Some Thoughts on The Broyde-Goldwasser Controversy

As has been extensively (though I’m not sure accurately) reported, Rabbi Michael Broyde has been using a pseudonym,  Hershel Goldwasser, to engage in various discussions in the Jewish community. R. Broyde has used the the Goldwasser name in various forums: print publications, the comments sections of blogs, and even the private listserv of the IRF, a rabbinic group in which Goldwasser has membership(!) but Broyde does not. At times, the Goldwasser character spoke in high praise of R. Broyde and his work. This story went public on Friday; before Shabbos, Broyde had penned an apology for his “error in judgment” to a former IRF president, and subsequently released a more thorough and explanatory public apology.

As could be expected, R. Broyde has been castigated by some, while others have looked at him more favorably. Here are some of my thoughts.

First, a thought on dishonesty. (Because I don’t think anyone was actually harmed by R. Broyde’s actions, the dishonest nature of them becomes the major point.) Honesty is not a value in and of itself. Let us assume a gunman entering a school and asking a teacher he meets in the hall where the students are. I think we can reasonably agree that honesty should not be the teacher’s policy in this instance. Honesty is generally the proper path, but there are times when it is unnecessary or counter-productive. If we are to assume that R. Broyde was acting for the sake of Heaven, that his heart was in the right place, then judging him on strict true-false honesty seems improper.

Beyond this, it’s not clear to me that (other than his conversation with the reporter) R. Broyde actually lied. With a friend, he created Goldwasser, a composite albeit nonexistent personality. The stories Goldwasser told were all stories that R. Broyde heard from others. I really don’t see this as dishonest. If R. Broyde were using a real person’s name (i.e. R. David Feinstein) and relating stories that R. Broyde had heard from various acquaintances, this certainly would be dishonest as people who trusted R. Feinstein would be sure to trust the stories. But Goldwasser never existed, which means that nobody knew him and would therefore trust his stories. R. Broyde heard the stories from people one generation older than him and related them to the public through a figure he created who was one generation older than him. (As I write this, I realize that there are sometimes errors of transmission; we don’t treat a firsthand story the same way we treat a secondhand one. This is a fair, but relatively minor, point.)

That Goldwasser frequently approvingly referenced R. Broyde’s work doesn’t warrant an apology. That he frequently complimented R. Broyde is – to me, at least – more curious than criminal.

About this, R. Broyde writes in his apology “anyone who has read the comments section of the Orthodox Jewish blog world knows that they are very harsh and unkind. I erred by sometimes saying something nice or validating in order to change the conversational tone.” His description of the J-blogosphere is certainly accurate. Still, that does not mean that his actions were appropriate.

Second, I find it bizarre that one can become a member of a rabbinic organization without having fulfilled the pre-requisite of existence. The IRF and R. Broyde both come off looking better if we bear in mind what commenter Yaakov Komisar stated here.

Broyde refers to joining the IRF listserv back when it was in its infancy. At that time, before the official founding of the organization, there were no by-laws or anything of the sort. It was simply a listserv. I was not then a member, so I don’t know what the requirements were to join. I believe that the handful of members from that era were possibly grandfathered into the listserv after the by-laws were passed and the organization became official. (that is my understanding, anyway)

Komisar further states that when the IRF left its infancy, there was a crackdown on membership. (I still find it bizarre that one can be a member of a rabbinic organization without existing, but I suppose it’s less of a black mark if they’ve cracked down on membership.)

There’s a lot more to say, but I think that’s all for now. I’m basically thinking of this whole debacle by asking myself these questions:

  1. What evil/inappropriate acts did R. Broyde engage in?
  2. Did they hurt anyone? Were they malicious or was their intent to help the world?

I think that if we answer these questions honestly, we will find room to judge favorably.

 

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