Sunday, November 12, 2006

Wisdom of the Ancestors: Scholars as Public Figures

David Rosenfeld on The Torah Way" (no, he didn't call it that....)
(26) Making a "fence" for one's words: This expression means to limit in some way one's speech. (The term "fence" is often used by the Sages metaphorically, as a safeguard. See for example 3:17) The precise meaning and ramifications are not entirely clear, and the commentators offer a number of explanations.

Some commentators (Midrash Shmuel) understand this to be a general injunction to limit one's speech, as excessive talk leads to empty if not sinful speech. (See earlier, 1:17.)

R. Samson Raphael Hirsch explains in a manner more pertinent to scholars: A scholar should not be too vocal or outspoken. Although he should be prepared to speak out against injustice and take what are usually unpopular stands for truth, he should not force his views upon others. He will preface his statements as being his own understanding of the matter. Likewise, the scholar should not cheapen his words by talking too much. His words should be limited and well-chosen; when he does speak, it should be worth listening to.

Another interpretation (Machzor Vitri, Ya'avetz) is that the scholar must safeguard his words from misinterpretation. His words must be clear and unambiguous. Being a person who studies Torah and teaches it to others, he must be aware of the impact his words have upon others. If his words are misheard or misinterpreted -- whether innocently or wantonly -- it will influence others and will reflect on the Torah and Judaism accordingly.

In this regard, the scholar must see himself as somewhat of a public figure, under public scrutiny and ideally, one from whom others will learn. And of course, there are always those who are all too eager to find faults in leaders, especially religious ones -- perhaps in the interest of somehow justifying their own religious laxity. (Notice how focused the media always is over priestly misconduct (apart from society's general infatuation with such topics).) Rabbis, like political leaders, will always be quoted out of context and will have their words either naively or willfully misconstrued. (I'm sometimes amused after sending a class to be told by readers exactly what I said. ;-) Thus, the scholar should be prepared to speak out firmly and unequivocally when necessary, but should ever be aware of the consequences of errors and the potentially malicious intent of his detractors.
No matter how wise and knowledgeable a scholar you are, it might all go to waste if you're not a good politician -- or at least a good public speaker.

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