Judaic Blogging

Some scattered thoughts on May 1, 2006:

* Almost all of the world's biggest bloggers are in the US. Colorful writers are more likely to get newspaper columns in the UK. American newspapers are more sanitized and less receptive to characters, who instead thrive on the web. (Point taken from Mark Steyn)

* There's a symbiosis between bloggers and MSM (mainstream media). Bloggers mock the MSM but are desperate for its attention, recognition and respect and usually quote it prominently on their blogs (I do). Many bloggers whine after an MSM article comes out that does not mention them (or not at sufficient length or not with the appropriate tone).

* This blog pushed the Rabbi Aron Tendler story forward (along with those of other accused rabbi-predators), while the MSM ignored it for about 15-months.

* The difference between how this blog covered Rabbi Mordecai Gafni and what Gary Rosenblatt and the MSM did on him. In the end, which was more influential on Gafni's life and career prospects?

* I believe that only Drudge and myself (and Harry Knowles and maybe two other Gentiles) have made our primary living from blogging for almost a decade.

* Dr. Jonathan Sarna says the story of American Jewish newspapers is one of decline. By contrast, blogs are the rise of a type of Jewish writing.

* Internet Judaism has always been a dominantly Orthodox thing (when I seek to listen to Torah lectures on the web, most of the available ones are Orthodox, and when I search for information on Judaic topics, Google usually sends me to an Orthodox presentation) and my perception is the most important bloggers on Judaism have at least one foot in Orthodox Judaism (Steven I. Weiss, Protocols, and co).

* I find non-Orthodox Judaism far less interesting and passionate than Orthodox Judaism (this is no judgment about truth, only a perception of the commitments of the adherents of the various streams), and thus it is not surprising that most interesting Jewish writing these days (particularly fiction) has a foot in Orthodoxy.

* If I were Jewish and I wanted to become the best writer I could be, and all other considerations were equal, I'd go Orthodox, because it will challenge and provoke your writing more than any other Jewish alternative (but to live your life in an Orthodox ghetto will usually weaken your writing and perceptions as well as humanity).

* There's no must-read Jewish blog. No Jewish equivalent of Matt Drudge or Jim Romenesko or Kevin Roderick (sites that consistently break stories and link to breaking stories elsewhere, updated many times a day). I sometimes yearn to shoot for this, to earn my living from breaking Jewish stories, but frankly, breaking stories about goyim is just as exciting to me, and usually more profitable, not to mention less hazardous to my Jewish communal health.

On the other hand, my lack of Jewish attachments make it easy for me to break stories about almost anybody, even those in my community, because my community would as soon invite Larry Flynt into their home for Shabbos and invite him to date their daughters...

Agudath Israel Troubled By Blogs

Agudath Israel is a collection of right-wing non-Zionist Orthodox rabbis.

Its American branch will hold its 84th annual national convention November 23-26, 2006 at the Sheraton Stamford Hotel in Stamford, Connecticut.

According to this right-wing religious source:

The Thursday night session is entitled "Torah Wisdom/Torah Authority: Are We Losing the Connection?"

"Klal Yisroel has always understood that its true leaders are the gedolei Yisroel, the einei ho'eidoh whose uniquely refined vision enables them to guide the Jewish people through the darkest of situations," says Rabbi Zwiebel.

"In recent years, though," the Agudah leader observes, "due to a variety of factors, the authority of daas Torah has been significantly undermined, even within our own chareidi circles. Most troubling has been the proliferation of Internet 'blogs' where misguided individuals feel free to spread every bit of rechilus and loshon hora about rabbonim and roshei yeshiva, all with the intended effect of undermining any semblance of Torah authority in our community. It is most appropriate for an organization like Agudath Israel, whose very essence was built on the recognition of the authority of Torah leaders, to address this issue head on, and formulate concrete plans to reinvigorate public awareness of this essential element of the Torah way of life."

I agree that blogging tends to undermine the authority of rabbis as well as other dictators and all those (including the conventional Jewish press such as the The Jewish Week) who rely on secrecy to exercise their power and fear the sunlight of public accountability. The democratic nature of blogging gives everybody a voice and dissent can no longer be squelched.

February 7, 2007

Every time I see Rav Yitzhok Adlerstein, I am mortified because 16 years ago I was writing him heartfelt letters about how I wanted to live for God.

Now look at me.

I snuck into Helkeinu Wednesday night and taped Rabbi Adlerstein speaking for over an hour on "Whistleblowers And Fingerpointers: Dealing With Abuse Within The Organized Jewish Community."

Before an audience of eleven, Rav Adlerstein, Orthodoxy's pre-eminent spokesman in Los Angeles, began by dismissing these commonly offered arguments for not reporting child molesters:

* That Jewish law (halacah) says we should not hand over Jews to non-Jewish authorities.

* That it is wrong to pass on gossip, even when true.

* That we should judge our fellow Jew favorably.

Rav Adlerstein said child molesters are rarely cured. They need to be kept away from children.

Rifka, a poster on failedmessiah.com, transcribed the following five paragraphs from the beginning of Rav Adlerstein's talk:

"I've got to tell you what the bottom line is. We don't have to spend three hours on the complexity. It is explicit in the Shulchan Aruch, the code of Jewish law, that people who cause grievance to the public, who cause harm to the public, there is no proscription of going to the authorities. And if there ever was a kind of person who is a public menace, a danger ... people who do incredible damage to the children psychologically, physically, change their lives around, the child abuser is certainly part of that. Then there are people in the community, I don't care who they are, whether they're rabbis, principals, social workers, baby sitters, the bottom line, halachicly, is, when there are people out there and the only way to stop them is to go to the authorities, you go to the authorities.

"Halachah does not demand that people judge favorably when judging favorably is going to lead to further damage. It's as simple as that.

"Let me tell you clearly and unequivocally what is supposed to happen when there are credible reports of abuse going on in the community. The first and only consideration is protecting any victims. The first and only consideration is protecting the victims. If ... the best way of doing that is going to the civil authorities, then you go to the civil authorities. This has been repeated again and again and again. I don't know why it comes as such as a surprise to so many people.

"That is the bottom line.

"So please don't misquote or distort anything I'm about to tell you from here on. What I am about to tell you does not take away from that conclusion."

Rav Adlerstein said that about a decade ago in Fairfax, an Orthodox woman repeatedly left and returned to her abusive non-observant husband. Finally, he murdered her.

Rav Adlerstein did not mention any names or further details, but I will.

The Jewish Journal published on January 30, 1998:

Six years ago, the Orthodox Counseling Program (OCP) of Jewish Family Service of Los Angeles began a hot line to help women such as Ilana. But at the time, OCP's Dr. Michael Held staunchly refused to talk about the hot line. "If something is difficult to accept and you splash it all over the front page," he said, "people will clam up, and you'll find yourself farther away from the people you want to help."

Instead, Held and his staff quietly worked behind the scenes, meeting with many of the more than 100 practicing Orthodox rabbis in Los Angeles, and their efforts have paid off.

...What opened the community's eyes, sources say, was the 1993 murder of Rita Parizer, 36, an Orthodox wife and motherwhose strangled body was found wrapped in a sleeping bag in a garageowned by her husband, Shalom, at 325 N. Orange Grove Ave. Rita previously had reported a marital rape but refused to press charges, LAPD Det. David Lambkin said. In August 1994, her husband was convicted of second-degree murder and sentenced to 15 years to lifein prison.

"More than anything, the Parizer case brokethrough the community's denial," said Shirley Lebovics, a licensed clinical social worker who is observant and a domestic-violence expert. "It made rabbis stop and say, 'This can happen. This is frightening. This is real.'"

...Rabbi Aron Tendler of Shaarey Zedek, however, said, "Abuse has nothing to do with one's moral upbringing, but with the [generational] cycle of violence." Tendler speaks about the phenomenon in a new videotape produced for the Jewish community by the National Center for the Prevention of Sexual and Domestic Violence.

"When I counsel couples, I tell the woman, in front of her intended husband, that if he ever raises a hand to her, she should pick herself up and leave until the problem is resolved," Tendler said. "And if a woman is unsafe, it is incumbent upon every rabbi to pull out all the stops, including saying from the bimah that a man is not welcome in the community, because he abuses his wife."

Rita Parizer went for help to the Orthodox Hotline and was seen by Dr. Michael Held and Mrs. Shirley Lebovic who did not report to the authorities the abuse Rita suffered at her husband's hands.

Dr. Held worked as a psychologist at YULA. Later he was hired by Shirley's husband as the director of a home for orthodox children with developmental problems called Etta Israel. As for Shirley Lebovic, she's in social work.

Back to the rav's talk:

"Does everybody in this room have a real need to know who the child abusers are? I think not. I think parents do. Principals do. People who run the community do. Does everyone on the block need to know? ...Not everybody needs to know."

"To just make blanket statements that lashon hara does not apply because it is for a good purpose is just a distortion of the laws of lashon hara."

Rav Adlerstein said that it is a terrible thing to falsely accuse somebody of abuse. He read from Wikipedia's entry on the McMartin case.

"Some of the people who led the charge was an editor at The L.A. Times who wound up engaged to the prosecutor. One of the most popular commentators on TV wound up romantically involved but not engaged to a social worker who interviewed the children..."

"There are huge dangers in the blogs that are out there. I'm not going to name any. All the blogs I have seen suffer from the same faults.

"There are issues about the standards of the people who run them. One of the most popular blogs out there is run by somebody who years ago went on Oprah and claimed that for many years she was abused, not that she remembers... She now remembers being abused in her Conservative synagogue for many years by Satan worshipers who abused her over a long period of time.

"That doesn't augur well for the woman's seriousness. Everything I see coming from her I take with a grain of a salt.

"Even if there were no suspicions about the person... There's someone else out there who used to be a member of my shul who I think has one of the ugliest blogs out there. A person who has taken everybody in Torah society, living, dead, for two generations back, and called them every name under the sun. I don't take him seriously either. Not that he's always wrong. It means that I find it revolting. I don't look at his site. It's been off the web for a while. He's threatening to come on again."

"Even if you have the worst bloggers out there, they're not wrong all the time. It assigns people credibility [that they don't deserve]."

"I have not seen blogs that vet their stories...and make sure that every accusation is true...or anything close to the standard that ordinary people consider true, certainly not by halacah, particularly when the people making the accusations on the blogs are anonymous.

"I have seen people, I can't tell you whether they are innocent or guilty, destroyed or near-destroyed by accusations coming from people whose names are never provided. It's easy to do that. There's no legal protection from it."

"I've sat down with constitutional law professors to see [if a temporary restraining order could be taken out].

"There is nothing preventing anyone in this room from going to a blog tonight and, 'I want to collect information on Adlerstein. I heard him speak on abuse... I think people who speak on abuse are hiding something.'"

"I know a guy who started a blog to look for information about a high-profile figure."

"You can't even by law get the owner of the server to provide the names of the people who posted..."

"...Halakhicly, you should not read them. ...If you read them, you should not believe them [unless they've been proved true halakhicly]."

"...One person who was charged with serious things [not child abuse] and one important person in his community said, '...If this person is guilty, the reason he was able to evade the wrath of the community for so long because blogs pointed to his guilt and so many people were so fed up with it, that nobody would make charges without backing it up, it gave the person [charged] more credibility...because blogs they didn't trust contributed to the hunt against him.'"

"I sat in a room once where a group of aggrieved parents ganged up against the offices of a major organization that may or may not, but very likely yes, made serious mistakes about someone in their employ... who was convicted and is spending time and is well out of the picture... It wasn't handled the right way. This person was no longer a threat.

"The people came and they wanted...blood. They wanted people punished. They wanted to see people suffer for their sins.

"That is a profoundly un-Jewish reaction."

"It is not our business to punish people. It is our business to get people out of harm's way. ...Vengeance is not a Jewish idea...except for in a court of law."

"In some cases, a cover-up is not the worst thing."

"Discretion is not the worst thing."

"Cities should put together a special law court, beit din, for issues of abuse. Chicago put together a special beit din for issues of abuse. I guess there will be such a thing in Los Angeles."

"Journalistic exposure is a last resort. The zeal to go after an accused abuser [often leads to bad results]."

Rav Adlerstein did not name any names.

When he finished talking, I walked out the door and rushed home to blog.

I always leave an encounter with Rabbi Adlerstein feeling that I must change my ways and become a better person.

I couldn't sleep all night, which is only just considering the sleepless nights I have given others (and that was before I started to blog).

Rifka posts on FailedMessiah.com:

In the taping I hear R' Adlerstein presenting a highly nuanced halachic step-by-step formula for one to determine for him or herself whether or not blogs that make claims about people within the community should be read. He begins his discussion on blogs by praising their strengths. He recognizes that they've been a means by which some individuals have been able to air honest grievances. He also praised blogs for instances where abuse has been brought to light. He followed that by listing the inherent dangers of blogs, one being that anonymity facilitates the ability of a blogger to make a spurious charge, with the one slandered having virtually no legal recourse. So what is the observant reader to do? On the one hand is the need to protect the community from a public menace balanced against hurting an innocent person.At this point, R' Adlerstein lays out the halachic FORMULA for reading the particular kind of blog he has just described, i.e., anonymous ones that call into question individuals' reputations. As I understand him, he sets forth a default position of halachah (defined by lashon hara considerations) and immediatly follows his statement of the default position with the next halachic step. I'm not the best transcriber, but this is what I hear him say, "I will tell you that, halachicly, first of all, I think you shouldn't be reading them. If you do read them, you have an obligation to first say, Do I need to be reading this? Say, you're a parent and you want to know what's going in your community...." The rav continues with the triage of questions, guiding the prospective reader to a place of being able learn vital information from a blog but not facilitate what could be sheer slander.

Uncle Joe McCarthy posts to Failed Messiah:

rav adlerstein begins his lesson by whitewashing the case of the husband who killed his wife. i am not sure what level the group was he was speaking to, but if one is to bring up that case, then either tell the facts, or dont bring it up at all. the reason there was "guilt" in the community, if one can even call it that, was that the rebeim not only knew about the abuse, but on numerous occasions, told the victim to return to her husband, inspite of the abuse. the fact that adlerstein puts the onus on the victim, and that it was she who forgave and returned, shows exactly where he is at in regards in the attempt of rebeim in the los angeles and other communities, to deflect blame from rabbinic authorities for abuse cases that they become aware of.

secondly, not once does adlerstein bring up nor discuss reporting laws in context with halacha. this is a grave error on his part, and this type of ignorance was shown in the lanner case when lanner's second in command stated on the stand that he was ignorant of the reporting laws in new jersey, and when informed of the laws, stated that he did not believe that they applied to him.

thirdly, i find it interesting that adlerstein has problems with some blogs, yet quotes liberally from wikipedia in regards to the mcmartin case. wikipedia is not a vetted source on the net. it is a user driven source of information and frequently has mistatements of facts, or facts that can be easily rebutted depending on which side of a topic one comes from.

fourth, in regards the special beis din. it seems to me. that (at least in adlersteins view) it would be setup as a first line or report, not as an adjunct to the civil and criminal courts. if this is the case, and if this is the case in chicago, all that will happen is another halachically ordained level of coverup. i turn back to state reporting laws. in the state of california, a professional or layman who is in charge of children, does not have the right to determine whether something can or cannot be reported. when they become aware of abuse, no matter the severity, they must report it to the proper authorities. end of story, and no beis din should be setup to abrigate responsiblity for the reporting of events.

fifth, adlerstein seems to dismiss inapropriate speech, sexual harrasment and seems to attempt to differentiate between rape and fondling or innapropriate touching. this is a dangerous distinction to make. for example, in the lanner case. frequently when complaints were made regarding his inapropriate speech towards teens, these reports were sluffed off as harmless. in regards to hypothetical sexual harrasment case that adlerestein brings up, he neglects to note that especially in the community, these types of incidents arent reported, therefore, where does he come up with that, well this incident occured 25 years ago, but nothing has occured since. and very nice blaming it on the perps marital problems, as sexual harrasment usually has little to do with what is occuring in a marriage, but much more to do with issues of power. and i did so like it when he blamed blogs for allowing some perp to continue in his behavior...again, a direct attempt to alleviate criticsm of the rabaim in the community. all that adlersteins talk did, was reinforce in me, that halachic and rabbinic authorities have a long way to go in both the understanding and how to deal with these issues. until that time comes, i would be very wary at bringing any case before any beis din, special or not