Rabbi Avi Weinstein

Rabbi Broyde and the Pseudepigraphal Defense

In Uncategorized on April 21, 2013 at 1:46 pm

There was a story that an author went to a rabbinic authority for an approbation, and the rabbi dutifully wrote said recommendation only to sign his name at the bottom of the page. When asked why his signature was so far from the recommending paragraph, he quoted “One should distance himself from deceit.” (Exodus 23:7)

Allright. Has anyone ever dreamed of attending ones own funeral? The impulse for that fantasy is to really know what people are going to say about you, but if you really wished to know, you would rather be a fly on the wall of more intimate conversations where the real truth may be told. Eulogies are filtered by design, and the narcissistic urge to know the truth of what people really think is ill served in public ceremonies of any kind. Still, I assume lots of us wouldn’t mind an invisibility cloak to eavesdrop on the true thoughts and feelings of others.

R. Broyde obviously grew impatient for the grim reaper and after being called out for” sock puppeting”, gives a long list of Rabbonim who used pseudonyms to advance ideas. He admits that his major motivation was to duck the slings and arrows of a vituperative comments section that often mercilessly engage in ad hominem attacks. Why he thinks that this is a peculiarly Orthodox behavior is surprising. Obnoxious, uncivil, and even threatening comments are not only the province of Jews in general and certainly not Orthodox Jews in particular. If a blog is not moderated by someone, then many, if not most, of the comments of any blog, or listserv, are not for the thin skinned.

It is of interest that R. Broyde gives a “traditional defense” basically elucidating the practice in which he engaged has some illustrious company. Sages, in fact, who are far greater than he have lauded the practice of a nom de plume. In fact, he says,

Writing on torah matters through a pseudonym is an old practice and done for a variety of reasons. In Halachic matters, the practice is cited approving by the Magen Avraham. Many have done this and I see no need to apologize for it. Professor Marc Shapiro once told me that a list of such figures includes the Ben Ish Chai and many others; all greater than me. He also called my attention to the book Otzar Beduyei Hashem by Shaul Chajes, which is an exhaustive list of individuals who used pen names. Finally, Shapiro informed me that the Aderet published a book anonymously, and included his own haskamah to the book (referring to himself in exalted language). My friends have told me about several contemporary talmidei chachamim who regularly write under pseudonyms. Many secular writers have done such as many can see as well.

If the norms of an organization, or a list require full disclosure of ones identity, he is at least violating the rules of said organization, and operating in bad faith. If, however, anonymous comments are allowed, then I guess the question is what’s the difference between “anonymous”, and a pseudonym? If, in fact, the list was open and had no rules, then one could argue, “What’s the harm?” But if there was an assumption that “sock puppetting” was against the rules, then at the very least he operated in bad faith which he has admitted.

My question is the implicit self justification of his apology. The fact that R. Broyde has been suspended from the Beit Din, and investigated by his University indicates that regardless whether great Sages have written pseudonymous approbations for their own works does not justify his behavior. In fact, it actually casts aspersions on those greater than himself. I like Clinton too, but let God justify his sins.

Certainly one cannot compare this behavior to adultery, but aren’t there Torah prohibitions one can invoke here? Like “One should distance ones self from deceit.” If the norms that have been violated have gained the attention of the general community i.e. the university where he works, could this not be considered a chilul hashem. A rabbi, one who passes judgement on others, is now exposed in what he declares as “inappropriate”, but harmless behavior is now being punished by Jewish and American institutions alike.

His apology acknowledges his behavior, but his implicit “What’s the big deal” defense rings hollow.  The  Gemara in Yoma’s examples of what constitutes a chilul hashem, a profaning of God’s name, are all matters of perception, and not reality. If the public judges one harshly for perceived immoral behavior, then the justifications are irrelevant. So is the fact that sages also engaged in practices that are no longer “appropriate”. Why impugn our all too human predecessors as a defense for having been caught? Are we proud of the fact that the Aderet gave an approbation for his own book under a pseudonym?

Generally, the label center-left describes someone who is concerned about ethics and its contemporary consequences. Not in this case.


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