Rabbi Avi Shafran has been a spokesman for Agudath Israel (right-of-center Orthodox group) for about a decade. He writes weekly columns widely printed in the Jewish press.
"I'm something of a journalism junkie," he says July 2, 2004.
"I'm not usually happy when I interact with the general press. I find that reporters often miss important nuances.
"There are, though, good reporters out there. I particularly liked the work of Gus Niebuhr, who was the religion editor of The New York Times. He's now teaching at a university. He was an open-minded, fair-minded, perceptive, reporter. And, unfortunately, he apparently didn't like his job at The Times.
"I've been impressed as well by Dan Okrent, the ombudsman at The Times. I've interacted with him considerably."
There are such people but they are few and far between and Rabbi Shafran does not know them.
"Are there things the Orthodox community has been doing that discourage Jews from going into journalism?"
"It is a problem. I was heartened that the most recent issue of The Jewish Observer (published by Agudath Israel) took to task the state of secular education in some Haredi schools, that secular studies are not taken seriously enough in some of our yeshivos. It seems that we subtly send the message that these are not important things. And that's not right. First, they are required by American law, which should take the issue off the table. Communication skills are the most valuable things a Jew can have. We're all about communication, study, arguing, investigating.
'It's not surprising that our focus has been somewhat limited until now. The last 40 years of American Orthodoxy have largely been all about recovering from the Holocaust. We've rarely had the chance to settle down and set forth a positive agenda."
"Do your fellow [charedim] give you a hard time about your column and work with the secular news media?"
"Not really. I have a good relationship with my community. Sometimes I will get scathing letters about using big words. I also get criticized for referring to Reform and Conservative [clergy] as rabbis."
Rabbi Shafran's formal secular education ended when he graduated high school.
"Someone who makes no effort to be objective. When words are taken out of context. Ideas are skewed and not rendered the way they are given over, and it happens eight or nine times with the same person, I become disillusioned. There's only one reporter, though, whom I've written out. Not to say that there aren't others I'm cautious about."
"The Forward is generally a fascinating paper. It fills a niche. It's independent and cheeky and undaunted. I've been happy with the way its editors have responded when I've had criticism of the way a particular thing has appeared in the Forward. When I've requested Op/Ed space to reply to something, they've been forthcoming. In one case, I skewered the paper for a blatantly hypocritical position. They had editorialized about the need to take care of America's underprivileged children no matter whose fault it is that they are underprivileged (referring to the urban communities). Then a while later, they blasted the Israeli charedi community for having so many children and asking the government to help support them.
"It was to their tremendous credit that they published my piece, and without any editorial response. They gave themselves a black eye. When I asked JJ Goldberg for permission to reprint it, he even said to me, 'It is one thing to let you do what you did in our pages, but to have you do it in other papers, we'd prefer you do not.' I respected that sentiment, but took it as a compliment.
"On the other hand, I think there have been times when the paper has been too anxious to score a scoop, and in the process has trampled objectivity. One example is the story they did on that book [about Jews and non-Jews] that was put out in Lakewood.
"The Forward was approached by [Allan Nadler], who is not a journalist but an academic. Academics have no business writing news stories. He should have written an Op/Ed piece, but even that would have been slanderous, I think. He wrote a front page news story. I wonder what would happen if I wrote an entirely opinionated, and inaccurate, news story and asked them to run it on the front page.
"As I understand, he went to the Forward and said, this is an article I've written. If you don't want it, I'll go to your competitor. The Forward was fair enough to share with us the first draft of the piece, and were were apoplectic. It had things in there whose appearance would have been dangerous for the Jewish community but what was worse was that those things were clearly not reflective of what the book had said. We hadn't read the book at that point, but we knew what it could not conceivably say and indeed, once it was read, it became clear that it hadn't said those things. They considerably changed the first version but they still left in stuff that we considered to be libelous.
[I understand from my sources within the Forward that the paper kept Allan Nadler's byline on the article when he did almost none of the reporting and absolutely none of the writing].
"It was an article designed to get non-Jews upset," says Rabbi Shafran. "It was an irresponsible thing to run it, yet run it they did. When some people within our organization criticized it, they made that into a story also. As if we were trying to interfere with the march of progress.
"The book was a polemic. It wasn't meant to be a comprehensive exposition of the Jewish attitude towards non-Jews. It was more about the importance of Jews distancing themselves in their minds from from non-Jews.
"The book was written in Hebrew for a small like-minded community. I think he printed a few hundred copies. [Allan Nadler] came across it in a bookstore in Jerusalem and was outraged by it, which he has the right to be if he wants. I don't know. I haven't read the whole book. I'm not particularly interested in reading it. I have my own clarity on the topic.
"What did you think of Gary Rosenblatt's famed investigative series on Baruch Lanner?"
"I don't know the background of the story to know if there could have been a less public way the issue could have been dealt with. I would have found that to be the first choice. Making the assumption, though, that there wasn't any less public way, I can't have any complaints against the decision to run the story. Gary has said that he consulted with rabbinic authorities about what to do and presumably he followed what they told him. To me, that's the bottom line determinant of whether it was proper or not."
"Certain types of proposed legislation would require a school to immediately refer a report about the abuse of a child to the police. I believe your organization opposes that."
"It should be self-evidently absurd that a so child-centered-community as the strictly Orthodox world could conceivably act against the interests of its own children. No, we're not in favor of turning a blind-eye to sex abuse. The disagreement here is not about the goal but the approach. Involving the authorities at every turn is one approach and tightening up the administrative ship (ensuring that only responsible people oversee our schools) is another approach. We strongly favor the latter over the former.
"I was a Jewish educator for almost two decades. For several of those years, I was a principal. The last thing that would've benefited my students would've been calling in the authorities any time a conceivable abuse of a child had been charged. Any time a student had been given a joint by another one or an altercation had taken place with a teacher that someone could've characterized as an assault. To call in the cops every time when there is already a responsible person in a responsible position who will see to it that perpetrators are counseled and disciplined if necessary...is counterproductive. Legislation to automatically involve the police at every turn would put a damper on the educational process and create a highly-charged accusatory environment."
"Do you think a child in an Orthodox day school is less likely to be abused than a child in another type of school?"
"I don't know. My first reaction might be that it's less likely because Halacah prevents all sorts of situations that lead to abuse. But realistically speaking, such halachic restrictions generally involve only members of the opposite sex. Members of the same gender are not governed by those restrictions -- although some schools have voluntarily undertaken them and require, for instance, that a teacher or administrator should never be alone and secluded with a child."
"I often enjoy the observations of Professor [Jacob] Neusner. I find it difficult to get through some of his scholarly pieces. I am not a scholar. He's critical of some of the things I'm critical of, so maybe I'm just seeing a like-minded approach there."
I ask about Rabbi Shafran's attendance of the last AJPA conference.
"I was impressed by Reform Rabbi Salkin's talk. During a lunch, he called to task all the journalists there regarding lashon hara. We have an obligation, he said, as Jewish journalists to realize that not everything that can be reported on should indeed be reported on. I'm glad that it came out of his mouth [and not that of a charedi rabbi], because I think the people there would have respected it more coming from him. I'm interested in people getting that message."
"Are you comfortable with Rabbi Shmuley Boteach being the best known voice for Orthodox Judaism in North America?"
"I don't know that I'm happy with that; there are other Orthodox voices that should be better known. He's written some fine things. I don't want to get into his past and some of the people he's rubbed elbows with. I think he's often written responsibly. He took Madonna to task. I don't know if I wouldn't have done it so harshly. To lay bare some of the emptiness of the secular world, I respect him for that. I'm not enamored, though, with his focus on things sexual. I don't know that he's written anything halachiclly outrageous, but there's a certain concept in Judaism called tzniut (modesty). That one does not flaunt issues that are best kept in the private realm. I don't know whether he's guilty or not of having done that. I'm not intimately familiar with what he's written but placing sex repeatedly in the spotlight is not something I can endorse."
"No. I get my kicks out of seeding minds. I like to put ideas out there for people to get upset at or to just tweak them. I'm a sort of terrorist. I don't plant bombs but ideas, to try to get people talking. I'm gratified when I can get minds to focus on something. I don't want to see my face in The New York Times. I'd rather get some thoughts that I've put forth become discussed in the public sphere. That's my darkest desire."
Taking the Prize
By Rabbi Avi Shafran
Last December, an article appeared on the front page of a national Jewish weekly that sought to implicate the largest yeshiva in the United States - and by association, the entire "ultra-Orthodox" world - for its connection to what the piece's headline called an "anti-Gentile book."
The book in question, self-published with a run of several hundred copies, had indeed been written by an alumnus of Beth Medrash Govoha in Lakewood, N.J, and carried approbations from revered rabbinical figures at that institution, a de rigeur practice for books published by alumni. Whatever the book's merits or demerits, though, the newspaper article's characterization of it was far off the mark, caricature bordering on (if not constituting) libel.
To be sure, the book's topic, Jewish religious tradition's understanding of Jewish "chosenness" and what it means to Jews living within non-Jewish cultures, is a delicate one. It is something more properly discussed with reverence and care in the study halls of Jewish academia or the pages of scholarly Torah journals than dealt with sensationally or superficially on the front pages of popular Anglo-Jewish media - or, for that matter, in an opinion column like this. Suffice it to note that Jewish tradition does indeed consider the Jewish people special.
But to characterize the book's take on that belief, as the article's opening paragraph did, as "a race-based theory of Jewish supremacy," as the claim that Jews constitute a "separate, genetically superior species," is excruciatingly overwrought. (Yes, Virginia, membership in the Jewish people is usually, although certainly not always, a matter of genetics, and yes, Jewish chosenness is a historic source of Jewish pride; but its upshot is "a light unto the nations," not a Master Race.) Predictably, the newspaper article has been widely posted on rabidly anti-Semitic websites.
The purple prose, as it happened, clearly tipped the writer's hand, foreshadowing not only further jaundiced descriptions but outright fabrications.
Like the article's claim that the book mandates that Jews should employ "deception" and "duplicity" in dealing with non-Jews. Not a single passage in the book remotely says anything of the sort. Nor does any imply, as the article also claimed, that the "terribly harsh treatment of the pagan inhabitants of ancient Canaan… ought to be applied to [our] non-Jewish neighbors in America." In reality, the book devotes an entire chapter to the importance of Jewish deference to non-Jews and of avoiding confrontation with Gentile neighbors.
The article accurately notes that the book "draws on an array of racist sources ranging from medieval theological tracts to the writings of Friedrich Nietzsche to the words of Nazi figures," but implies that those sources are somehow cited approvingly. The book, however, employs them merely to make the author's case that anti-Semitism at its core reflects resentment for the special spiritual status of Jews.
The essential outrage of the newspaper article, as it happens, runs considerably deeper than the subtle disparagements and blatant falsehoods with which it is riddled. It lies in the very fact that the article - a news report, after all, not an opinion column - was vetted by the paper's editors and accepted for publication in the first place. Because its author (as if his report itself weren't proof enough) is hardly an objective observer of haredim. An academic who has described himself as having followed a "trajectory from Orthodox Judaism to a more liberal, secular Jewish identity," he has publicly described the "yeshiva world" as "the Jewish equivalent of the Taliban."
Can someone who bears animus for a certain population really be expected to objectively report on the subject of his ire? Would any reputable news organization assign a Palestinian political activist to cover a story about a Jewish West Bank community? An anti-Catholic minister to cover a Vatican conclave? For that matter, James Carville to cover the Republican National Convention; or Karl Rove, the Democratic? One imagines such matters are covered in Journalism 101.
And yet, remarkably, it is not unusual for major Jewish media - and not only the newspaper that published the outlandish article - to disregard the deep personal feelings some of their correspondents may harbor, and have them report on a community they distrust or even despise: the Orthodox.
There are exceptions, without question, fine and fair reporters for Jewish media who have no bones to pick and no frustrations to vent; who endeavor, and succeed, to file objective and accurate stories. But the exceptions don't negate the unfortunate rule.
One natural address for tackling the disturbing ethical problem of bias in Jewish reportage would be the American Jewish Press Association, a national organization of Jewish journalists that does wonderful work. AJPA keeps its members abreast of important developments in the field and offers other resources to editors and reporters. It also organizes annual conferences that include interesting sessions and speakers. Its most recent conference several weeks ago in Atlanta, which I attended, was no exception.
But one aspect of the AJPA conference this year stands as a depressing but telling commentary on the state of contemporary Jewish journalism. Not only was the newspaper article about the "anti-Gentile" book not publicly exposed as an irresponsible hatchet job.
It was awarded a prize, for "Excellence in News Reporting."
Open Season on the Orthodox
By Rabbi Avi Shafran
The scene, colorfully painted with words, fairly leaps off the page: Shabbat at the Kotel Ma'aravi, Jerusalem's Western Wall, people standing in prayer, a paraplegic in a motorized wheelchair, a group of Hassidic men approaching...
"…like a big-league pitcher [one Hasid] cocked his arm and flung the rock at the man in the wheelchair. The rock hit him in the middle of his forehead, his neck reeled back and blood oozed down this face. Unable to wipe the blood from his eyes, the man was blinded… Then the adorable little children, who only seconds ago were throwing candy [at a bar-mitzvah boy] turned into savages and started picking up rocks and hurling them at the man. Two of them grabbed the brightly colored prayer shawl from around the man's neck and cracked it like a whip in his face.
"Some Americans tried to intervene but were themselves stoned. Nearby guards stood by, apparently assuming that the man was getting just punishment for his crime: using electricity on the Sabbath."
The report appeared in the November 15, 1994 issue of the Arizona State University daily paper, The State Press; it had been recommended for publication by the chairman of the university's journalism department and the director of the school's Walter Cronkite School of Journalism. The story, after all, was compellingly written and important.
Only one problem: it never happened.
On November 29, after being read by thousands, the report was retracted, when a law student dared to demand corroborating facts, and none were to be found. Pressed for the truth, the aspiring 24-year-old senior journalism major who had penned the piece admitted that the entire account, from start to finish, had been the product of her own fertile imagination.
It was a gross, but far from singular, example of the "anything goes" attitude often adopted for Orthodox Jews by the media. In fact, in terms of the injury done to the Orthodox community and to intra-Jewish relations - not to mention to truth - it pales beside some of the more subtle, hence more believable, misreportage that has appeared in recent years.
The Wall is Wailing
The Kotel Ma'aravi, the remnant of the Second Jewish Holy Temple (destroyed nearly 2000 years ago, according to Jewish tradition, because of "causeless hatred" among Jews) seems in particular to inspire such fare.
Many Jews, and no doubt many more non-Jews, have seen or read news reports over recent years of confrontations at that holy site, often on Tisha B'Av (the anniversary of the Temple's destruction) or Shevuot (which commemorates how all Jews stood as one at Mt. Sinai to receive the Torah).
Groups of American non-Orthodox Jews and clergy, declaring their "equal rights" to the Wall, have chosen the Kotel plaza for mixed-sex services, a contemporary practice regarded by the Orthodox as a flouting of Jewish religious law. Their services often feature women cantors, which the tens of thousands of Orthodox Jews who traditionally gather at the site on those days regard as an assault on traditional Jewish modesty. Some of the Kotel "regulars" react with pain; others, unfortunately, with anger, vented through the casting of objects at the non-traditional worshippers.
Those inexcusable expressions of outrage are prominently featured by the press (invariably notified of the likely photo-op beforehand by the non-Orthodox groups' organizers). Very often, moreover, media reports - and the sermons and speeches of some non-Orthodox Jewish leaders - promote the impression that non-Orthodox Jews are not welcome at the Wall.
New York Times correspondent Joel Greenberg, for instance, reported on August 12, 1997 that the Western Wall "which used to attract Israelis of different religious backgrounds, has in recent years become a preserve of the strictly Orthodox."
"The Western Wall," insisted Rabbi Ami Hirsch, director of the Association of Reform Zionists of America, quoted in Ha'aretz this past February 2, "belongs to all Jews."
"It appears," asserted Jacob Stein, a past president of the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism that "we [non-Orthodox] cannot worship at the Kotel without the risk of physical attack."
Anyone, though, who has been at the Kotel in distant and recent years knows that it always has and still attracts Jews (and, for that matter, non-Jews) of all stripes, and is, at least in the absence of provocative acts, a place of profound peace and prayer. Since the Wall's capture in 1967, there have been designated areas for both men and women at the Kotel, and anyone who wishes can approach the Wall. It is the pointedly untraditional mode of worship that offends, not the presence of Jews of different bents.
And, despite their protestations to the contrary, the untraditionalists - who would not likely hold such services (or insist on wearing shoes) in a mosque - mean to rankle, as is evident in their own comments, at least when they're off guard.
"I have no problem," confessed David Breakstone, a Conservative educator and organizer of Tisha B'Av, 1997's "egalitarian minyan" at the Kotel, "acknowledging our rally - I mean our prayer service - was political and provocative." His comment, and hasty rephrasing, were reported by The New York Jewish Week on August 15, 1997.
An unnamed but honest Conservative rabbi, asked why he was reluctant to publicize his movement's positive accomplishments in Israel, confided to journalist David Bedein that "There's no money in that. We can only raise money by bashing the Orthodox" (reported in The Jewish Voice and Opinion, September , 1997).
And yet the press has consistently portrayed the Kotel-confrontationists as innocent victims, veritable freedom riders.
Non-Orthodox writer Hillel Halkin's was one of the rare voices of reason in the wilderness. "Are there no other places to practice Jewish feminism in the world, in Israel or even in Jerusalem," he asked, in a column in The Forward on June 27, 1997, "that they must do it at the one site where it most infuriates large numbers of other Jews?… Even common property has to have rules… [the mixed services at the Kotel constitute] a foolish, insensitive and unnecessary provocation that has nothing to do with religious freedom."
Notably unreported, moreover, in most media reports of Kotel-confrontations was the trenchant but boring fact that only a miniscule percentage of the Orthodox Jews gathered at the site have reacted at all to the untraditional groups; the overwhelming majority simply ignore the visitors' presence. On August 12, 1997, after a Tisha B'Av Kotel-clash, the Jerusalem Post reported that "inside the [Kotel] plaza, some 30,000 worshipers were oblivious to the tumult that was taking place outside. They sat on mats in front of the last remnant of the Second Temple, mourning its destruction 1927 years ago."
Similarly unnoted was the fact that the (Reform) Council of Progressive Rabbis in Israel declared that the Wall should not be considered by Reform Jews "as possessing any sanctity." The Kotel, according to the rabbinic body, "does not represent Jewish cleaving to God nor the experience of prayer… for our times."
Likewise glossed over were the facts that Orthodox religious authorities have regularly and unequivocally forbidden any venting of anger against the groups. The Edah Haredit, deeply respected by Israel's most "right wing" haredi element, issued posters that read, in part: "With the authority of our holy Torah, we warn elders to in turn warn the young to perpetrate no violence whatsoever" [emphasis in the original].
And few if any media outlets, other than the Jerusalem Post on June 21, 1997, noted how, after that summer's altercation, Orthodox folk present admonished those who reacted angrily, and came to the assistance of their non-Orthodox fellow Jews.
Into the Sewer
One report, though, first published in The New York Times on June 13, 1997, received exceedingly wide coverage, and has since become deeply cherished legend in some circles. At one Kotel-confrontation, it was alleged, Orthodox youths hurled feces at the non-traditional worshippers. (Within hours of the first reports of such outrageous behavior, a friend of mine, an official in the Reform movement, phoned to get my reaction to his own "inside information" - that bags of dung had apparently been discovered stockpiled in a yeshiva near the Kotel. I was, needless to say, appalled, and told him so.) The Jewish Telegraphic Agency, to which virtually every Jewish weekly in the country subscribes, also reported that "haredim pelted a group of men and women worshipers with human excrement."
To this day, the image continues to be invoked, despite the fact that the New York Jewish Week sought but could not find any of the despicable deed's alleged victims. The stockpile story, needless to say, turned out to be pure… balderdash.
Indeed, subsequent reportage has all but ascertained that l'affair feces - in the words of Lisa Hostein, editor of the Jewish Telegraphic Agency, speaking at last year's American Jewish Press Association annual conference - "probably didn't happen" (Long Island Jewish World, July 17, 1999, reprinted from the Cleveland Jewish News). It might seem a minor quibble; a tossed banana peel or stone, after all, is sufficiently objectionable. But the ugly canard presented a particularly incendiary image and, thundered from the pulpit and referenced in the press, has generated immense ill will toward Orthodox Jews, despite its apparent lack of moorings in reality.
All the News That Wasn't
And, sadly, it is far from the only example of a fabrication that, propelled by anti-Orthodox animus, has come to take on a colorful life of its own.
In February, 1998, a story about an Israeli rape victim who, after her victimization, was divorced by her Orthodox husband on the directive of the Orthodox rabbinate appeared in Yediot Achronot. It then made other Israeli papers - and eventually its way across the Atlantic. After several weeks, the report was exposed as a reporter's hoax, complete with references by name to non-existent rabbis (Arutz-7, March 3, 1998). Though the misreportage was serious enough for the paper to dismiss the reporter from his job, Yediot's eventual apology was relegated to page 19.
Another widely reported story, the previous year, concerned Orthodox-inspired sex-segregated sections on certain Israeli buses. Men were to sit in the front rows, women sent to the back. Outraged comparisons were made with the treatment of blacks in the 1950s American South. "Oh, my God!" feminist Letty Cottin Pogrebin, for one example, exclaimed to a reporter, "Besides evoking the obvious echoes of blacks sitting in the back of the bus, for me it evokes signs in hotels that said 'No Jews and no dogs allowed'" (New York Jewish Week, July 18, 1997).
In the end it became apparent, at least to attentive readers, that the bus lines in question exclusively serviced Orthodox neighborhoods (two lines in each of two cities, Bnei Brak and Jerusalem), and that the program had been designed and promoted by Israel's Transport Ministry - hardly a haredi hotbed - in order to increase local ridership. Furthermore, as the Jerusalem Post noted the day after Ms. Pogrebin's shock was reported, the plan turned out to be entirely voluntary. "No passenger is to be forced to enter through the front or back door." Essentially, all the plan entailed was the installation of automatic ticket punching machines in the backs of several buses whose men and women passengers felt more comfortable sitting separately.
Reasonable people might well disagree about the wisdom of even so benign a commercial promotion. But apartheid it was not.
And, in the spring of 1997, while observant Jews were joyfully occupied with the celebration of Purim, The Los Angeles Times was carelessly creating a Jewish communal crisis that would result in an unprecedented outpouring of hatred against Orthodox Jews. An Orthodox rabbinical group was reported to have declared that the "Non-Orthodox" are "Not Jews," in the words of the headline over that respected paper's front-page story that March 22. CNN had, as its own print lead: "Orthodox rabbis: Most U.S. Jews aren't really Jewish."
The group, of course, had proclaimed no such thing. While it is axiomatic that Orthodoxy rejects non-Orthodox philosophies - the gist of the group's statement - Orthodox Jews consider any born Jew or anyone halachically converted to be every bit as much a part of the Jewish people as the most observant rabbi. But the headline-writer's carelessness was nonetheless reproduced nationwide - with predictable results. The New York Times even allotted op-ed space, that March 31, for an expression of umbrage at (and further misrepresentation of) the rabbis' statement.
"So I'm not Jewish after all," the piece, by a Jewish movie producer, began. And it went angrily downhill from there.
The Los Angeles Times' correction appeared two days after the original article and was allotted two column inches on page 3. It was unacknowledged by most, if not all, of the numerous newspapers and press services that had picked up the original story and headline.
The pain and anger that followed in the wake of the misreportage are keenly felt even today -- and the distortion the headline trumpeted continues to be perpetuated by certain Jewish organizations, some Jewish religious leaders and the press.
The remarkably fundraising-successful New Israel Fund, for one example, ran a full-page ad in The New York Times (and in numerous Jewish publications) this past January that declared in its "grabber", which took up more than half the page: "It's time for American Jews to tell the Israeli Government exactly what we are. Jews." (NIF's literature is full of loaded and often blatantly inaccurate phrases about Israel's Orthodox - "self righteous fundamentalists" - who, the NIF asserts, wish Israel to "become a more theocratic state," are engaged in an "assault on religious freedom," and advocate "religious coercion.")
Another example, quoted in the Hartford Courant on February 3, was Reform Rabbi Stephen Fuchs, who fumed, "Who are they [haredim] to define who are the only authentic Jews?"
A graphically outrageous example of the press' propagation of the libel that Orthodoxy rejects the Jewishness of non-Orthodox Jews appeared in The Los Angeles Times (maybe there should be a prize for the paper making the greatest effort to misrepresent traditionally observant Jews), in a cartoon that portrayed the menacing Der Sturmer-style silhouette of an identifiably religious Jew's hat and earlocks atop a broken-armed menorah, and the legend "Only I am a Jew."
(Interestingly, in 1996, a prize was indeed awarded to Reform Rabbi Simeon J. Maslin, by the American Jewish Press association, for an article in which he expressed his revulsion toward Orthodox Jews. "[How] can a reasonable person be anything but repelled" by such Jews, he asked, in the piece, entitled "Who are the Authentic Jews?". To that question, his answer was, essentially, anyone but "those Jews who have, by their tribal exclusivism, their obsession with the punctilios of ritual… contempt for k'lal Yisrael… and, yes, their fanaticism, separated themselves from the community." Imagine an Orthodox writer writing non-Orthodox Jews out of the Jewish people. An "Excellence in Commentary" prize?)
And then there was good old Yossi, the surname-deprived, and some say depraved, gentleman who announced in the summer of 1996 what he claimed was the widespread revival in the Orthodox community of the biblical institution of "concubinage", by which certain Jewish ancients - predominantly kings - took on legal mistresses, apart from their wives.
The practice has been in disuse among Jews for several thousand years, rendered both impractical by the laws of the lands where most Jews came to settle and inadvisable by traditional Judaism's clear ideal of monogamous relationships. But Yossi had a phone and fax machine, and so the press was all eyes, ears - and keyboards. Yossi christened his "organization" with the rather ironic name, "Shalom Bayis" ("peace of the home"), and claimed that his concubinage service had amassed hundreds of satisfied - though unidentified - customers.
Without so much as even a last name to go with, and no real substantiation (Yossi did eventually make one purported concubine available for interviews), everyone from the Jewish Telegraphic Agency to the BBC, from the Washington Post to somewhat less staid publications like Marie Claire, reported on the concubine "trend" as if it were established fact.
It was not, of course, and Yossi faded in time from self-ensured anonymity to well-deserved obscurity.
As it turned out, though, the creative fellow had yet on another occasion managed to fool the press into swallowing a story about a flood of Orthodox child-marriages. The duped included The New York Times, which ran three separate articles on the "issue" over the spring of 1995.
The torrent of misleading reportage in the child marriage (or "kiddushei ketana") case began with a May 16, 1995 Jewish Telegraphic Agency report that did not question Yossi's claim of "as many as 20" cases of fathers betrothing their young daughters to men as a means of blackmailing their own estranged wives (withholding the "husbands'" identities and hence preventing the divorces necessary for the girls to marry when they got older). The JTA report described some details of only one such alleged case; The New York Jewish Week upped the ante to two. No other specific cases were ever subsequently described.
With a bit of perspective born of hindsight, The Forward, in a July 21, 1995 editorial, rhetorically asked "Just who is this renegade group [Shalom Bayis]?" and drolly answered: "Its spokesman, who goes by the name Yossi, claims that it has some 100 member rabbis - all of whom insist on anonymity." Yet, despite the utter lack of substantiation - which would surely condemn any other similarly outlandish story to most respectable newsrooms' shredders - and dozens of respected Orthodox rabbis' broad condemnation of the alleged practice, this story, too, persevered. And if any of thousands of folk today are asked if Orthodox Jews keep concubines or betroth young girls, a likely reaction will be "Hmm, why yes, I remember reading about that somewhere…"
Pilloried for Principles
Perhaps nowhere is the media bias against Orthodoxy and Orthodox Jews more evident than in the reporting of internal political matters in Israel. It is routine to read that the Orthodox seek to disenfranchise other Jews in the Jewish State when all that is really happening (and has happened for the more than fifty years of Israel's existence) is that attempts are being made to maintain conversion standards accepted by all religious Jews for millennia. The rather straightforward and reasonable notion that multiple standards for conversion will yield multiple "Jewish peoples" in Israel is seldom given expression in news reports; only the "Orthodox monopoly" - with all the phrase's undertones of evil and unfairness - is blamed throughout. The federal government in our own United States maintains standards too, for everything from food labeling to immigration. Seldom, though, does one find either the FDA or the INS condemned as a "monopoly". Is it outrageous for a Jewish State to have a standard - not to mention one with the weight of history and Jewish religious tradition behind it - for conversion?
Similarly, the Orthodox alone are faulted for their inability to accept the validity of other groups' conversion rituals. Yet the Conservative movement's own professed standards require it to consider most or all Reform conversions ineffective. Likewise, the Reform movement, despite its declared commitment to personal autonomy, will not include Humanistic Judaism or Hebrew Christian congregations under its umbrella (as the Central Conference of American Rabbis made clear in a published responsum available on the CCAR internet site; in the responsa committee's words, "there are limits"), and presumably does not consider such groups' converts to be Jews.
As a matter of fact, as Reform philanthropist Robert Lappin reminded the world in a June 25, 1999 essay in The Forward, Jews born to Jewish mothers but non-Jewish fathers and who do not affiliate Jewishly are considered full Jews by Orthodoxy but not Jewish by the Reform movement.
Yet only the Orthodox are pilloried for their principles.
Even the very term so much of the press employs to identify a major and growing part of the Orthodox community fairly drips with disdain. One dictionary defines "ultra" as "immoderately adherent" or "exceeding what is common, moderate or proper"; another, as "extreme". "Ultrasonic", after all, means "beyond the perception of sound." Are the "ultra-Orthodox" - who believe and live as Jews have for thousands of years - something other than, something beyond Orthodox?
There can be no denying that the phrase pointedly, if subtly, presents readers and viewers with an immediate, wholly subjective and unmistakably negative bias. It recalls historian Paul Johnson's description of what he called "hostile adjectival inflation" - when beliefs are "first… verbally isolated as 'traditionalist', and finally as 'fundamentalist', though they have remained the same beliefs all the time."
Neo-Nazis and terrorists are "extreme," not Jews who keep the Torah's commandments, not even Jewish men who choose to dress in dark suits or Jewish women who cover their hair. If Jews who endeavor to observe the full spectrum of Jewish law and values are "immoderate", then our people is in even greater trouble than we suspect.
Which is not even to mention that, contrary to popular imaginings, Haredim (the preferred term, from the Hebrew word for "to tremble", applied by a verse to the meticulously observant) include doctors, lawyers, computer scientists and professors, as well as full-time mothers and full-time students of the traditions and texts of the Jewish religious heritage. Most haredim may indeed reject elements of what passes for culture in modern society - many civilized non-haredim, it is rumored, are themselves less than enamoured of rap music and the current state of the cinema - but are nevertheless, to a degree, aware of, and in many cases even conversant with, the larger society around them.
Vision and Hearing Problems
A good recent example of the selective vision from which the press seems to suffer about things Orthodox is the prayer-gathering that took place in lower Manhattan this past February 28. Though it was a mere two days before Purim, 40,000 Jews, mostly haredim, gathered in a bone-chilling rain for an hour and a half of prayers and Psalm-reciting, in the wake of Israeli Supreme Court decisions that threaten to dismantle the Jewish State's religious status quo.
Forty thousand men, women and children, united in heartfelt prayer. Though they did not gather there for the media, the media was well aware of the unprecedented gathering, and most chose to ignore it. The New York Times declined to assign a reporter, but sent a photographer to the scene. The following day, a photo ran (in the paper's "Metro" section) with the headline "20, 000 Vent Anger Against Israeli Court". The Times might be forgiven for disregarding the official police estimate and undercounting the crowd by half, but… "anger"? Not a single word written or spoken at any point by the event's organizers or by any of those who led the crowd in prayer for the preservation of Jewish tradition in the Jewish State could remotely be characterized as angry. They were haredim, though, and so there had to have been anger, no?
Anger was presumed because it alone is regularly reported about haredim, while responsible haredi reactions are not.
On August, 12, 1997, for example, a piece about a Kotel confrontation by the Times's own aforementioned Joel Greenberg began, "Jeered by strictly Orthodox Jews who called them "Hamas", "terrorists" and "Christians", about 150 Conservative and Reform Jewish men and women were shoved away from the Western Wall by the police…"
The rest of the article featured a number of statements from members of the Reform and Conservative activist groups, but none at all from any Orthodox spokesperson. By fax, I asked Mr. Greenberg why not. He responded that "there was no need to interview the strictly Orthodox people at the scene because they were making their views amply and loudly known. I reported their remarks extensively." His reference, I confirmed with a careful re-reading of the article, was to the rude jeers.
It was then, I think, that I had a revelation of sorts. I understood clearly why the Times' man on the scene had not bothered to follow journalistic norms (or the rules of fair play) and quote a responsible Orthodox spokesperson (or any of the many civil Orthodox Jews on the scene), or note any of the well-publicized warnings against violence issued by respected haredi leaders: He didn't want to.
Which may be the reason the countless haredi social service projects (which assist Jews regardless of affiliation or personal philosophy) are rarely given their due. A happy exception was Jerusalem Post columnist Sam Orbaum's recent nod of acknowledgment to some ultra-caring folk. He notes how "from birth to death, you can be helped by one do-gooding haredi concern or another." Haredi efforts in Israel like Yad Sarah, which provides free medical equipment; Shalva, for Down Syndrome children; Zichron Menahem, for cancer patients - all providing services to anyone who needs it - are among the many others he mentions. Similar haredi groups, catering to all Jews, regardless of affiliation or belief, exist in the North American and elsewhere. That we so seldom hear of them, and so often hear anger aimed at haredim, should give us all pause.
Schools for Scandal?
Some of the anti-Orthodox prejudice is attributable, no doubt, to a long list of high-profile reports of wrongdoing on the part of identifiably Orthodox Jews. In some cases, there is little to be said in defense beyond the truism that materialism and greed are not faults limited to non-Jewish or non-Orthodox society. In many other cases, it is noteworthy that materialism and greed had absolutely nothing to do with the alleged wrongdoing; the perpetrator is accused not of lining his own pockets but of using illegal means to address the very real needs of a poverty-stricken community.
And in a good number of cases, what was initially (and, one suspects, excitedly) reported has turned out to have been inaccurate.
Take the flurry of press reports, in October, 1993, about the U.S. Department of Education's termination of Pell grant funding for 21 Orthodox educational institutions. The New York Times used the word "fraud" in its subheader; the Daily News' headline read "Feds see scam, pull rabbinic school funds." Needless to say, other media, including Jewish news organs, followed suit.
The large majority of schools whose funding was terminated, however, were not rabbinic schools but rather schools for Russian Jewish immigrants seeking acculturation and employment training. Moreover, the Department of Education had not alleged fraud but rather decided that the schools in question did not technically meet the statutory definition of eligibility for Pell grants. Though several of the schools may indeed have knowingly taken funds to which they were not entitled - and even this, to the best of my knowledge, was never established in a court of law - the great majority were not even accused of anything resembling fraudulent acts. On the contrary, when several of the schools formally appealed the Department's decision, their cases were adjudicated with the specific acknowledgment that they had acted completely in good faith.
The source of the negative news reports, a Department of Education official, later acknowledged that the 21 schools should not have been tarred as they were, and issued a statement to that effect. But somehow it did not receive much attention.
To be sure, and sadly, there are Haredi scoundrels. But scandalous behavior is not endemic - or disproportionately represented - in the Orthodox community. And when such behavior is evidenced by Conservative, Reform, Republican or vegetarian wrongdoers, seldom are their ideological affiliations deemed noteworthy by the press.
Meticulous honesty is a fundamental requirement of Judaism; the first question of Jews in the world-to-come, according to the Talmud (Tractate Shabbat, 31a), is "Did you conduct your financial dealings in good faith?" If a Jew who otherwise seems observant of the Torah's laws commits a crime, that reflects on his personal failing, not necessarily on that of his community - and certainly not on any failing of the Jewish religious tradition. Orthodox Judaism is synonymous with honesty. And while some Orthodox Jews' ethical failures may have a role in the public's very different perception, the media's part is hardly insignificant.
The Jews' Jews
Much of the anti-Orthodox animus, from the exaggerated reports to the entirely fabricated ones, from the principles-pillorying to the subtle name-calling, should sound sadly familiar. They echo something all too well known to students of Jewish history. The way Haredim are portrayed and projected today is painfully reminiscent of the way all Jews have been - and continue, in some circles, to be - portrayed and projected by their enemies. Haredim, tragically, have become the Jews' own Jews.
While the enemies of all Jews use bullets and bombs, and the anti-Orthodox mere words, we must never become insensitive to the deep if intangible harm that, the Talmud teaches, results from lashon horah ("evil speech") and hotza'at shem ra ("propagation of an 'evil name'").
The profoundly Jewish concept that words can kill is eagerly invoked every time an Orthodox rabbi, frustrated by outrages against all Jews' religious tradition, makes a strong statement of principle.
But "evil speech" is not synonymous with "strong speech", or even with "outrageous speech", whether it is wise or advisable or not. The term refers not to taking even unpopular stands of principle but to fostering animus against others. Like that routinely fostered against Orthodox Jews by some Jewish leaders and much of the contemporary media.
Jews as a people have been the victims of outright lies like blood libels and clever misrepresentations like the "kosher food tax" (i.e. kosher certification).
The lies and misrepresentations about Orthodox Jews today are very different, of course.
But they are no less dangerous, either to their targets or to Klal Yisrael, our holy Jewish people.
Trinkets and Truth
By Rabbi Avi Shafran
Some things defy parody; they mock themselves as adroitly as anyone else possibly could.
The Los Angeles-based Kabbalah Centre is a case in point. Appropriating language from Judaism's "hidden" tradition, it packages a smattering of Jewish (and non-Jewish) folk traditions into what it touts as Jewish mysticism for the New Age. Predictably, the effort has pulled in an assortment of spirituality-seekers, pop stars and trend-chasers - with a hungry media in hot pursuit.
Kabbalah, the largely secret and personally transmitted body of Jewish mystical ideas and practices, leans strongly toward the ascetic - quite the diametric image of the Kabbalah Centre, which hawks its wares - from "deep, advanced" books to spiritually "recharging" fragrant candles to "empowered semi precious stones and crystals" - as means to achieve physical pleasure, prosperity and longevity. If the Centre's owners themselves breathed deeply the fragrance of their Prosperity candle ("enhance[s] your capacity to receive… fulfillment is your destiny!"), their example would seem a potent testimonial indeed to its powers.
True Kabbalah, though, is comprehensible only to initiates and has never been offered to uncomprehending masses. That hasn't changed; the Kabbalah Centre has about the same relationship to the true Jewish mystical tradition as Barney has to Tyrannosaurus Rex.
And yet Jews with respect for authentic Judaism would do well to ponder the brisk business the Centre does in its snake oil for the soul.
Why, we might ask ourselves, would anyone pay $84 for a "Knitted Blanket Protection" package consisting of "a set of sheets and a knitted blanket" with Hebrew lettering (in blue or peach)?
Or $20 apiece for candles that promise to dispel anxiety, or "inspire strength and certainty"?
It wouldn't seem unreasonable to conclude that there exists a deep thirst today for protection, strength and certainty. A yearning, in other words, for the divine.
The Kabbalah Centre's lesson for us is that there are considerable numbers of people who are so determined to find nourishment for their soul they are ready to put their time, feelings, and money, into gobbledygook and trinkets.
It's significant that the most apparently successful attempt to serve up faux-religious wisdom and practices in our time has a Jewish theme. Although not all of the Kabbalah Centre's customers are Jewish, Jews seem particularly hard-wired to seek verities - even if they are prone to following false scents, like those of perfumed candles, in the process.
And so the Centre's success should be a stinging slap in the face to all Judaism-conscious Jews. Yes, we publish books and articles, provide educational programs and classes and support outreach organizations in order to share the refreshing waters of the Torah with our fellow Jews. But if there are Jews so thirsty for sacred sustenance that they resort to drinking spiritual saltwater, we are surely not doing enough.
There isn't a lot of time either. American Jewry stands at a critical juncture. Demographic studies have made clear that intermarriage and assimilation have already taken a heavy toll on the Jewish community, and the next decades are sure to be crucial to the Jewish future in North America. There is powerful growth in both commitment and numbers in the Jewishly observant community, but hundreds of thousands of American Jews who are only marginally aware of their Jewish identity will not likely instill even that degree of awareness in their own progeny.
What can we do? It is certainly vital that we support educational and "outreach" projects and institutions. Some have impressive records of attracting Jews' interest in the Jewish heritage. But we shouldn't stop there.
We can open not only our wallets but our hearts and homes. Is there a Jewish couple down the street who doesn't observe the Sabbath but might happily accept an invitation for a Shabbat meal? A co-worker who might join in a Purim feast? A distant relative who might be convinced to attend a holiday synagogue service with us?
Are we sufficiently sensitive to the subtle signals routinely sent out in public places by not-readily-recognizable Jews - and are we ready to respond? To reach out even when the signals are not blatantly forthcoming?
Are we ready to be clear and blunt about what Judaism isn't, and then to share all we can about what it is?
Are we ready to embrace the commandment to love our fellow Jew not only as a holy ideal, but as a practical, pressing mandate?
Or are we - G-d forbid - resigned to abandon our brothers and sisters to hucksters and frauds?