The Great Controversies Of The Chofetz Chaim

The Chofetz Chaim was a European Orthodox rabbi who lived at the turn of the last century. According to Wikipedia: “Yisrael Meir (Kagan) Poupko (Dziatłava, 1838 – Radun’, 1933), known popularly as The Chofetz Chaim, was an influential Lithuanian Jewish rabbi of the Musar movement, a Halakhist, posek, and ethicist whose works continue to be widely influential in Jewish life. His surname, Poupko, is not widely known.”

The rabbi’s most famous book is known as the Chofetz Chaim (Desiring Life) and it is against gossip. Like many leading rabbis, Yisrael Meir became known by the name of his leading publication.

In his first lecture on R. Meir Simcha of Dvinsk for Torah in Motion, history professor Marc B. Shapiro says: The Mishna Brura (the most influential commentary today on daily Jewish law for Ashkenazi Jews compiled by the Chofetz Chaim) only became canonical in the last 30 years.

R. Meir Simcha of Dvinsk attacked the Chofetz Chaim at a rabbinic meeting in 1910. R. Meir Simcha of Dvinsk said the meeting was only for congregational rabbis.

Various rabbis made fun of the book Chofetz Chaim. The Chazon Ish is said to have made fun of the Chofetz Chaim book on gossip. “Even if these stories are not accurate, that they are told in the yeshiva world shows that this is an ethos that great rabbis shared.”

Chazon Ish said the Chofetz Chaim did not know what he was talking about in this book.

According to his critics, the Chofetz Chaim created halacha (Jewish law) out of mussar (ethical exhortations, frequently extreme). That he took aggadic (stories) things and turned them into halacha. That he took ethical statements and turned them into Jewish law.

“I don’t know today if anyone would have the courage to say something like that [to make these criticisms of the Chofetz Chaim book].”

Marc Shapiro emails to correct my flawed early version of this blog post: “I was asked what the Chazon Ish thought of the book called Chofetz Chaim, which is a book about Lashon Hara. That is what the Chazon Ish is said not to have liked, not the person known as the Chofetz Chaim. The Chazon Ish thought the world of the person the Chofetz Chaim, and also his book Mishneh Berurah. But he wasn’t such a fan of the BOOK Chofetz Chaim.”

According to the Chofetz Chaim, no gossip is permitted, even between husband and wife. Rav Shlomo Zalman Auerbach thought differently.

Today, the Chofetz Chaim is the last word in these matters and that Rav Shlomo Zalman Auerbach would have the temerity to tell yeshiva students that they don’t have to listen to the Chofetz Chaim, that’s a bit difficult in the yeshiva world today and so they removed it [from a haredi publication of Rav Shlomo Zalman Auerbach].

According to Rabbi Jacob Emden, you could say Lashon Hara (gossip) about anyone who was your enemy. I guess this is a justification for all the Lashon Hara he tells in his own books.

There are all sorts of heterim (permissions) for Lashon Hara. The Meiri says that if you say it publicly, it is not Lashon Hara. There are all sorts of views out there by great rabbis. Then the Chofetz Chaim codified Judaism’s teachings on gossip and made it appear as though Judaism had a universal prohibition on speaking ill of others.

If you read the writings of the great rabbis, almost all of these gadolim violate the laws of the Chofetz Chaim (Desiring Life). Of course, these great rabbis do not think they are saying Lashon Hara. They believe the target of their enmity deserves it. If their target is doing bad things, then they deserve.

It’s depressing. For many of these rabbis, it’s just a personal weakness, though none of them would admit it. They’d say they are exposing hypocrites as the Talmud commands.

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About Luke Ford

I've written five books (see Amazon.com). My work has been followed by the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, and 60 Minutes. I teach Alexander Technique in Beverly Hills (Alexander90210.com).
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