Tuesday, January 13, 2004

Backward With the Forward

Journalism matters, which is why democratic governments try to influence what is reported and why those that are authoritarian control the news. We also know that journalism matters because many are often upset by what they read or hear. We Jews constantly kvetch about stories that we regard as unfair to Israel. In fact, this column is predicated on the notion that journalism matters, that what is written can influence what people know or believe.

Of course, what exercises readers or listeners is often much ado about very little. Most of what we pay attention to are wisps of ink or sound, stories that seem important at a particular moment only to be quickly replaced by new wisps of news. This is particularly true of reports that cover issues on which we already have set opinions. Our attention is selective, somewhat similar to fans who read the sports pages when their heroes win and don’t – or pay less attention – when they lose. In short, we gather information to confirm what we already believe to be true. We may be upset when our views are challenged, but our belief system is scarcely altered.

There is a higher level of journalistic impact and responsibility when what is being reported is written on a clean slate. There is a heightened prospect that what we read or listen to will affect what we accept to be true. Because much of Jewish journalism covers what is not reported elsewhere, our communal newspapers have a special obligation to be accurate and not to distort.

I have been critical of Jewish journalism because it relies too heavily on gossip, on stories which even when accurate are distorted because they take something that is inconsequential or incidental and present it as reflecting attitudes and behavior on a far broader scale. The typical example is the breathless stories of minor incidents in shuls. Such journalism may be accurate and yet is also a distortion.

On occasion, our journalism crosses a line by embellishing details or imposing an ideological slant on what is being reported as news. In its latest incarnation as a left-leaning weekly, the Forward has aspired to the low status as a muckraker, with much of the muck being its own. For months, its front page has informed readers that because of scandals involving his sons and reaching to him, Ariel Sharon would soon be forced from office and perhaps even indicted. Some of this may happen, in the way that news stories fifty years ago of Stalin’s imminent death were eventually borne out. But Mr. Sharon is still in office and what the Forward has reported has not been accurate because there have not been any imminent indictments. I wonder whether the newspaper’s editors have paused to consider whether their reports from Israel have been grossly overblown.

Another example: A company called Alliance has been implicated in the mutual fund scandals, which is not a Jewish story. Several years ago, Alliance purchased Bernstein & Company, which was at the time chaired by Roger Hertog. He is not implicated in the mess although he is involved in Alliance. Mr. Hertog is also a Jewish neo-con and part owner of the New York Sun and The New Republic. In an evidently confused and nasty story, the Forward implicated him in the scandal and suggested that he would be forced out. As in the Sharon reportage, there is reason to believe that what the Forward wrote was derived from its ideological slant.

The newspaper has come to specialize in cholent journalism, the practice of taking divergent bits and pieces and fashioning them into a single hash. As those who make or eat cholent know, the dish can be a grand slam or something foul. The Forward has an instinct for the latter, as in a front-page story a few weeks back on an obscure Hebrew-language book written by someone who has studied at Beth Medrash Govoha, the great yeshiva in Lakewood, New Jersey. The book was privately published by the author, which means that it occupies a place below what is known as vanity publishing. Some of his views are offensive and deserve condemnation. I doubt that it sold as many as twelve copies until the Forward came along to say that it carries a letter of approbation from the Yeshiva’s dean. Lakewood presently has more than 3,000 students and thousands more have studied there. We may rightly hope that its dean – and all others in similar positions – would refrain from writing letters of approbation regarding books that they have not read. In the event, the book was not Lakewood’s. But the story published in the Forward was all about Lakewood, as irrelevant scraps of information entirely unrelated to the book were thrown in, the obvious intent being to besmirch the Yeshiva.

Although it can be nasty, the Forward can be benevolent, as it was in a tendentious apologia for George Soros’ blatant anti-semitism. This can be contrasted with the despicable language it used at about the same time about Rabbi Yaakov Perlow, the Novominsker Rebbe and head of Agudath Israel, for raising important concerns about Internet pornography. This is a serious social concern, as is evident from prosecutorial actions around the globe aimed particularly at child pornography but also at other sexual abuses linked to the use of the Internet. How easy and yet also how disgusting it is to make a villain out of a good man who is fulfilling his responsibilities as a religious leader.

Since cholent is nowadays eaten mainly by Orthodox Jews, it’s to be expected that cholent journalism will be aimed mainly at the Orthodox. The worst practitioner is a reporter stationed in Israel who cannot get any story right. His latest excursion into mythology appeared last week in an article that ostensibly dealt with a battle in Russia between rival groups of Jewish organizations. The dominant one is led by Chabad. The story is complex and there isn’t space to deal with it here, except to say that the alleged journalist had it all wrong when he wrote that Chabad excludes the non-Orthodox.

For all of the Forward’s failings, there is hope. The newspaper may have another incarnation.

Tuesday, January 06, 2004

Being Vulgar Is Not Being Jewish

Throughout our history, we have lost a great number of Jews who severed their ties to our heritage and community through apostasy or just walking away. These losses were painful and tragic, yet for all of the terrible consequences, those who abandoned us had a certain integrity about their actions. They did not claim that their rejection of practice and faith constituted another kind of Judaism or that they were entitled to redefine what it means to be a Jew. There were exceptions – after all, there were Jewish Bundists - but they scarcely changed the powerful pattern of Judaic abandonment meaning a severance of Jewish identity. There was an understanding between those who assimilated entirely and those who remained that the former were no longer part of the Jewish nation.

The American Jewish experience has been different, although not entirely. Millions of Americans who were born Jewish have been lost through intermarriage, apostasy or rejection of Jewish identity. This is why our population has declined steadily, despite waves of immigration beginning with Holocaust survivors and then from Israel and the Soviet Union.

A great number of Jews who are in a stage of advanced assimilation are now included in our numbers, notwithstanding their nearly total Judaic abandonment and escalating doubts about the status of many of them as Jews. Our demographers include them in our statistics.

There is more at work than counting as Jews people who say that they are not and, in any case, may not be Jewish if conventional measures of identity were used. As we have come to realize the severity of our demographic crisis, there have been frenzied efforts to retain all whom we somehow can claim as Jewish. Put otherwise, we are in the de facto situation of what can be termed anything goes Judaism, the attitude being that whatever attracts Jews is acceptable for that reason alone. At one level, this seems like a legitimate stratagem. If old fashioned religion doesn’t work, let us experiment, let us focus more on activities that may bear scant resemblance to what Jewish life is about so long as they serve as magnets for some who say that they are Jewish.

The problem is that desperate people – and that’s what we are – do desperate and foolish things and accept that which is tarnished because they can think of no other options. We have entered a world where anything goes, a world where the tallis is one form of Jewish expression and a t-shirt emblazoned with a vulgarity along with “Jew” is another form.

Added to the inherent repulsiveness of the notion, anything goes Judaism is a dynamic force. What is accepted today will change, although for sure not in the direction of greater spirituality and fidelity to tradition. Mirroring trends in the larger society, especially among the young who are most open to new trends, there is a growing appetite to embrace what is outrageous and vulgar and to label it as Jewish. If popular culture is trashy and exhibitionist, Jewish activity should be trashy and exhibitionist.

Time Out New York recently detailed the scene, including details that cannot be printed here. In addition to the t-shirts, we learned about the party with “half-naked go-go boys in Hasidic style side curls” and the performer who “is talking about doing crack with a whore and yet he’s also talking about his grandmother’s matzo-ball soup.” There is also the Jewish girl who belts out “born-again tunes in full Nashville drag and trying to convince the Jews in the audience to accept Jesus as their Lord and Savior.” We are told that this is her way of combating anti-Semitism.

The Forward which hones in on outrageous, even freakish, Jewish behavior, reported a few weeks ago on the “Rabbi” who engaged in kiruv or outreach to drag queens during his brief stint at a Key West synagogue. In more conventional circles, Shmuly Boteach and Ruth Westheimer, two talented people, have shown that exhibitionism sells, that it draws crowds and not merely at the most far out extreme of Jewish life. Modern Orthodox synagogues have engaged Dr. Westheimer to perform and not because her view of sex is compatible with religious Jewish law but because she is an attraction.

Conventional kiruv and Jewish programming cannot hold a candle to sensationalism that comes with a Jewish label. A class on traditional texts aimed at those with limited Judaic knowledge is likely to draw a relatively small crowd that is apt to get smaller as the weeks go by. Bring in a comedian who tells dirty jokes with a Jewish accent or motif and the place will be swinging.

What is at work is a sort of Gresham’s Law, as what is bogus or vulgar drives out what is legitimate. Crowds cannot elevate that which is counterfeit, even if there are those who accept it as legal tender. Vulgarity remains just that.

Anything goes Judaism debases us and it does not work. It’s superficial and tawdry and what is superficial and tawdry today will fade, as will the Jewish identity of those who embraced it. Moving away from tradition and not toward it can never strengthen Judaism. The fact that the media eat up what is sensationalist and this creates a buzz cannot impart strength to that which is destined for a short life-span. I write in this vein although I acknowledge that a small number will somehow draw closer to our heritage through activities that are vulgar and inappropriate. (cf. Maimonides, Yesodei Hatorah, V,9)

There isn’t a chance that what we are witnessing will change for the better any time soon. Our world revels in vulgarity and exhibitionism and, as in so much else, we Jews are influenced by what is happening around us. But if we cannot impede the debilitating progress of anything goes Judaism, we at least ought to have the sense and courage to say that vulgarity isn’t Judaism, no matter what the label and no matter how popular what is outrageous seems to be. To be vulgar is not to be Jewish. We are enjoined to be a sanctified people. This is our heritage and this is our only means for survival.

Friday, January 02, 2004

RJJ Newsletter - January 2004

A letter published recently in Yated Ne’Eman, the yeshiva world’s English-language weekly, highlights what is often missing as our schools attempt to imbue their students with proper midos. The letter writer told of her son’s rebbi who teaches with his feet on the desk. You might expect that such behavior would not be tolerated, that the rebbe would be admonished and told that he must immediately cease conducting himself in such a fashion or he will be let go. Sadly, at least at one yeshiva “a feet on the desk” rebbi is being tolerated by the principal who is aware of what is happening. Perhaps worse yet, when the mother sought the counsel of a “renowned” religious educator, she was told to do nothing.

That was bad advice. The rebbi is in effect telling his students that crude behavior is entirely compatible with Torah values. There is more than a slight prospect that this wrongful conduct will be imitated by students. I wonder what the renowned chinuch expert will say if years from now a young man who has abandoned yiddishkeit says that he rejected a religious life because of what happened in that classroom years earlier.

The situation that I have described is admittedly an extreme example, although it is also real. What isn’t extreme is the failure of our yeshivas to sufficiently influence students in the direction of proper midos, this despite much talk and mussar lectures, much seeming attention to ethical conduct. Too often the rhetoric is divorced from behavior. The point is made sharply by Dr. Abraham Twerski, one of our community’s treasures, in the latest issue of Jewish Action, published by the Orthodox Union. He asks, “Why does a shiur in some of the great mussar works often remain but a superficial exercise?” The question suggests the answer.

It is evident that girls are more open to ethical instruction, probably because of their more gentle nature. As for boys, their energy level and drive are characteristics that scarcely mesh with the restraint that is at the core of proper midos. The situation is not helped by the six-day yeshiva week and the long hours each day, usually in very limited space. A rough edge and competitiveness are everyday ingredients of yeshiva life. Students are expected to challenge and not always to be polite, as is evident in classrooms and especially in chavrusa study. In a sense, in yeshivas there is built in antagonism between midos and the culture of Torah study.

The difficulties facing yeshiva educators have been heightened in the contemporary period because of negative influences outside of the school, nearly always in the general society but also too often in the home. There is a coarsening of language, images and attitudes and, inevitably, most yeshiva families are affected to one extent or another.

The challenge facing our students and educators is to articulate a voice and a persona that impart sincerity, even sanctity, to what is being advocated. This is a Herculean task for the reasons that have been articulated here and also because our educators – and especially the rebbis – are themselves human and prone to shortcomings. Like their students, the long school day and the culture of yeshiva life can take a toll in the form of incautious language and even other improprieties. It is a tribute to the skill and character of nearly all rebbis that they are able to inspire their students and to teach them, at least to a degree, proper conduct.

When a rebbi has his feet on the desk or uses coarse language or eats in the classroom – something that happens too frequently – they are teaching their students that it is acceptable to be coarse and crude. They are inculcating in their students values and behavior that are hostile to what the Torah wants of us. When principals ignore wrongful behavior, they are adding to the problem.

Lest I be misunderstood and because I have great respect for those who teach our children, I need to distinguish between inappropriate language and conduct and incautious language. Speech is our main means of communication. The more we speak – and rebbis have to speak quite a bit in classrooms – the greater the prospect of what can be called sloppiness in what we say. I know this failing quite well. In speaking to parents or students, educators are likely on some occasions to say things that they have not thought through or wish they could take back. What occurs between a rebbi and a student or an educator and a parent constitutes a relationship. In all relationships, things are said that should not have been said. To maintain a relationship, it is necessary to downplay and even forget that which is incautious and also inconsequential. I have no sympathy for those who can parse out of thousands of words spoken by an educator a phrase or a sentence or language that should not have been spoken. Like the rest of us, rebbis must be judged by the total picture and not by an occasional failing.