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Beit Midrash Series Ein Ayah

Who May Criticize Great People

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Gemara:
[Last time, we saw a gemara that told how Akavya ben Mehalalel accused Shmaya and Avtalyon of ruling based on personal feelings, causing the rabbis to censor him. Now, we will see an opinion that rejects the possibility this occurred.] R. Yehuda said: Heaven forbid that Akavya ben Mehalalel was put in cherem, for when the gates of the azara (Beit Hamikdash’s courtyard) were closed, there was no one in Israel inside with his level of Torah, purity, and fear of sin.


Ein Ayah: Regarding how to view one who criticizes talmidei chachamim (Torah scholars) and their ideas in a manner that seems to be an affront to their honor, one should consider the criticizer’s standing, particularly in three broad areas that include all of a person’s shleimut (completeness).
One area where the criticizer should be tested is wisdom. If he is a very wise man, then he is one who can stand among great people and say that he argues with his peers, even those who preceded him. However, when a person of simple intellect has the gall to speak down on the ideas of those much greater than he, speaking in a manner that is appropriate only for the accomplished, he will be punished for brazenness and removing morality from the world.
Another area where the criticizer must be worthy is purity of his heart. If he criticizes a great person for having been swayed by imperfect motivations, he himself must have the purest of hearts, so as not to be influenced. Otherwise, one who feels he can judge righteous people, although, they, as humans, may have erred, is one who harms the world and will be punished.
Even these two important attributes do not suffice. He must also have the highest level of fear of sin, so that we can be sure that if he were not absolutely convinced, with his great wisdom, that the criticism was correct and necessary, he would be afraid to utter it. If someone who we know is crowned with greatness in all of these positive qualities still feels the need to criticize a great person harshly, then we should not, Heaven forbid, think badly of him, nor should lowlier people try to copy his willingness to criticize.
These three attributes: wisdom, purity of the heart (the source of the emotion upon which the world of proper actions and service of Hashem is built), and fear of Hashem, which helps avoid bad things, are the basis of shleimut. These attributes are dispersed through the nation so that some people excel in great Torah wisdom, others in purity and service of the heart, and others excel in keeping away from actual sin. The confluence of these different people builds the House of Israel. Only the select of the select, a generation’s pillar of Torah, enjoys the highest levels of each of these attributes.
One of the nation’s unifying events was the bringing of the Korban Pesach. All of Israel would enter in one gateway and join into unifying groups to partake in the sacrifice. The nation entered the Temple in three groups (see Mishna, Pesachim 5:5). They were referred to as kahal (congregation), eida (community), and Israel, corresponding to wisdom of the intellect, purity of the heart, and fear relating to the actions. Kahal relates to shared physical actions. Eida relates more to the heart’s emotional connection within the nation. Whoever combines the positive elements of kahal, eida, and Israel, is fit to be a criticizer. If criticism emanates from someone like that, we know that it is based on seeking truth. It will not bring fundamental deterioration to the nation, as the criticism comes to build, not destroy. People can learn from the matter that even scholars are accountable, just that it should be done in a way that takes their honor into account. The idea of talmidei chachamim spreading peace in the world can be preserved, as this one declares that something is pure and the other declares it is impure, but the opinions come from one shepherd (based on Chagiga 3b). Thus when criticism came from someone like Akavya ben Mehalalel, who combined the attributes that relate to the three groupings in the Temple, we know that he could not have been censored, for they were words of rebuke that emanated from his lips of Torah.
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