahead and share it.

Nevertheless, dissenting opinions are, effectively, silenced. I've personally heard many ranking Torah authorities and publishing industry insiders complaining about the important voices and ideas that should be heard, but aren't. And the range of excluded opinions seems to regularly grow.

The precise mechanism driving these changes is unclear. But it's likely that the thousands of younger educators staffing the crowded classrooms at all levels of the yeshiva and Bais Yakov movements play a large role. They're the ones - still fired up with the heady idealism of their own formative school years - who have the greatest potential influence over their students. (And I know whereof I speak, having myself taught Torah at the high school level for decades.)

Whatever is shaping these changing popular preferences, the practical problem is mostly one of economics. Book publishers can't afford the possible blowback from a controversial product that attracts the wrong kind of attention.

Why not?

Because Jewish book stores would no longer stock their other titles.


Because most of their customers trust that anything on their shelves will be appropriate for the whole family. One noisy controversy, and that trust can be broken.

Things work much the same way for Jewish magazines, newspapers, and websites. Even senior Torah leaders will censure themselves out of fear they'll lose all influence over their communities or even that they'll be physically attacked.

Perhaps there's no one person to blame here. But the fact remains that some beliefs and attitudes go mainstream and eventually dominate, while others - often boasting stronger links to tradition and quietly supported by important figures - will be marginalized and eventually ignored. If the opinions of all citizens should be accounted for - as that earlier article suggested suggested - but those opinions are silenced, then are the rights of all citizens properly served? And what important opportunities for change and growth have our communities missed?

There have been some exceptions. In the first decade of this century, for example, a few renegade internet bloggers managed to bypass the gatekeepers to advocate for victims of pedophiles employed on yeshiva faculties. But it's worth noting that, because the existing establishment made no room for dissent through "official" channels, the damage done to community institutions by outsiders desperate to be heard was far greater than it had to be.

Pushing back through another century and a half of history, we see how Rabbi S.R. Hirsch forcefully challenged the prevailing establishment position with his extended and very public battle for austritt (secession) from the general Frankfurt kehila. Though vigorously opposed by reform and even many orthodox rabbis, Rabbi Hirsch used his own publishing platform - the monthly Jeschurun journal - and even the general press to push his ideas into the public eye.

I don't know whether, as a matter of principle, Rabbi Hirsch would have approved the use of similar publication methods for his opponents. I guess it's within the realm of the possible that he would have subscribed to a free and open marketplace of ideas for everyone in the Jewish community.

I'm certainly not suggesting that there should be official public forums where anyone can speak their mind. That, at its very best, would be a chaotic disaster. And, in any case, it's not the community's responsibility to provide such a forum. I also don't feel that today's gatekeepers should be forced to promote more voices. That's simply unfair and, in any case, who's to decide which voices deserve to be added and which should remain silenced?

My B’chol Darchecha is a platform that, among other things, aspires to take up the cause of the victim and neglected. But there should probably be others besides.

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