Monday, May 12, 2003

Why a Double Standard?

There was an approach to mussar (ethical improvement) in pre-Holocaust Lithuanian yeshivas that required students to do something that was absurd, the expectation being that they would be mocked and this would lead to self-reckoning and moral betterment. The method is no longer in favor, doubtlessly for good reasons, but thankfully we Orthodox Jews have a far more reliable way of knowing how foolish and bad we are. Nearly each week the Jewish Week lets us and everyone else know how dysfunctional we are, how plagued we are by abuse and misdeeds and beset by nearly every known pathology. Alas, we haven’t improved – at least not sufficiently – and this means that the newspaper has to try harder to ferret out the sins of the Orthodox. Hopefully, we will get the message and relieve the Jewish Week of the obligation to be constantly nasty toward us.

In the interim, perhaps we should have a dinner expressing our gratitude to this newspaper which diverts so much space away from what’s happening in Jewish life in order to give us the opportunity to atone for our sins. After all, what’s one more dinner among Orthodox Jews? Of course, liquor shall not be served because this newspaper has just added alcoholism to our roster of pathologies.

Wherever Jews have lived, they have been influenced to one extent or another in both ideas and behavior by what happens in the society in which they live. Since drinking is a serious American malady, there are Jews who are alcoholics and some of them are Orthodox. Likely, as American Jews have assimilated, the distance in this regard between them and other Americans has narrowed, but Orthodox Jews are still far less prone to alcohol abuse.

It is worrisome that among teenagers, including Modern Orthodox, drinking has become more widespread. This is the result of deviant norms in the general society and social pressures, which is also true of drug abuse among younger people. Kiddush clubs and shul affairs at which alcohol is available have nothing to do with this. It’s disheartening when a respected rabbi who is a good person and president of a major rabbinical group declares that there is a serious drinking problem among the Orthodox. That’s untrue in its suggestion that there is a high incidence of alcoholism among the Orthodox. We should not make light of any pathology and whatever the number, the situation needs to be addressed, but not by exaggeration and not by playing into the hands of those who are determined to portray the Orthodox in a bad light. Excluding liquor at shul affairs will have no bearing on teenage drinking.

To make matters worse, in the well-trodden path of yenta-or is it yellow? –journalism, a story about an alleged drinking problem among the Orthodox is accompanied by the perverse claim that the Orthodox refuse to face up to the problem.

The truth is that the small landscape of Orthodox life is dotted by dozens of voluntary self-help groups, some of which exaggerate their accomplishments. It is this willingness to tackle problems that exposes the Orthodox in ways that are inapplicable to the other 90% of American Jews. There is no yenta journalist writing about the known fact that outside of Orthodoxy, most Bar Mitzvahs are far more bar than mitzvah.

We Orthodox Jews are in a bind because whenever we face up to problems in our small community we are providing an opportunity to the yenta journalists to go after us. A case in point is the latest charges alleging that a rabbi from a distinguished family who now lives in Israel was engaged in inappropriate behavior, some of it sexual, years ago in an American yeshiva and more recently at an Israeli school. When Yeshiva University learned of the allegations, it cut ties with the Israeli school and now an American beth din (rabbinical court) has met to examine the matter. It’s hard to figure out what else can be done by the Orthodox, yet that has not deterred this newspaper from twice making the story into a lurid front page article.

Perhaps we Orthodox Jews are just the victims of bad luck or timing. On the other hand, there was no yenta journalist sniffing out the story of sexual misconduct by the head of Reform’s rabbinical seminary or a key figure at the Jewish Theological Seminary. How would the Jewish Week react if a shnook on Wall Street who is Orthodox made a bundle and as part of an effort to influence the recommendations of an influential stock analyst gave a $1 million contribution to the yeshiva to which the analyst’s son was applying for admission. There would be joy in yenta land. Sandy Weill is no shnook and he is at the top of the heap on Wall Street and that’s in effect what he did regarding the Y of 92nd Street – a Jewish institution – as part of a foul arrangement which resulted in billions being lost by investors, including Jewish institutions. No yenta journalist for that story.

Our yenta journalists have morphed into Jews of silence regarding Wall Street wrongdoings that involve non-observant Jews who somehow participate in secular Jewish life. There is nothing about Imclone, Sothebys, Rite Aid and other scandals in which Jews have been accused of wrongdoing. Why the silence? Let me stress that I would get no satisfaction out of any of the people involved in these matters being subjected to journalistic attack. I just want to know why there is a double standard.

Yenta journalism is a two-way process, involving reporters who put Orthodoxy under a microscope and their sources. We speak too readily to journalists who have unfavorably portrayed us. This is specifically true of three rabbis who are deservedly respected. I recommend that the executive vice president of the Orthodox Union stop proclaiming that Orthodox Jews no longer beat their wives; the spokesman for Agudath Israel speak far less because his organization is supposed to be led by Torah leaders and not by spokesmen; and the spiritual mentor at Yeshiva University’s Seminary cease making self-serving statements that have little purpose other than making his colleagues look bad.