Can the Ends Really Justify the Means?

In this week’s Mishpacha magazine, Yonoson Rosenblum’s weekly column presented an interesting point. He writes:

“Chazal enjoin us in many places to carefully consider the impact of our words. Yet in many instances, it is impossible to know in advance what that impact will be, or to anticipate the ways in which the same words will have a radically different effect on two people. That is perhaps why Chazal also commended silence so highly — an option not available to columnists.

Last June, I had an opportunity to interview my friend Rabbi Dr. Akiva Tatz on the early teshuvah revolution in South Africa. The discussion turned to his first book, Anatomy of a Search, which describes his own path toward religious observance and that of a number of other baalei teshuvah. Written with the fervor of a still relatively recent baal teshuvah, the book contained one sentence laden with adjectives decrying the emptiness of secular society. When he subsequently showed the book to Rabbi Aharon Feldman, rosh yeshivas Ner Israel, Rabbi Feldman told him that he thought the book was very good, but he would have left out that particular sentence, as it would only alienate those he wished to reach by making them feel under attack. And indeed that was indeed the reaction of at least one set of Rabbi Tatz’s relatives, who told him that they felt personally offended by the sentence in question, and had promptly put the book down.

But here’s where it gets a bit complicated. Some years later, Rabbi Tatz met another South African, approximately his age. He described how as a young attorney, he and his wife had left South Africa as a personal protest against apartheid. They then spent a number of years in India as part of an idealistic search for meaning. Eventually they ended up on a beach in Israel, where it seemed to them that their search had reached a dead end, with no further avenues to pursue. At that point, the husband came across Anatomy of a Search, and was struck by the sentence in question, which seemed to encapsulate all the feelings about the secular world that had launched him and his wife on their journey in the first place.

All this took place many years ago. The former lawyer went on to learn for many years in yeshivah, and is today a rosh yeshivah.

Unquestionably, Rabbi Feldman’s advice was correct: Rarely is there any purpose served by making ones message unpalatable to those whom one is trying to influence. But in this case, davka the sharpness of the phraseology was what hit a young couple, at a moment of desperation in their lives, when they were prepared to make a dramatic change.”

If you could travel back in time to before you decided to connect more closely with Judaism, how would you have felt about these words? Does the fact that these precise words motivated one young couple (and, I assume others) excuse, justify or outweigh the fact that they turned off or offended others?

8 comments on “Can the Ends Really Justify the Means?

  1. Comparing A’s ideal to B’s actual can be misleading, unless A puts its ideals into general practice.

  2. The argument comparing the emptiness of secular society compared to the richness of traditional Judaism would ring stronger if it were not for the fact that much of our own community is very materialistic, and overlooks or even rationalizes some of the same behavior.

  3. I agree with Ross. You can always find “someone” who will appreciate the tough approach, but you are more likely to put more people off.

    Having said that, as the sometimes harsh face of “tough love” around here, I certainly appreciate the dilemma. But the fact is that most people are absolutely not conditioned — intellectually, socially or emotionally — to have it told to them like it is. This is already old news:

    It was taught that Rabbi Tarfon said, “I would be surprised if anyone in this generation can take rebuke. You tell a person to take a stick out of their mouth and they’ll tell you to take a board between your eyes.” Rabbi Eliezer Ben Azarya said, “I’d be surprised if anyone in this generation knows how to criticize.”

    Rabbi Yochanan Ben Nuri said, “I swear that when Akiva and I were before Rabbi Gamliel, I would accuse him, but he even showered me more with love, as it is written “Do not rebuke a fool for he will hate you, rebuke a wise person and he will love you.”

    Erchin 16b. Doesn’t this apply here?

  4. I made the same mistake, with a letter and a book. Enlightened me wrote to my parents about my new view of western society, and specifically making reference to my bizarre “bar-mitzvah” ceremony, which wasn’t so bizarre to them (or the caterers who walked away smiling). In addition, I had them read Being Jewish by R’ Shimon Hurwitz of Aish, which is a critical (!!) look at western values, so there.

    It was absolutely NOT worth it. Sometimes you must be SURE that someone will be affected positively by this, not just that “one person MIGHT be affected so just give it a try”.

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