SEFER CHOFETZ CHAIM — Hilchos Lashon Hara 8:4-7
The Gemara tells us, “Even the empty ones among you are filled with mitzvos like the seeds of a pomegranate.”1 Every Jew is deserving of our concern and respect. The fact that someone is ignorant of Torah does not give us the right to speak of him in a derogatory way.
The Chofetz Chaim lived in a time when thousands of Jewish young men and women were being swept away by the winds of Socialism, Communism, and other secular movements. Tragically, some of the leaders of these movements were raised in religious homes and not only left the Torah path, but tried very hard to influence others to join them. The Chofetz Chaim labels these people apikorsim (heretics), and he derives from the Torah that it is permissible to speak lashon hara about them. As we have already mentioned, it is correct to speak badly of someone who is a bad influence, in the hope that this will convince others to stay far away from him and his sinful ideas.
At the other end of the spectrum is the talmid chacham, who represents the Torah and therefore is deserving of special respect. The Gemara labels as “foolish” those who rise in respect for a sefer Torah (as the halachah requires) but do not rise for a talmid chacham.
Speaking lashon hara about a talmid chacham is a particularly grave sin.
The Chofetz Chaim discusses a false attitude that people sometimes have. “Why must I respect him?” they argue. “You consider him a talmid chacham? Had he lived in the days of the Rambam, he would not be considered a talmid chacham at all!”
This is wrong, for we judge a person’s scholarship according to the level of his generation. “Yiftach [HaGiladi] in his generation is like Shmuel [HaNavi] in his generation.” Each generation must revere and obey their Torah leaders in the same way that earlier generations revered theirs.
Rabbi Chaim Shmulevitz added another insight. In each generation, Hashem places Torah leaders who are appropriate for that time. The leaders of later generations may not be on the level of those of earlier times, but their personalities and qualities are what their generation needs. For this, too, they should be accorded the highest respect.
When people do not show rabbanim and roshei yeshivah proper respect, the Torah is disgraced and the community’s spiritual level is lowered. Megillas Rus opens with words which our Sages interpret to mean, “And it was in the days when the judges were judged.” This sort of climate, when leaders are being judged and criticized by the masses, leads to disrespect, sin and, ultimately, destruction.
IN A NUTSHELL
We must respect even those who are ignorant of Torah.
To speak against a talmid chacham is a particularly grave sin.
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