At the very beginning of the Shulchan Arukh, the Rema provides a series of instructions on maintaining a proper attitude in performing the mitzvot.
Among them, he writes: “And don’t be ashamed before others who mock you in serving God.” This would seem to be a very simple and uncontroversial suggestion, but actually it is the topic of a wide-ranging halakhic discussion.
The Tur also opens with moral instruction, citing the mishnaic admonition of Yehuda ben Teima: “Be audacious as a tiger, and light as an eagle, and swift as a deer, and mighty as a lion to perform the will of your father in heaven” (Avot 5:20). He goes on to explain why audacity may be necessary: “For at times a person wants to perform a mitzva but refrains from doing it because people mock him; thus, he [Yehuda ben Teima] cautions that you should be brazen in the face of the mockers, and not refrain from per- forming the mitzva.” (Tur Orach Chaim 1. This passage is the proximate source for the ruling of the Rema.)
The Beit Yosef perceives a note of qualification in this explanation: Audacity is called for specifically to fore- stall refraining from a mitzva due to shame. Otherwise it is not appropriate. “For the quality of impudence is very disgraceful, as has been mentioned, and it is not appropriate to make use of it at all, even in the service of Hashem to speak boldly against the scoffers, for this will accustom his nature to be audacious even when not in the service of Hashem. Therefore, he [the Tur] writes, don’t be ashamed, that is, when I say to you to be brazen in the face of the scoffers, this doesn’t mean to speak brazenly, rather it is [only] for the purpose of not being ashamed of them”.
In other words, audacity in God’s service can be countenanced only as a defensive measure, to prevent a person from becoming ashamed of performing commandments. But it is not appropriate in and of itself, even to counter those who scoff and mock our devotion to the commandments.
The Be’ur Halakha clarifies that audacity may be necessary to prevent the scoffers from turning others away from mitzvot. If impious leaders try and create an atmosphere that will discourage commitment to mitzva observance, then it is legitimate to be bold in opposing their efforts, even if the particular individuals leading the struggle are not worried about their own devotion to Torah being compromised. But the basic idea is the same: the importance of modesty, and the disdain for brazenness, imply that it is improper to act in a brazen and audacious way, even against those who scoff at the Torah, unless this attitude is necessary to keep someone from being shamed into neglecting Torah observance. As the Be’er Heiteiv writes, a person should be ashamed of those who mock him, but “at any rate he should not bicker with them”.
This topic was deliberately chosen for the ominous season facing us. An awesome period of national deliberation is upon us; fateful decisions are being made with very cogent claims on both sides. It goes without saying that fear of heaven does not permit us to mock those who disagree with us, but we can learn from the Tur and the commentators that even to respond in a brazen way against those who mock our point of view offends our natural Jewish sense of shame and modesty. Rather, the entire discussion — and struggle, where appropriate — must be carried out in a spirit of respect and humility.
Rabbi Asher Meir is the author of the book Meaning in Mitzvot, distributed by Feldheim. The book provides insights into the inner meaning of our daily practices, following the order of the 221 chapters of the Kitzur Shulchan Arukh.