Friday, 7 September 2007

Attacking ad hominem Attacks

Originally posted 9/7/07, 4:30 PM, Eastern Daylight Time.
"I cannot STAND rabbi X. He always uses Ad Hominem atacks. How can I take him seriously!?
Dear Readers,
I hope you sense the irony and self-contradictory nature of the previous statement. Regardless of your reaction [or perhaps lack thereof!] Rabbi Hecht and I have both agreed to eschew Ad Hominem attacks. We feel this policy serves this blog better.

  1. We avoid personalizing attacks in order to focus upon the issue at hand
  2. Furthermore, many of us are potentially guilty of the behavior in question
  3. Finally, as Bruria has taught us: "Learn to HATE the sin and to LOVE the sinner."

I had a rebbe in yeshiva who would attack many of the Modern professors at Yeshiva University. His attacks were sharp, entertaining, and informative. The targets seemed clear to the entire class. Nevertheless - in order to remove any doubt about his intentions - I confronted my rebbe privately after Shiur.

RRW: So what is it with Professor X? Is he a kosher Jew or what?
My Rebbe [MR]: Well he keeps Shabbes, puts on Tefilin keeps Kosher, etc.

After some back and forth, I realized that MR would attack this professor all day long in his Shi'ur but not mean to personally assail the man. Later on, I would discover that perhaps he meant not to attack the professor per se, just his teachings. That he really did like the guy, but was eschewing his methodology alone!

Fast Forward Many years Later

I was reading Artrscroll's biography of R. Baruch Ber Lebowitz. [FWIW, he was acquainted with MR above]. In this book,  R. Baruch Ber is described as having lashed out at many secularists and Maskillim whom he felt were damaging Judaism during his era. Nevertheless, he refrained from naming names. Why? He was attacking their behavior not their persona.

Rav Schwab ZTL reputedly attacked a certain behavior. When confronted by a congregant re: the intended target of his article, he coyly responded: "If the shoe fits -wear it." Rav Schwab was out to make a point about something he opposed. He did not mean it to get personal, and certainly not personal in the PUBLIC domain.

As a personal Policy I have avoided politics from the pulpit. Why? I feel that it dilutes my position of spiritual leader to get involved with politics. I did make an exception when an obvious anti-Semite ran for City Council and I recommended that he be opposed for that very specific reason. As I see it [AISI] making only 1 exception in 16 year enhanced my "moral authority."

Similarly, when the shenanigans of a recent President of the USA who engaged in questionable moral conduct became all the rage, I described in very general terms what was wrong and why it should be condemned. I named no names and just referred to a political leader who was involved in misbehavior with an intern . Although it was quite obvious to whom I was referring, I avoided naming names.

I feel that personalizing the attack by naming names weakens the message. Frankly, I am also not sure if the aforementioned politician behaved significantly worse than many of his colleagues. I instead attacked his overall lack of morality, but did not name him. Furthermore - other than this misbehavior - I really had no personal animus for the guy, and there were probably other politicians that I liked even better who may have even done worse. So why start name calling?!

On the other hand, I cannot condone the behavior. To my mind, it was clearly reprehensible and called for a statement. I framed it more as a teaching rather than preaching, through pointing out a topical moral lesson in that week's Parsha. By presenting the Torah point of view first, and then following up with a tangential reference to the behavior, I feel that I got my point across without making it into a personal attack. Personal attacks carry with them an animus that I feel undermines the message.

Another Illustration:

Some prominent members of my former congregation were suspicious of a prospective convert. Without confronting any individual I taught a class on the Aggadita concerning Hillel and the three prospective Roman converts. I'm not sure if all of my targeted audience made the connection, nevertheless I felt I had disabused many of some highly erroneous notions about potential Geirei Tzedek. Had I resorted to personal attacks, I would have triggered a certain lose-lose situation.

BEH, I will follow up with some illustrations of Ad Hominem attacks that I consider  misguided and counterproductive!

Shana Tova!

1 comment:

Rabbi Ben Hecht said...

I just wish to echo and endorse Rabbi Wolpoe's words. Yasher koach to him for making this statement.

Ad hominem attacks may be enjoyable, may further a spirit a victory -- but they do not serve Torah discussion and debate. The focus is the issue and the ultimate victory is only in the acquisition of the truth.

I believe in heated arguments to find the Torah the idea -- and indeed this process must be passionate. But the focus must be on Torah. In a certain way the combatants must recognize that really their fighting for the same thing -- Torah truth. Ad hominem attacks take us away from that. We seperate ourselves and place our personal honour in the way of Torah truth. Of course, the one insulted is going to defend himself/herself. Of course the one who made the insult is going to feel overly good about himself/herself. What is lost is the very purpose of the argument --the idea.