There has been no more counterproductive weapon in the history of the world than excommunication. By excommunicating somebody you guarantee them an audience. You guarantee them a cause. You make a martyr out of them. Instead of ending the problem, excommunication exacerbates the problem.
That is what happened with Martin Luther and his break with the Catholic Church. The Church could have ignored his 95 theses that he posted up on the wall on the door of the Cathedral at Wittenberg. Or any priest could have just ripped them off! But the mistake the Church made was that they took it very seriously and excommunicated Luther. Once they excommunicated him everyone wanted to know what he said! Where can we get a copy of those 95 things? Before they knew it the Protestant movement spread like wildfire.
That is the problem with excommunication. In the Talmud there are a number of cases of excommunication. But in the Talmud it is always the great men of the Talmud themselves and although the letter of the law was enforced the spirit of the law never was. For instance, the great Rabbi Eliezer ben Hyrcanus was excommunicated because he refused to accept the opinion of the Academy of Hillel over the Academy of Shammai. Yet, Rabbi Akiva and all the other great men of the generation continued to visit Rabbi Eliezer and learn from him! They just did not walk within four feet of him, as the letter of the law required. That is not excommunication as it later was made famous – infamous – by the Church.
A similar story in the Talmud is told about the excommunication of Elisha ben Abuyah, the teacher of the great Rabbi Meir. Rabbi Meir continued to study with him, but also kept the distance. He continued the relationship.
The Chicago Cubs
In 1945, the Chicago Cubs last won the pennant. A yeshiva boy decided to stand in line all night and get World Series tickets — which he promptly turned around and scalped the next day for three or four times the price. However, he didn’t realize that he scalped them to undercover agent for the Chicago police department. They took this 13-year-old yeshiva boy and put him in jail for the night so that he should remember the lesson.
The administration of the yeshiva was in an uproar. A yeshiva boy doing something that!? This was the 1950s. It was unprecedented. The school called a meeting the next morning to discuss if they should allow him back to the yeshiva or expel him.
The dean, Rabbi Greenberg, was a very clever man. One of the teachers came up to him and said, “We have to kick this boy out. It’s in the papers — a yeshiva student in jail, scalping World Series tickets!”
Rabbi Greenburg replied, “I looked through the entire Shulchan Aruch (the corpus of Jewish law) and I cannot find the Chicago Cubs.”
And they did not expel the boy. He graduated and became a leader of the Jewish community in Chicago. Today he lives in Jerusalem, learns Torah every day and has marvelous children and grandchildren. If they would have thrown him out of the yeshiva what would have happened to him?
The lessons of excommunication should not be lost on us today.