Friday, March 05, 2010

Writing About Orthodox Wrongdoing

With the completion of creation, the earth was sanctified and immediately it became the territory of what is called life, of temptations and forces that impel people to transgress, even to murder. This fall from grace was sudden and it was permanent. It may be, as some have suggested, that human imperfection is an element in the plan for creation, for we are thereby partners in the striving for sanctity and goodness.

Orthodox Jews are not immune from human imperfections. There is the hope, perhaps expectation, that as a consequence of their fidelity to the commandments, their incidence of wrongdoing will be reduced. In writing about the torrents of wrongs arising from sexual and monetary appetites, Maimonides does not qualify that he is writing about Jews who are not religious. Nachmanides goes further, identifying a personality type who though externally is entirely faithful to the mitzvos is yet repulsive in that he is living a lie because his behavior debases Torah values.

There are Orthodox Jews who do bad things. How should our media report their wrongdoing or, for that matter, wrongdoing by other Jews? Journalistic decisions are about substance, about what happened. They are also about space. Much that may merit attention is not reported because of a lack of space. What may ordinarily be referred to as run of the mill wrongdoings, whether illegalities or ethical lapses, generally do not make the cut, either because of space constraints or unawareness.

The “Talk Of The Town” section in this weeks’ New Yorker has a piece about a “crime wave” by a group of podiatrists, all but one of whom appears to be Jewish. The tale hasn’t made it into this newspaper and for good reason. There is no Jewish angle. The standard should not be different when the wrongdoer is Orthodox, yet somehow that detail often results in a different journalist rulebook, in a rush to print. What is the justification? – a question that is not intended to justify wrongdoing.

Googling and the quick availability of information can serve as an invitation to reporters to bundle stories about wrongdoing and that is what occurred last week in the lead article in this newspaper, “Orthodox Scandals Could Harm Power Base, Experts Warn.” I am tempted to write that if scandals are the price to pay to demolish the mythology about Orthodox power, we should perhaps root at least temporarily for more scandal, since wrongful perceptions about Orthodox power are at the root of much Orthodox wrongdoing. Too many buy into the notion that there are fixers who for the right price can get things done. This mentality is a catalyst for more scandal.

For all of the media concentration on their wrongdoing, the Orthodox represent a disproportionately low share of all Jewish wrongdoing as measured by prison population or indictments. If Bernard Madoff is transformed into an Orthodox Jew and his wrongdoings are ascribed to the Orthodox, as has happened in newspaper stories, the tally is different and it is distorted.

What clearly merits journalistic attention is when religious leaders or institutions are implicated in wrongdoing. This is a desecration of G-D’s name and is newsworthy. I wonder whether Orthodox insularity is a contributory factor when wrongdoing takes place, a question that was touched on last week by David Klinghoffer in an exquisite article in the Forward called “In Scandals, a Wake-Up Call for Orthodoxy.” Klinghoffer was unsparing, even harsh, in his criticism.

Not all religious and ethnic groups are insular or are closed off to a significant extent from the outside world. Those that are, including the fervently Orthodox, run the risk that their insularity may result in behavior that departs from the appropriate laws and rules of the larger society. Members of the group may believe that what is regarded as improper by outsiders is acceptable because the group is benefitting or, alternatively, they may come to believe that it is right to take advantage of government or outsiders. Another factor contributing to possible loose legal and moral behavior is the tendency toward informality and laxity in intra-group transactions.

Insularity may feed into distortions about political influence. Ambitious powerbrokers position themselves as fixers, as people with contacts on the inside who can get things done. Photo-ops and the appearance of meaningful access are utilized to help make their pitch. Through the bundling of political contributions they can, in fact, purchase marginal access which amounts to little real influence. Too few Orthodox understand that meaningful political influence is not about leaving fingerprints. It’s about how Wall Street firms, big banks, pharmaceutical companies and other major interest groups conduct their efforts to exert influence. Of course, Orthodox are not alone in misunderstanding political influence.

The game plan for politicians dealing with the fervently Orthodox was set in the 1950s when office holders and seekers would pay pseudo-homage to Chassidic leaders in Williamsburg. After the photo-op, they acquiesced in the building of a highway right through the heart of the neighborhood. The lesson continues in Borough Park, now the largest Orthodox community, whose representative in Congress is Jerry Nadler, the ultra-liberal from Manhattan’s West Side. Put otherwise, is there a social or public issue on which Orthodox Jews have a distinctive position where public policy accords with that position? Yet, journalists constantly market the cliché about Orthodox political power.

The Orthodox may be forgiven for their naïveté about politics, but, of course, not for any wrongdoing. To them, appearances are crucial. What excuse is there for our media?