Lifnei Iveir, The New York Times and Us

Of all the sins of The New York Times – and there are certainly many – one of the most subtle and therefore most dangerous is their transgression of the sin of “lifnei iveir lo sitein michshol – You shall not place a stumbling block in front of the blind” (Vayikra 19:14). Although the literal meaning of this is obvious, our sages (Avodah Zarah 6b) explain this as meaning not to mislead or deceive someone into innocently sinning or follow a wrongful path.

The most recent offending article appeared in the Times Book Review (December 16, 2018). Each week, the Times, in a section called “By the Book,” a celebrity author is asked what books may currently be found upon their nightstand. That week, the author was Alice Walker, who responded that David Icke’s book, And the Truth Shall Set You Free, was not only on her nightstand, but she declared it to be a “curious person’s dream.” In this past week’s “letters” responding to the Book Review, two prominent dissenters objected strongly to the Times printing Ms. Walker’s reading recommendations.

Writing as the CEO and national director of the Anti-Defamation League, Jonathan A. Greenblatt notes that this book “is a profoundly and unambiguously anti-Semitic work by the notorious conspiracy theorist,” which “is replete with raw anti-Semitism” and vile lies about Judaism. Among other fiendish fallacies, Icke relies heavily upon the long-discredited anti-Semitic “Protocols of the Elders of Zion.” He casts doubt upon the Holocaust and calls Judaism “an incredibly racist religion.” As Greenblatt concludes, “Walker has a right to read what she will, but the Book Review has a responsibility to fact-check its material and forewarn readers…”

Another critic of the Book Review, Professor Brian A Feinstein of the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania objects that the Book Review “legitimized” Ickes so that “many people will be turned on to Ichke’s ideas or think they now have a green light to publicly voice anti-Semitism based on them.”

The “paper of record,” which prides itself on publishing only that which is “fit to print,” responds that its list of night-table books is only “a portrait of that individual through his or her life in reading.” They deny any responsibility toward content or future influence, proudly declaring that “we do not investigate or assess the quality of the books that the subjects choose to write about.” In other words, consequences of journalism do not matter. An interesting assertion, indeed. Does it not absolve Goebbels and other promulgators of “The Big Lie” of any culpability? Perhaps it was best that the Times was not a prominent presence at the Nuremberg Trials. They might have ended up testifying for the defense.

Since we Jews are constantly worried whether or not we might have caused lifnei iveir, we would never make the mistake made by the Times. We know that it is forbidden even to lead a Jewish apostate into sin (see Mishnah Berurah 243:1), even to cause him to eat bread without washing his hands (Mishnah Berurah 164:12). Thus, the concept of having an anti-Semitic book on one’s nightstand would be foreign to any thinking Torah Jew. Furthermore, even when one is performing a mitzvah, such as giving someone a loan, the Gemara (Bava Metziah 75b) states unequivocally that doing so without a contract and witnesses constitutes lifnei iveir (see Mishnah Halachos 12:409 in defense of those who do loan money without witnesses).

However, there is another whole aspect to this prohibition. The Chazon Ish zt”l and the Steipler Gaon zt”l (quoted by the Minchas Yitzchok 3:79) are of the opinion that one may not purchase anything manufactured by someone whose business is open on Shabbos, even if those particular items were made during weekdays. The reason is that if all Jews refrained from granting the transgressor business, he would, by necessity, minimize his chillul Shabbos, simply because it didn’t pay to stay open. This major opinion teaches us that we must be careful not to indirectly cause an increase in Shabbos desecration, even if we have no particular interest or purpose in doing so (see Rabbi Simcha Bunim Lazerson, Mishnas Chayei Sha’ah, page 130).

Interestingly, Rav Yechiel Yaakov Weinberg zt”l (Seridei Aish 2:19) recommends that someone not sell his business, which is closed on Shabbos, for one year while he goes abroad to someone who may open it on Shabbos. He concedes that this is permissible in pure halacha, but still suggests that it would be best to close the business for the year. In other words, in any interchange with other people, we must be scrupulous not to cause spiritual harm even if that person would be transgressing anyway. What a far cry this is from the cavalier attitude displayed by the New York Times Book Review.

On an even more profound level, Rav Chaim Friedlander zt”l (Sifsei Chaim, Emunah Vehashgacha 1:354) teaches us that whatever a person does, he must think carefully about the ramifications and consequences even upon future generations. He proves this from the words we utter on Rosh Hashanah, “You remember all the creations from the beginning… You see and examine all the generations.” He quotes the Ramchal (Maamar Hachochmah) that this means that each one of us will be judged for our past, present and our effect upon the future.

I once heard from Rav Avigdor Miller zt”l that if someone lost his temper at work and yelled at his secretary, and she, in turn, let her anger out upon her young son, who retaliated by committing a crime, the heavenly judgment will be imposed for all this upon the boss who caused it all. Yes, a human being is so grand, as Rav Chaim Shmulevitz always reminds us, that his influence and responsibility are considered to be nearly infinite and eternal.

Of course, middah tovah merubah – whatever holds true for culpability is all the more true for reward – and therefore a kindness performed that has good reverberations can span generations as well.

A number of the great maggidim of recent days have told the same story in somewhat different forms. A secular visitor to the Kosel Hamaarovi is moved by the davening of a chossid at the Wall. He returns to his native Texas and wishes to do something in the anonymous supplicant’s honor. He considers his Reform temple, but realizes that the man in Israel would not approve, if he knew. Even the Conservative house of worship is clearly not an appropriate vehicle. Finally, the wealthy would-be donor happens upon the only Orthodox rabbi he is aware of and makes a large donation. That seed money becomes the start of a vigorous fundraising campaign, he himself becomes religious, and a kollel is born. When the chossid goes up to Shomayim, hopefully after 120 wonderful years on earth, he is welcomed as the great progenitor of the Texas Kollel. His first question, however, is, “Vos iz Texas?”

We rarely have any idea how powerful our actions are, whether for evil, G-d forbid, or for great accomplishment. Did Sarah Schneirer ever imagine the glorious Bais Yaakov scene today? Did the Satmar Rebbe, Rav Aharon Kotler or Rav Shraga Feivel Mendlowitz imagine the universe of Torah they generated in the New World? Perhaps, but it doesn’t really matter. They did their maximum and more, and then the Ribono Shel Olam put His special brocha upon their superhuman hishtadlus.

The saga of Klal Yisroel’s growth and spiritual advances has always been based upon people who cared about more than their own immediate moment.

As Rav Berel Wein often writes in his history books, the secular world looks at global movements, but Klal Yisroel looks to great individuals.

It would be a mistake, however, to attribute these accomplishments only to our gedolim. Often, seemingly simple people who brought holy and pure families into this world, people whose chesed was done despite financial and physical impediments, effected giant changes for the better in generation upon generation, helping to change the face of communities and sometimes Knesses Yisrael itself. To the extent that we reject the Times model of taking the myopic limited view of our actions and constantly look toward eternity, we will be able to accomplish wonders which will lead to the ultimate change of geulah bimeheirah beyomeinu.