Tuesday, May 20, 2008

Mockery: The self-immolating fire of poor educators

Over the years, I have heard some very, very good Torah speakers.

Some have been more entertaining, some less. Some have offered deeper content, some more shallow material. Some have offered great oratory, others have been down-to-earth. Some have gone for gematria, others for philosophy, others for law, others for psychology; some I have agreed with, others I have not. Chacun a son gout; it’s fine to have variety, so far as I am concerned.

But I draw the line at one flaw in a speaker, and particularly in an Outreach speaker: Arrogance. Specifically, the arrogant assumption that there is only one way – not just in Torah, but in life in general – and that all who disagree deserve to be mocked.

Three examples:

1) Cultural values: The speaker who assumes that everyone should share his cultural values.

We once hosted a speaker who wanted to discuss the evolution of secular ethics. As part of his presentation, he talked about a Greek preference for gay soldiers – and then he did a brief parody of a gay greek soldier, with feather boa and mincing walk, leading a military charge.

Aside from the fact that the display was unprofessional and unimpressive, it was an offense to anyone who might not believe in mocking people for their sexual orientation. Further, it would certainly have offended gay attendees.

This is not the same as pointing out the Torah’s prohibition against homosexual activity. Point out the prohibition all you like – but don’t mock people who don’t follow it.

2) Israel values: The speaker who assumes that all Torah-believers automatically agree with his views on Israel and Zionism.

It is quite possible that a speaker will get a round of applause in some arenas by just mentioning Jonathan Pollard, or mocking Shalom Achshav.

That said, I know many Jews – Torah observant, knowledgeable Jews – who come down on the side of saying that we should not promote a Pollard pardon, and that we should actively seek territorial compromise in Israel. I do not necessarily agree with them, but I know they exist.

Therefore, an outreach speaker should not presume that the crowd will be on his side in these issues. He certainly should not – as I have seen done – argue that his view on these issues is the sole acceptable Torah view.

3) American Political values: The speaker who assumes that everyone agrees with his view of American politics.

When I hear a rabbi blast Barack Obama and mock Democrats, as though this was the only way a Torah-observant Jew could think, it makes me cringe. Yes, the junior senator from Illinois has some big question marks and exclamation points on his record, but do you really believe that all right-thinking people must agree with you?

From a speaker's perspective, mockery is just a sign that you've run out of ways to support your own argument, so you'd like to make light of someone else's argument.

From an halachic perspective, all of this mockery is certainly unjustified. Megilah 25b discusses permitted mockery - and does not include mockery for cultural values, Israel values or American political values.

And from a practical perspective, the mockery is self-defeating: The result is that the Torah message gets thrown up because of the cultural/Israel/American political arrogance. And that’s a shame, because the real value is in the Torah.

Present your point of view, articulate it and back it up with sources and argue it – but leave the mockery to the talk show hosts. We can do better.

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