Sunday, February 12, 2012

The Ethics of Protest: A Play in Three Acts – Act One

This past Friday night, our Beit Midrash held a Shabbat dinner to address the theme of "Jew vs. Jew: How do we protest?" Rather than use a shiur, though, we presented the sources via historical drama, in a simple play designed to convey the issues involved in:

Act One - Rebuking others for misconduct;
Act Two - Confronting Chillul HaShem [desecration of Gd's Name]; and
Act Three – Battling those who harm the Jewish community from within

We had fun with it, which wasn't easy given the gravity of the subject matter. Here is the script we used for Act One, along with many of the sources we cited; I expect to post the other two acts later this week:

[Narrator is alone on stage, standing beside a table]

King Solomon said, "There's a time to be silent, and a time to speak," and Jews have always struggled with the question of when to respond and when to hold our tongues, when to be silent and when to protest. We have also agonized over the question of how to respond – how to disagree without being disagreeable, and how to rebuke without burning bridges. In particular, we have debated how to respond when the issue involves not only Jews and our opinions, but also non-Jews and the opinion of the world.

Today, we debate these questions regarding the Sikrikim in Beit Shemesh. Their violence and abuse of women and children is horrific, regardless of the important religious issues of tzniut and the role of women in society – but we wonder how to respond appropriately and effectively.

We especially struggle with the fact that videos on this are all over YouTube, and events in Beit Shemesh have been laid out in newspapers all over the world. Should we criticize other Jews in front of the world media to correct their behavior, to prevent what we believe is Chillul HaShem, desecration of Gd's Name, and to protect our community? Or would that criticism itself only incite them to do worse, add to the Chillul HaShem, and put our community in greater danger?

The following play in three acts is meant to help understand how Jews have responded to religious disagreement over the centuries. The speakers will mention many sources from the Talmud and rabbinic writings; some of these will be available on sheets distributed after the play.

Act One.
The year is 921 of the Common Era, and we are in Fustat, Egypt. Jews throughout the Middle East and Southern Europe are led by Babylonian Gaonim, heads of the major yeshivot, and the Reish Galuta, the Exilarch. These scholars are acknowledged by one and all for communal decisions, and they represent the Jews to the non-Jewish world.
Then a man named Aharon ben Meir, carrying the title of Gaon of Palestine but not recognized as a Gaon in Babylon, begins teaching his students that the Gaonim of the yeshivot in Babylon have made mistakes in calculating the Jewish calendar. He believes that their date for Passover of the year 922 is wrong, and he begins to promote his view among his followers.
Rabbeinu Saadya, a leading scholar and firebrand from Aleppo, sends letters to his students across the Jewish world warning them against being drawn into Aharon ben Meir's cause. Two such students are Avraham and Yonatan.

[Avraham and Yonatan enter and sit down at a table]

Yonatan (Y), holding one of the pocket calendars issued by tzedakah organizations: Hey, Avraham, my new calendar from the Jewish Orphanage of Boys and Girls of Rabbi Meir Baal haNes and Kupat ha'Ir in conjunction with the Hebrew Academy of Cleveland and the Telshe Yeshiva of Tomchei Shabbos just came in the mail. That new Jerusalem to Fustat service is amazing – it takes only two weeks!

Avraham (A): The Year 922 edition of the calendar?

Y: What else would it be, 923? Rosh haShanah wasn't that long ago, Avraham.

A: I get that Yonatan, but whose Year 922 edition is it?

Y: What do you mean? (flips pages) Wait – Is Pesach starting on a Thursday this year? I thought it was a Tuesday!

A: (laughing) You have Ben Meir's calendar, not the one set by the Gaonim.

Y: Ben Meir? Who listens to Ben Meir? (throws out calendar, mumbling about its omission of Family Day)

A: Lots of people do. Didn't you receive the letter from our master and teacher, Rabbeinu Saadia, warning against following him? Why would he send us a letter if he wasn't concerned? Listen to what he wrote: [produces letter and reads it aloud] "Know that when I was yet in Aleppo, some pupils came from Ba'al al Gad and brought the news that Ben Meir intends to proclaim Cheshvan and Kislev deficient months. I did not believe it, but as a precaution I wrote to him in the summer. The Exilarch, the heads of the academies, all the senior scholars and teachers likewise agreed… In conjunction with their letters I too wrote to most of the great cities, in order to fulfill my duty. My students! Persist in this matter and close up this breach, and do not rebel against the command of Gd! No one dare to profane the festivals of Gd wilfully, to eat chametz on Passover, and eat, drink, and work on Yom Kippur. May it be the Will of Gd that there be no stumbling-block and no pitfall in your town or in any other town in Israel. May our peace grow and increase forever!" He's even talking about bringing in the Persian government to handle this – you bet he's scared!

Y: Isn’t that overkill? I mean, let this Ben Meir and his followers do what they want, why is it our business? They're not hurting me.

A: Of course it's our business! Yonatan, the Torah says הוכח תוכיח את עמיתך, every Jew is responsible to rebuke other Jews and teach them to follow the law.

Y: That's the job of the courts, they have means to handle that, not us small fish. Let Rabbeinu Saadya deal with it, he writes proclamations all the time. He'll be made Gaon soon enough!

A: It's for all of us to handle this, Yonatan! Don't you remember the Talmud's story about the righteous people who died in a plague in the time of Yechezkel? They were responsible to rebuke people for wrongdoing, and they didn't! It's for every Jew, not just for the courts; we are supposed to protect the Torah!

Y: Why is it my business if someone else sins?

A: כל ישראל ערבין זה בזה, we are all responsible for each other, Yonatan. If he sins, I am sinning. So, yes, I am responsible to correct him.

Y: So what do we do, Avraham– do we march out in protest? Start arguing with his followers at the store? Picket outside their shuls to give them a hard time? "Hey, ho, Ben Meir has got to go!"

A: Maybe. Remember the Talmud's warning about scholars who don't protest: "If people like a Torah scholar, it's because he doesn't give them a hard time. " It's our responsibility to give Ben Meir and his followers a hard time.

Y: Yes, I know, and in a thousand years Rabbi Yisrael of Salant will say-

A: Wait – What’s a Salant?

Y: A city in Poland.

A: What's a Poland?

Y: Never mind. Someone's going to say, "A rabbi they don't want to chase out of town isn't really a rabbi, and a rabbi they chase out of town isn't really a man." But come on – no one is going to listen to us, even with catchy protest rhymes.

A: You don't need to time-travel as far as that – just wait 300 years. Rabbeinu Yonah of Gerona will say-

Y: What's a Gerona?

A: Same thing as a Poland. Anyway: "If you hear people gossiping or speaking disgustingly or mocking Torah and mitzvot, and you know that they are stubborn and won't listen and so you just put your hand over your mouth, you will be punished for not responding to their foolishness!" We must do something, whether or not they will listen.

Y: And what about the Talmud's declaration that we are obligated not to speak when people won't listen?

A: Rabbeinu Saadya seems to think that doesn't matter – he's going all out against Aharon ben Meir. We need to make sure to keep the entire Jewish world on the same track; the calendar is that important.

[Avraham and Yonatan leave to change props while Narrator concludes Act One]

Both Avraham and Yonatan made good points about the obligation to rebuke, the concern that no one will listen, and the question of whether rebuke is valuable for its own sake.
In the end, Rabbeinu Saadya did persist, and people on both sides ended up coming to blows over the issue in the next 18 months, before Aharon ben Meir was soundly defeated by Rabbeinu Saadya's arguments. This was a case of a successful fight to put down sin and enforce Jewish communal standards, but it came with a great price in national unity.


1. Talmud, Shabbat 55a

מעולם לא יצתה מדה טובה מפי הקדוש ברוך הוא וחזר בה לרעה חוץ מדבר זה דכתיב ויאמר ד' אליו עבר בתוך העיר בתוך ירושלים והתוית תו על מצחות האנשים הנאנחים והנאנקים על כל התועבות הנעשות בתוכה וגו' אמר לו הקב"ה לגבריאל לך ורשום על מצחן של צדיקים תיו של דיו שלא ישלטו בהם מלאכי חבלה ועל מצחם של רשעים תיו של דם כדי שישלטו בהן מלאכי חבלה אמרה מדת הדין לפני הקדוש ברוך הוא רבש"ע מה נשתנו אלו מאלו אמר לה הללו צדיקים גמורים והללו רשעים גמורים אמרה לפניו רבונו של עולם היה בידם למחות ולא מיחו אמר לה גלוי וידוע לפני שאם מיחו בהם לא יקבלו מהם אמרה לפניו רבונו של עולם אם לפניך גלוי להם מי גלוי

Gd never expressed a good verdict and then retracted it to cause harm, other than in this case: “Gd said to him: Pass through the city, through Yerushalayim, and draw a ‘Tav’ on the foreheads of the people…for all of the abominable acts performed therein.”

Gd said to Gavriel: Go inscribe a ‘Tav’ in ink on the heads of the righteous, so that the angels of destruction will not harm them. Inscribe a ‘Tav’ in blood on the heads of the wicked, so that the angels of destruction will harm them.

The trait of Justice said before Gd: Master of the Universe, what is the difference between these and those?

Gd responded: These are completely righteous, those are completely wicked!

It said: Master of the Universe, they ought to have protested, and they did not do so!

Gd responded: I know clearly that had they protested, the people would not have accepted it from them.

It said: Master of the Universe, if to You it is clear, to them is it clear?

2. Netivot haMishpat to Choshen Mishpat, Biurim 3:1

מה שכתב [בסק"א] דאי שעבודא לאו דאורייתא והבית דין כופין בעי בי"ד [מומחין] דוקא לכפותו דהדיוטות לאו בני עישוי נינהו. נראה לפענ"ד דליתא, דכיון דדמי לעשה סוכה ואינו עושה דכופין אותו לקיים המצוה, כל אדם מצווה להפריש חבירו מאיסור

The Ketzot haChoshen wrote that a court of experts is required in order to compel a litigant to pay, for untrained people are not eligible to compel. In my opinion this is not so; it is similar to forcing a person to fulfill a mitzvah, like Succah, regarding which every individual is instructed to keep others from violation.

3. R' Meir Simchah haKohen, Meshech Chachmah to Shemot 24:3

לכוף ולרדות על חוקי התורה ונדריה הוא רק מצד ש'כל ישראל ערבים זה בזה', ואם יעבור אחד, הוא מזיק לחבירו ולהכלל כולו... דבלא זה אין זה מהראוי שיתערב אחד במה שיש להאדם עם קונו

Compelling people to follow Torah is a product of the principle of 'All Jews are responsible for each other'; one who would violate the law would harm others and the entity as a whole… Otherwise, it would be inappropriate to intervene in another's relationship with his Creator.

4. Talmud, Ketuvot 105b

אמר אביי האי צורבא מרבנן דמרחמין ליה בני מתא לאו משום דמעלי טפי אלא משום דלא מוכח להו במילי דשמיא

Abbaye said: If a Torah scholar is beloved to his city, it isn't because he is good. Rather, it's because he does not rebuke them in heavenly matters.

5. R' Yisrael Salanter, as cited in Tenat haMussar 1:305

רב שאין רוצים לגרשו מהעיר איננו רב, ורב שמגרשים אותו מהעיר איננו אדם

A rabbi they don't want to chase from town isn't really a rabbi, and a rabbi they chase from town isn't really a man.

6. Rabbeinu Yonah of Gerondi, Shaarei Teshuvah 3:197

איש אשר ישמע את דברי בני אדם מדברים לשון הרע, או כי ישמע כל פה דובר נבלה, או יושב בסוד משחקים בוזים תורה ומצות, ויודע כי הם סרבים וסלונים ואם יוכיחם לא יקשיבו אל דבריו, על כן ישים יד על פה, גם זה יענש כי לא יענה כסילים באולתם, פן יאמרו כי הוא כמו הם, וכי הודה על דבריהם

If you hear people gossiping or speaking disgustingly or mocking Torah and mitzvot, and you know that they are stubborn and won't listen and so you just put your hand over your mouth, you will be punished for not responding to their foolishness.

7. Talmud, Yevamot 65b

כשם שמצוה על אדם לומר דבר הנשמע כך מצוה על אדם שלא לומר דבר שאינו נשמע רבי אבא אומר חובה שנאמר +משלי ט'+ אל תוכח לץ פן ישנאך הוכח לחכם ויאהבך

Just as there is a mitzvah to say that which will be heard, so there is a mitzvah not to say that which will not be heard. R' Abba said: It is obligatory, as it is written, ‘Do not rebuke a scorner, lest he hate you. Rebuke a wise man and he will love you.’


  1. Looking forward to Acts Two and Three!

  2. here is my idea about rosh chodesh.
    ) סנהדרין י:
    רב אשי אמר שבית דין אין מקדשים את הלבנה, אלא מחשבים את המולד.
    התוספות מביאים דעה אחת שראש חודש תמיד מתחיל בזמן המולד [היינו יש שנייה אחת שהשמש והירח הם ביחד בדיוק על קו מאונך זקיף. היום שהשנייה הזאת נופלת בו הוא ראש חודש]. (ולפי הדעה הזאת בתוספות, זאת דעת רבא ורב אשי.) וגם תוספות מביאים גמרא ירושלמי שמשמע כזה, וגם רש''י פה על הדף משמע כזה. ("קדשו אתו בית דין של מעלה מאתמול"). נראה לי שזאת מחלוקת בין גמרות. שבמסכת ראש השנה משמע שהכול תלוי בראיה או אפשרות של ראיה (בסוגיא של ריש לקיש ורבי יוחנן שם).

    when i write about gemara i try to stay away from political sensitive areas. so as you can see i did not discuss saadia geon at all. but here i might as well mention my thoughts. saadia had a theory about Torah which can be roughly translated "the mesorah" the word he used is very close to the Hebrew shmia = hearing. that means for him the entire Torah and Talmud and even later tradition is all one package called the mesorah.
    I don't know where the rambam got the idea that the present day Hebrew calendar is halacha lemoshe mi'sinai but it seems to me that he was probably brining it from saadia geon. so in my discussion about rosh chodesh i did not want to attack this idea at all but rather i mentioned that it would make perfect sense according the the gemara in rosh hashanah that the beit din can change the day of rosh chodesh even for seemly trivial reasons. and also you see there that it very definitely depends on seeing or possibility of seeing. So i had to make this issue a argument between gemarot --for clearly this would not go like the gemara in Sanhedrin>

  3. I realize this is something of a side issue, but this paragraph:

    "Then, out of nowhere, a man named Aharon ben Meir declares himself Gaon of Palestine..."

    - is factually incorrect, indeed slanderous. There were Geonim in Eretz Yisrael just as there were in Babylonia, and both sets of Geonim were Torah leaders renowned in the Jewish world. R. Aharon didn't come "out of nowhere"; the Gaonate of Eretz Yisrael had been in his family for generations.

    One wonders: if facts like this, that are written and available to all, can be so badly misconstrued, what of today's goings-on?

  4. Ruti-

    RSG's claim about the primacy of calculation over witnesses is generally labeled original, but I agree that there do seem to be antecedents.

    Anonymous 4:07 PM-
    With due respect, can you provide a source for this? Everything I have ever read about Aharon ben Meir indicates that there were nesi'im, but not ge'onim, in Eretz Yisrael at that time. I would welcome any proof to the contrary.

  5. Here's one:

    Actually, on the contrary, I don't think we hear of the title "nassi" being used by any of the leaders of the Jews in Eretz Yisrael after Rabban Gamliel VII (d. c. 425). That the rashei yeshivah of E.Y. used the title Gaon can be seen from a genealogical list (mentioned at - I don't know in which collection of Genizah writings he's quoting, though) of ten successive generations of that family who served in this position, of whom our R. Aharon is the fourth.

    (In any case, who cares about formal titles? The point is that he was a distinguished talmid chacham, not just someone who woke up one morning and decided to declare himself an authority.)

  6. Anonymous-
    Thanks for following up; I see what you mean. But note Horvits's own statement - the sages of Israel chose at some point (unclear when) to adopt the title of Gaon, but the Gaonim in Bavel never recognized that title. See the paragraph that begins, "אי אפשר לקבוע בדיוק מתי עברה".

    In any case, as you note, the title is not the main point. The main point, from my perspective, is that the broader Jewish community did not recognize the yeshivot of Eretz Yisrael as sources of authority regarding national Jewish matters, including the calendar. Hence the turn of phrase, "Then, out of nowhere, a man named Aharon ben Meir declares himself Gaon of Palestine, and begins teaching his students that the Gaonim of the yeshivot in Babylon have made mistakes in calculating the Jewish calendar." But since your point stands in that Aharon ben Meir was not declaring the title out of nowhere, but rather was building on an existing unrecognized claim his family had made, I'll edit the line to reflect this point.

  7. I was trying to say that i am not thrilled about the calendar. I was trying to point out that it has no source in the Gemara at all-- much less being halacha lemoshe misinai. I was trying to use the fact that saadia uses the idea of the whole mesorah as being one package deal to explain perhaps how the rambam might have thought the calender is from Sinai. But this is thin ice. I have no intention of stiring up anything about this issue unless some modern equivalent of someone like Reb Moshe Feinstein would say something. And I doubt if there is any equivalent of reb moshe. There are a few great talmidei chamachmai that I know but they steer as far from halacha as they can get. They want to learn Torah and teach Torah and other that that to be left alone. The issue is that for someone to have halacha authority they have to be more that being able to understand halacha books on a superficial level. They have to be able to learn Gemara. This I can tell Reb Moshe could do (not just by reputation but also by the Dibrot Moshe). This generation just does not seem to have anyone like that.