A certain individual recently posted a controversial article in which he argued against something that is essentially a universally-accepted principle of Judaism. A number of others responded, calling him out on it. Those readers who might have been misled by the original article were thereby informed as to that author’s misstatements. Those who were inclined to stand by his premise were at least making a conscious decision to do so. As far as I’m concerned, that closes the book on this story.
A colleague subsequently asked me if I was going to write an article commenting on the original piece; I declined. When he asked me why, I said, “Because I don’t feel the need to comment on every stupid thing that people say.”
This idea is expressed in Mishlei (the Book of Proverbs). There, King Solomon tells us, “Do not answer a fool according to his folly, so that you should not be like him” (26:4). (Admittedly, “fool” might be a bit harsh in this instance, as I don’t doubt the author’s intelligence. I think he’s a smart person who said a foolish thing.)
Now, I know someone is going to use my own words against me, so I’ll beat them to the punch with full disclosure. In my Nach Yomi synopsis of this chapter of Proverbs, I write as follows:
“Verse 4: Don’t answer a fool because you will appear equally foolish. Verse 5: Answer a fool so that he doesn’t think his words are wise. Huh? These two verses – which appear immediately next to one another – appear to contradict. In fact, they seem so blatantly contradictory that the Sages almost declined to include Proverbs in the canon until they reconciled the apparent difficulty. One should answer a fool in matters of Torah, but not in other matters. (See the Talmud in Shabbos, page 30b.)”
So, since this is a matter of Torah, shouldn’t I choose to engage one who has said something I consider foolish? Perhaps, but I don’t think the author’s outrageous claims were said out of foolishness. I think he was being disingenuous. That’s another matter entirely.
When someone asks you a question, it’s appropriate to answer. If they don’t understand, you should try to explain it better. If they have a counter-proposal, go ahead and engage in debate. It’s all good. But sometimes the other person isn’t interested in finding the truth or a meeting of the minds. Sometimes they just have an agenda.
Imagine if Verizon Fios called you up to sell you Internet service. And let’s say you preferred Time Warner Cable as a provider. Do you think anything you say could persuade the sales rep to agree with you? Of course not. This is why one should not engage “messianic” missionaries in debate. They’re not interested in finding out if their ideas are incompatible with Judaism, they’re only interested in “making a sale.”
I have to deal with this every so often when answering questions via email and online. Most people who ask questions are sincere. Even those who disagree are usually interested in hearing what you have to say and understanding your point of view. But there are those whose minds are already made up. They only ask questions as a means to fulfill their own goals.
You know who was a master of this? Korach, who tried to lead a coup against Moshe. According to the Midrash, Korach intended to undermine Moshe’s authority by challenging him with loaded questions. “Does a house filled with religious texts require a mezuzah? Does a garment that is completely techeiles (blue wool) require tzitzis?” Whatever Moshe answered, Korach was prepared to mock his reply.
Korach’s debates with Moshe may have been on Torah topics, but they were not truly debates in Torah. The mishna in Avos (5:17) uses Korach as the very example of an insincere, disingenuous argument. This is contrasted with the differences between Hillel and Shammai, whose only intention was to discover the truth.
There’s no benefit in arguing with someone who isn’t interested in the truth. As Mishlei tells us, if you answer such foolishness, it makes you a fool as well. Or, as Mishlei also tells us (18:6) “A fool’s lips get him into arguments; his mouth is asking for a beating.”
The words of this author reflect his/her own opinions and do not necessarily represent the official position of the Orthodox Union.