To Respond or Not to Respond by Rabbi Chaim Jachter


To respond or not to respond; that is the question. Mainstream rabbinic organizations face this quandary on a fairly regular basis. When a rabbi presenting himself as Orthodox floats a provocative idea that runs counter to fundamental Jewish beliefs, leading rabbis are faced with the choice to ignore or respond to the irregular statement. It is not an easy decision to make.

The Kamtza Bar-Kamtza Story: The Cost of Tolerance and the Cost of Intolerance

The story of Kamtza and Bar-Kamtza is well-known. However, the portions of the story that are particularly relevant to our dilemma are not always emphasized. We shall focus on the points of the story which on the one hand illustrate the price paid for ignoring inappropriate behavior, but at the same time also demonstrate the cost of “taking a strong stand” when it is not prudent to do so.

The Gemara (Gittin 55b-56a) presents the story as follows (translation from

There was a certain individual who was friendly with Kamtza, but who was an enemy of Bar-Kamtza. He made a feast and said to his servant, “Go and bring Kamtza to my feast,” but the servant brought Bar-Kamtza instead.

The one who made the feast found Bar-Kamtza seated there. He said to him, “Since you are my enemy, what are you doing here? Get up and get out!” Bar-Kamtza said, “Since I'm here already, let me stay, and I will pay you for what I eat and drink.” “The host responded, “No!” “I will pay for half the cost of the feast.” “No!” “I will pay the entire cost of the feast!” “No!” And he seized Bar-Kamtza, stood him up, and threw him out. Bar-Kamtza thought, “Since the rabbis were there, saw the whole thing, and did not protest, obviously they had no objection to my embarrassment! I’ll go now, and slander the Jews to the king.” Bar-Kamtza went to the Caesar and declared, “The Jews have rebelled against you!” The Caesar responded, “Who said so?” Bar-Kamtza said, “Send them a sacrifice, and see if they will offer it.” The Caesar sent (with Bar-Kamtza) a healthy, unblemished ram. While going, Bar-Kamtza caused a disfigurement in the animal. (Some say that it was a blemish on the upper lip; others say that it was a blemish in the eye[1]; in any case, a place where for us it is a disqualifying blemish, while for the Romans, it is not.) The Rabbis had in mind to sacrifice it anyway to maintain peaceful relations with the government. But Rabi Zechariah son of Avkulos objected, “People will say, ‘Animals with blemishes may be sacrificed on the altar!’”

The Rabbis had in mind to kill Bar-Kamtza so that he would not report what had happened to the Caesar. But Rabi Zechariah son of Avkulos objected, “People will say, ‘One who makes blemishes in sacrifices is killed!’”

Rabi Yochanan said, “Rabi Zechariah son of Avkulos’ lack of flexibility destroyed our Temple, burned our Palace, and exiled us from our Land.”

On the one hand, we see the catastrophic results of rabbinic leaders’ silence in the face of an outrage. We learn that rabbinic reaction to reprehensible behavior is necessary lest their silence be interpreted as condoning the behavior. For example, in the course of a Beit Din hearing occurring in 2013, it emerged that the parties created a website to shame an acquaintance. In theory, the Beit Din could have overlooked this ugly behavior since it was not relevant to deciding the matter in dispute. Nonetheless, the Beit Din made a point of condemning the shaming both during the proceedings as well as in its written decision regarding the dispute, so as not to create the impression that the Beit Din found the ugly behavior acceptable.

On the other hand, the Kamtza Bar-Kamtza story concludes with rabbis taking a very strong stance against compromising Halachah even if there was a serious risk of irritating the Roman government, rulers whose extreme brutality in the face of resistance was well-known. The Gemara concludes that the lack of flexibility on the part of Rabi Avkulos was destructive in the extreme. Sometimes, especially in a case of Pikuach Nefesh (danger to life), one must compromise for the sake of community needs.

I was recently present at a traditional separate seating Chuppah when a young woman decided to sit on the men’s side. I, along with the other rabbis seated in the area, decided to refrain from criticizing the young lady, so as to avoid detracting from the joyous occasion. Sometimes, adopting a rabbinic hard line can be unhelpful.

More relevant to our issue, the Gemara (Yevamot 65b) teaches that just as there is a Mitzvah to say something that will be heard, so too there is a Mitzvah not to say something that will not be heard. Thus, rabbinic organizations are concerned that silence in the face of provocative writings might be interpreted as indifference, or worse, might allow the writings to be perceived as acceptable Orthodox doxology. On the other hand, they also consider the possibility that a strong stance might inflame a situation, such as forbidding Caesar’s Korban to be sacrificed.

Avoiding Giving Free Publicity to Heretics

Sometimes responding to a heretic is simply counterproductive. For example, Chavah would have been much better off ignoring the Nachash’s provocative and outrageous claim that Hashem forbade eating the fruit of every tree in Gan Eiden instead of responding to it. Moreover, sometimes responding to unorthodox claims has the effect of promoting the heresy by creating a stir that provides “free publicity.”

Indeed, Ramban (BeReishit 11:28) wonders why the Torah does not record the story of Avraham Avinu’s miraculous rescue from Nimrod and his Kivshan HaEish (fiery furnace). Ramban answers that by doing so the Torah would be compelled to present Nimrod’s belief in fire as a god. Hashem in His great wisdom decided to remain silent so as to avoid providing gratuitous publicity to an insidious belief.

Da’at Mikra, the outstanding Orthodox academic commentary to the Tanach, adopts a similar approach to responding to Biblical criticism. It addresses the issues raised by Bible critics without explicitly quoting their views. Thus, if one is aware of the heresies, he will understand the Da’at Mikra commentary as a response to the deviationist views. However, if he is not aware of the heresy, he will not be made aware of it.

Da’at Mikra’s strategy stands in stark contrast to the Rav Hertz commentary to the Chumash, which a generation ago was the standard Chumash of many Batei Kenesset in English-speaking countries. Rav Hertz, a chief rabbi of Great Britain, explicitly cites Biblical criticism and offers his response. While his writings are cogent, they also have the negative consequence of making people aware of Biblical Criticism who would have otherwise lived their lives unaware of its existence.

Rav Berel Wein comments that, LeHavdil, the Catholic Church would have been much better off if it ignored Martin Luther’s “95 Theses” criticizing many aspects of Catholic practice, instead of publishing an extensive rebuttal. Had the Church not responded to Luther’s nailing his treatise to the door of a German church, then most likely nobody would have known about Luther’s writings. Instead, the Catholic Church in effect unwittingly launched the Protestant Reformation.

Similarly, sometimes it might be wise for rabbinic organizations to avoid responding to untraditional statements by those who present themselves as upholding tradition.

Eliminating Bamot – Choosing Your Battles

Interestingly, in Sefer Melachim we find some righteous kings such as Asa and Yehoshafat investing great effort to the eradication of Avodah Zarah from their kingdom, yet tolerating the existence of Bamot (altars placed outside the Beit HaMikdash to serve Hashem), despite the violation of Halachah to sacrifice outside of the Beit HaMikdash. These leaders decided to carefully choose which religious violations to address. They chose to focus on eliminating the more egregious practice of Avodah Zarah and avoid confronting the Bamot problem, since they thought it was a battle they could not win. In fact, the respective generations following the righteous and pious Chizkiyahu and Yoshiyahu, who did eliminate Bamot, saw Chizkiyahu’s son Menasheh and Yoshiyahu’s son Yehoyakim severely rebel against Torah observance and raise no public outcry. Sometimes an overly ambitious religious agenda can backfire. Leaders must wisely choose which battles are worthwhile and effective to fight.

Bava Batra 89b - Oy Li Im Omeir Oy Li Im Lo Omeir

Our discussion is reminiscent of a dilemma of Chazal recorded in Bava Batra 89b. Honesty in weights and measures is forcefully commanded by the Torah and is strictly enforced by the authorities in a Torah community. Chazal were aware of all the tricks which a swindling merchant might do to deceive his customers - from using metal weights which wore out with use, to employing heavy sticks which smoothed out measured flour to the disadvantage of the buyer. Rabban Yochanan Ben Zakai thus expressed his dilemma in regard to making public this awareness: “Oy Li Im Omeir, Oy Li Im Lo Omeir,” “Woe to me if I speak, woe to me if I do not speak.”

Should he speak and reveal these strategies, there would be a danger that swindlers might learn from him how to better deceive their unknowing customers. Should he not speak, his silence might be interpreted by the swindlers as an indication that the sages were unaware of their tricks. Rabban Yochanan Ben Zakai finally resolved his dilemma on the basis of Hoshei’a 14:10: “Ki Yesharim Darchei Hashem, VeTzadikim Yeilchu Vam, UFoshim Yikashlu Vam,” “The ways of Hashem are straight; the righteous walk safely upon them, and the sinners stumble on them.” The ways of Hashem must be made known to all, decided Raban Yochanan Ben Zakai, and it was the free will of man to utilize the information for good or evil.

Rabbis today also face the dilemma of knowing the potentially negative consequences of both their silence and their protest. They sometimes are faced with the unenviable task of choosing the option that will result in causing the least damage.


Shlomo HaMelech wisely observes (Kohelet 3:7) that there is a time to remain silent and there is a time to speak. Rabbinic leaders today must exercise great wisdom to decide when to react to those who seek to push the Orthodox envelope in belief and practice. Those in a position to react must ask Hashem to grant them the wisdom to know when it is wiser to ignore provocations and when a reaction is necessary. May Hashem grant our leaders the good judgment and astuteness to act in the best interest of the Jewish People and the preservation of our holy Mesorah (tradition).

[1]Some suggest this symbolizes the silence of the rabbis, or their witnessing of the event of his disgrace without protest

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