I ranted to a friend the other day about the knee-biters (alternatively, kneebiters) we encounter in the Jewish community. I didn’t realize I was coining a phrase; I thought the term already existed.
To clarify: I discovered, in drafting this post, that the word “knee-biter” does exist; it's in Life, the Universe and Everything by Douglas Adams. However, Adams uses it simply to describe an obnoxious person; my usage is more specific, and more colorful. I define knee-biters as small (and small-minded) people who attack those who are engineering great things; they only reach the knees of their betters, and so they simply bite at the reachable knees.
In a sense, knee-biters are the opposite of the far-sighted people who stand on the shoulders of giants; knee-biters busy themselves gnawing those giants’ legs and reducing them to knee-biter size.
My knee-biter is someone who seeks political strife on the grand stage, or who hunts for nits to pick in great and sprawling projects. These people are the death of political, philanthropic and religious leadership, and they are a major reason why potential leaders abdicate early. Further, they overshadow any important message they may carry, through their obnoxious methods. Who needs to live a life exposed to the nasty knee-biters?
Of course, knee-biters are nothing new; the Torah offers several examples. Think of Dasan and Aviram nipping at Moshe’s knees at every turn, or think of the naysayers who undermined various kings, such as Yoshiyahu, who tried to steer the Jewish people on a straight path. The hour is late, or I would give a few examples from the gemara and later Jewish history as well. These people may call themselves “the loyal opposition,” but their loyalty is only to themselves and their egos.
What should we do about our knee-biters?
In my rabbinic days, I appeased them. I understood their need for security, for feeling respected, and tried to find ways to fill that need so that they could then lend their talents to the community in positive ways. Indeed, this was what my friend encouraged. But I find in general that my rabbinic instincts are subsiding somewhat these days (I hope it’s only temporary, due to the stress of starting a new venture), and this is certainly true on the topic of knee-biters; today I would prefer to blow the whistle on their shtick.
What do you say: Feed the knee-biters to help them become more productive, or crush them?