Tuesday, August 23, 2005

Talking Politics

May a Jew discuss politics? Not necessarily on Shabbos but any day. Why not? We read in last week's Torah portion "And these words which I command you today shall be in your heart. You shall teach them diligently to your children, and shall talk of them when you sit in your house, when you walk by the way, when you lie down, and when you rise up." (Deut. 6:7)

The Gemara in Yoma (19b) states:

"And you shall talk of them" -- of them you have permission to talk and not of other matters... Rava said: One who speaks mundane talk (sihas hullin) transgresses a positive commandment, as it says "And you shall talk of them" -- of them and not of other matters.
If that is the case, perhaps we are not allowed to talk about mundane matters such as politics.

R. Yitzhak Sorotzkin (Rinas Yitzhak Deut. 6:7) quotes two views on this matter. R. Zalman Volozhiner, the brilliant younger brother of R. Hayim Volozhiner, reportedly analyzed this issue in depth (as discussed in his biography, Toledos Adam ch. 7). He concluded that one may not speak about mundane matters when an obligation to learn Torah is in force. However, in places where on may not study Torah, such as in the bathhouse, one may speak freely. Therefore, he personally would talk about world events and tell stories while in the bathhouse but immediately upon leaving would speak about only Torah matters.

Over a century later, R. Barukh Ber Leibowitz had a different approach. He held that even when earning a living, and therefore exempt from the obligation to study Torah while working, one may not engage in mundane matters. According to R. Leibowitz, the prohibition against sihas hullin is separate from the obligation to learn Torah and is in force even when the obligation to learn Torah is not. This is in contrast to R. Zalman Volozhiner, who held that the prohibition against sihas hullin is only the flip side of the obligation to learn Torah. When the latter is not in force, neither is the former.

According to R. Leibowitz, we must also say that the prohibition is not on all non-Torah matters. If that were the case, one would be unable to learn a living! Clearly, speaking about, for example, the price of diamonds is permissible for a diamond merchant. One must merely take care to choose a profession that is about serious matters, excluding (perhaps) being an entertainment reporter and other jobs that deal with frivolous matters. There is, evidently, a lower level of discussion that revolves around lesser topics and is called sihas hullin. However, mundane non-Torah matters that are inherently neutral are not forbidden as sihas hullin. According to R. Zalman Volozhiner, anything that is not Torah is sihas hullin and is only permissible when one is exempt from learning Torah.

According to R. Leibowitz, it could be that politics is not considered sihas hullin. While obviously one must learn Torah, it could very well be that there is no prohibition against talking about politics. However, according to R. Zalman Volozhiner, it seems that there is a prohibition against talking about any non-Torah matters.

This disagreement seems to be a dispute among rishonim. Rashi (Yoma 19b sv. ve-lo bi-dvarim aherim) writes that the prohibition is specifically against childish and lightheaded talk. In other words, silliness and nonsense. Talmidei Rabbenu Yonah (Rif, Berakhos 9b sv. ve-dibarta 2) seems to hold that anything other than Torah is prohibited, with a special exemption for work-related matters because one is allowed to earn a living. Thus, R. Leibowitz seems to follow Rashi's approach and R. Zalman Volozhiner the approach of Talmidei Rabbenu Yonah.

Significantly, the Magen Avraham (156:2) quotes this prohibition as forbidding "insulting matters and lightheadedness." This is in line with Rashi and R. Leibowitz, and would presumably allow discussion of matters that are not Torah-related but still serious.


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