IPA’s Deputy Director of Federal Affairs, Maury Litwack, explores modern political problems within the context of Torah solutions. Any hashkafic, halachic or political opinions are personal and do not reflect the official p’sak or policy of the OU.
“I won’t insult your intelligence by suggesting that you really believe what you just said” – William Buckley
THE POLITICAL PROBLEM
You’ve been insulted… and it stings. But what bothers you most is the feeling that follows. If only you’d been quick enough to lob one back at your attacker. Possibly you’d feel vindicated, or possibly you’d feel guilt ridden for engaging in an unproductive dialogue. Most likely, you remained silent and are kicking yourself for not being quick witted or sharp tongued in response.
There are some individuals who find constant occasion for feeling slighted and who are always on the defensive; others repeatedly shirk away from confrontation, even when necessary.
Where does one draw a line, and what are the options for confrontation, when required?
Insults are a common political problem because the use of an offhanded, derisive remark can characterize one’s opponent in an unfavorable and destructive light. Winston Churchill, was famous for his autobiographical work, in which he was able to draw himself in the most favorable light, effectively depicting history on his own terms. Churchill was equally famous for the many insults he offered others, which forever depicted the weaknesses of various his opponents, and in doing so, perhaps refashioned their image.
“He looks like a female llama who has been surprised in the bath.” …….on Charles de Gaulle
“If you wanted nothing done at all, Balfour was the man for the job.” ……on Arthur Balfour
In 2003, de Gaulle’s son put forward his father’s position on responding to Churchill’s barbs - ”I can assure you I never heard my father denigrate Churchill during the war or afterwards. Yet I lived in Britain at the time when he had plenty of reasons for doing so …”
Should he have? Was the high road worth it for someone like a de Gaulle or does his lack of response forever etch an unforgettable image of a bathing llama in our minds?
THE POLITICAL SOLUTION
In trying to frame or explain the “go for the jugular” approach of today’s politicians in defending themselves, it’s easy to pull quotations from the past. It’s equally easy to provide present day examples; Sarah Palin’s confrontations come quickly to mind as obvious examples. This particular politician has chosen a slash and burn approach to any and all slights, real or perceived. Nary has a week gone by when a political opponent, reporter, or celebrity isn’t subject to a response from Palin and her political operatives. Go Google “Sarah Palin responds” for a taste.
Palin’s frequent visceral response to her opponents isn’t new to the world of politics. Numerous famous politicians used to settle slights by challenging and engaging their opposition in a duel. One would choose their weapon of choice, location to fight, and who would serve as their “second” (in case of any funny business) and a fight to the death would then ensue. Obviously Hamilton and Burr are the most memorable for this form of conflict resolution, but President Andrew Jackson was prolific. It’s difficult to determine exactly how many duels Jackson engaged in, but during his presidency he had to open his veins with a letter opener in order to “cure” the remains of bullets he had lodged in his body from previous altercations.
THE TORAH SOLUTION
The Gemara in Shabbos compares one who doesn’t respond to insults to the Sun. At creation’s beginning the sun and moon were of equal size but the moon demanded supremacy while the sun remained silence as it was insulted. Due to its silence the sun gained the supremacy the moon sought.
The Gemara’s comparison to the sun seems to indicate that great rewards are in store for those who choose to ignore insults and not engage in acts of retaliation
But how practical is this? And is this a rule? Should you simply ignore any insult that comes your way?
Moshe, however, seems to demonstrate a practical application.
Midrashim relay a long history of Datan and Aviram’s provocative confrontations with Moshe. When they were directly targeting him, he ignored it; it wasn’t productive. Thus, whether they wanted Moshe to stay out of their famous quarrel in Egypt or they wanted to return to Egypt once in the desert, Moshe ignored the insults directed his way and continued with his leadership of the Jewish people.
The Midrash also tells us that when building the Mishkan, there were those who suspected Moshe may have become wealthy because of a misappropriation and came to him requiring an accounting. Moshe responded to this insult and gave a clear accounting of the allocations required to build the Mishkan.
These Midrashim reconcile the Torah’s approach to standing up for one’s self. Don’t shirk from relaying the facts when you need to relay them, but don’t engage in unproductive dialogue, where the facts are irrelevant.
Seriously, what value would have been served if the Sun had argued he was more majestic than the Moon?
Likely as much would have been gained if de Gaulle had argued he wasn’t a withering llama.
Maury Litwack is Deputy Director of Federal Affairs for the OU’s IPA | Institute for Public Affairs. A recognized advocacy expert, he has worked with elected officials and municipalities on major aspects of their federal and state agenda. Author of The Capitol Plan, a comprehensive Washington advocacy strategy, he was also published in Business Insider, Fox News, and The Hill among others and his commentary has been featured in Forbes and Politico.
To learn more about the IPA, please visit their homepage: OU’s Institute for Public Affairs