The current kashrus debate is very much on people’s minds and in their conversations these days. It seems to be a highly contentious issue, conjuring deep emotion and excitement on both ends of the spectrum; therefore, we have decided not to involve ourselves in this evolving debate and to allow the relevant parties to figure it out amongst themselves. I should just add that since the Torah that we learn daily analyzes the significance in one matter juxtaposed to another, known as smuchin, and ultimately all the occurrences of our lives are alluded to somewhere in the Torah, the question occurred to me: Lamah nismecha parashas corona l’vikuach al ha’kashrus b’Five Towns? In classic Rabbi Akiva Eiger fashion I will leave it as a “tzarich iyun.”
But I did want to use this space to reflect upon the issue of kol korehs and excommunications since that is the manner that was chosen to deal with the emerging organization. There have been no shortage of bans throughout our long exilic history, and if anyone has been to Geulah or Bnei Brak it’s hard to see the concrete we tread upon under the famous pashkevillin that line the streets. Aside from the excitement that it generates, it’s highly questionable how effective it is in accomplishing its stated goals.
We could analyze bans and excommunications from a historical perspective and then from the vantage point of modern history. Some of the famous incidents are the Rambam and Rabbeinu Yonah, Rav Yaakov Emden and Rav Yonasan Eibeschutz, as well as the Vilna Gaon and the Alter Rebbe (or more broadly the chassidic movement as a whole, although it was directed more specifically at Chabad and Breslov as opposed to the entire movement). History has vindicated the victims in all these cases and I am not citing these precedents as a way of comparing the cases, but since in both instances one party attempted to negate the other through means of a ban, prohibition, or even going so far as to impose an excommunication on the disputant, it’s important to look back and see the outcome of those instances in deciding which course of action to resort to in order to achieve our objectives.
In the case of the Rambam and Rabbeinu Yonah, the Sha’arei Teshuvah that has become a mainstay in yeshivos, especially during the months of Elul and Tishrei, was written as a reconciliation by its author upon realizing his egregious error in assassinating the character of none other than the Rambam. Much of the vive and vigor of observant Judaism has been attributed to the trailblazing worldview and philosophy of the Ba’al Shem Tov and the love of G-d, Torah, and Yidden as a centerpiece of its constitution. Therefore, in looking back at these, which are just some of the main incidents of excommunication, the outcome seemed to call into question the need for such an extreme reaction in the first place.
On the other end of the historical spectrum there are book bans such as the infamous Making of a Gadol book, which was banned and subsequently could be bought for $500 on eBay. If the book would have gone unnoticed or without all the hysteria that it generated at the time, even if it would have sold well it would not have generated the same media attention that it did at the time and invariably would have decreased the level of disrespect that it caused the subjects and the yeshiva world in the eyes of the world. Just recently, Ami Magazine ran a front-page interview of Rav Elya Ber Wachtfogel, shlita, the esteemed rosh yeshiva of South Fallsburg and the son of the venerated late mashgiach of Lakewood’s BMG, Rav Nosson Wachtfogel, zt’l. The interview precipitated a kol koreh decrying the magazine for running a story on the rosh yeshiva who, as the kol koreh stated, eschews media attention. I was scratching my head while reading the communique, trying to figure out how the magazine managed to interview the rosh yeshiva without him realizing that it was going to appear in print. But then it occurred to me that perhaps it was a marketing stunt by Ami to get more people to pay attention to that story in particular or to the magazine as a whole.
In a society that places an overarching importance and seriousness on the role of rabbinic leadership, it begs the question why bans of this nature, beyond the chatter that it sparks, usually don’t succeed in advancing the objectives that it was ordered to achieve. Perhaps the following story about the nature of these bans can shed light on the matter.
My father, the editor and publisher of this newspaper, was the host of a daily radio show back in the early- to mid-1970s, which lasted up until about 1980. It was a Jewish moment in the morning program that aired on a religious Christian network. There was another aspiring Jewish radio host who was seeking to cut into my father’s show in order to promote his rise to radio fame, and so he drafted a kol koreh and had it signed by Rav Yaakov Kamenetzky, who was a relative of this person, as well as the late Rabbi Avigdor Miller. After word of the kol koreh began to spread, and seeing as Rav Avigdor Miller was previously a mashgiach at my father’s alma mater, Yeshivas Rabbi Chaim Berlin, my father walked into Rabbi Miller’s shul late one afternoon for Minchah to ask him why he signed this kol koreh. Rabbi Miller asked my father where he learned, to which my father responded, “Chaim Berlin.” Rabbi Miller said, “Is that so?” And then he grabbed a pen and crossed his name off of the kol koreh.
It’s clear that Rabbi Miller only signed the kol koreh because he saw Rav Yaakov Kamenetzky’s name on top; perhaps it is on that account that these communiques, aside from causing a lot of undue hype and casting tons of false aspersions, generally fall flat on their faces.
Most important of all with regard to these forms of communication, the assassination of the victim’s character, which at times could be jeopardized for good, needs to be considered. Reb Raphael from Hamburg writes that when the Gra’s excommunication against chassidim came before Rav Chaim Volozhin for the great student of the Vilna Gaon’s support, he declined to add his name to the cherem. The messengers questioned him saying, “Your Rebbe is a malach Elokim, an angel of G-d. To which Rav Chaim Volozhiner responded: A malach only has the ability to spare a life, as is proven from the fact that G-d sent an angel to Avraham to tell him to spare the sword from his son, Yitzchak. However, he continued, when it came to commanding Avraham to slaughter Yitzchak, G-d Himself had to come to Avraham. And with that he sent the messengers on their way.
Regardless of the issues at hand, it behooves the decision-makers in these situations to weigh all aspects of the outcome of these decisions, because the effects, for better or worse, can be long-lasting and will come to impact the matter upon which the decision to issue the kol koreh was reached in the first place. Sometimes we are better off resorting to quiet diplomacy in advancing our agendas. This way more focus is given to the matter of importance and less to the meaningless conversations that give these things a longer lifespan than they deserve.