Fisking Larry Derfner, Part I

Thanks go to two people for making this article possible — to Shlomo Nissenbaum for sending me the link to the Larry Derfner article, and to Ezzie Goldish for filling me in on the correct etymology of “fisking.”

Fisking, or to Fisk, is a blogosphere term describing ruthlessly detailed point-by-point criticism that highlights errors, disputes the analysis of presented facts, or highlights other problems in a statement, article, or essay.

I was previously under the impression that fisking was derived from the computer field, in which the UNIX File System Check Program is called fsck. To “fisk” a drive is to scan it meticulously in search of errors — as you can see, it fits. But the term actually comes from “detractors of British journalist Robert Fisk,” as the Wikipedia explains.

Regardless, the above-referenced article is due for some fisking. After saying earlier that I planned to do so, I was assisted by Rabbi Jonathan Rosenblum, who has submitted his own comments on Derfner’s essay to Mishpacha magazine. You may see his article here after it is published, but in the meantime he permitted me to introduce his points inter alia.

Rattling the Cage: Community of collaborators

What better way to start a needlessly inflammatory article, than a needlessly inflammatory title? I have no idea, of course, if the title is Derfner’s or the JPost editors, but one or the other accuses the entire charedi community of complicity in the murder of the Valis baby.

It’s one thing when the haredim riot to keep a street closed on Shabbat, or to stop archeological digs, or to trash billboards showing girls in bikinis. But when they’re rioting against the police for daring to look into the alleged deaths by child abuse of haredi babies – even when a haredi father has confessed to bashing and biting his three-month-old son to death – that’s something else altogether.

Derfner starts up by dredging up three old battles between various elements of the charedi community and the state of Israel. Never mind that there were two healthy sides to these stories, and that different subgroups of charedim had problems with each. Given the complete absence of relevance of these stories — other than to underscore a context of ongoing disagreement — it is clear that his intent is to rile up those old feelings of distaste, just so we know with whom we’re dealing over here.

And this time, he says, they’ve gone too far. Never mind that the confession was extracted under duress and promptly retracted. Never mind the apparent absence of the physical evidence upon whose existence his entire argument rests. When you’re a secular Israeli writer in the mood for some charedi-bashing, facts are useful props when helpful — and readily ignored if not.

When haredim in Jerusalem instantly turn the young so-called father Yisrael Valis into a hero and victim of a police “blood libel,” and when haredim in Ashdod storm a cemetery and snatch the corpse of a one-year-old girl who allegedly died because her haredi parents didn’t believe in inoculations or antibiotics, this is not “colorful.” It’s not a “cultural difference,” either.

This, instead, is all the proof any reasonable person needs to see that there’s something twisted in the psyche of haredi society. The problem is not just the Valis family in Jerusalem and the Sitner family in Ashdod, it’s the haredi community at large that’s gone to war for these two families against the “evil regime” that’s pursuing them over the deaths of their little children.

On the contrary, it took time for the the tide to turn against the police in the matter of Yisrael Valis. Rabbi Rosenblum and I both recorded initial concern about the evidence of physical abuse — he said that “everyone” thought Valis “was an out-of-control maniac and serial abuser” until we began to learn more.

As Rabbi Rosenblum took pains to mention several days ago, those who took the Ashdod baby’s corpse did so against the will of the local Rabbis and activists as well as that of the leading Rabbis of Jerusalem and elsewhere, including the Badatz. To blame the entire community for this one is akin to blaming every secular Israeli for the anti-Orthodox statements of the now-defunct Shinui party and its head Yosef Lapid (whose departure from Israeli political life we note without regret). So the mention of this second case is simply a calumny bereft of the least note of underlying reason.

Imagine if such deaths had occurred to babies living in normal, mainstream communities. The accused parents would obviously be seen as monsters, or at the very least strongly suspected of being monsters, by everyone. People’s allegiance would go strictly to the memory of the babies.

First and foremost, make sure you understand that charedim are not normal. Everything we’re talking about here is merely one symptom of their underlying abnormality, but the real disease here is charedi — aka “abnormal”, non-mainstream — life, itself.

Note, by the way, that in this article Derfner uses the word “haredi” exclusively to define our community. Not once does he use the pejorative “ultra-“Orthodox that he did in his otherwise complimentary article of two weeks back. I hope Toby Katz, YM and Jewish Observer are taking notes. It is certainly interesting that when he has something nice to say about charedim, he calls them “ultras,” and when he launches a withering, virulent, and remarkably fact-free critique, he calls them “haredim.” There are generous and sinister readings of that switch, but I’ll leave it to others to opine upon it.

How a secular Yisrael Valis would have been viewed, I cannot say. But as Derfner himself is providing us with evidence of the media’s overwhelming tendency to accuse on page one and correct on page twenty-four, it is indeed quite possible that he would have been deemed a monster — whether or not he is, in fact, innocent of any accusation of deliberate harm. I am, apparently, at odds with Mr. Derfner, in that I do not view an attitude of “guilty until proven innocent, and then viewed with suspicion” as a net positive for any community, much less a police investigation with all the adherence to due process of the Salem Witch Trials — as has been alleged here.

Now as for the second case, I don’t think any community would regard a parent who insisted upon homeopathic medicines as anything more than a loving fool. Let’s assume for a moment that these stories about the parents not using antibiotics are true. There was a case in the United States a few years back, in which a judge granted the state permission to treat a child against the will of his or her Christian Scientist parents. They firmly believed the use of medicine was against G-d’s will — and no one thought them to be monsters, even though it took a court order to save their child’s life.

I will also take a moment to digress, in order to question one element of Rabbi Rosenblum’s recent essay about the tragedy in Ashdod. He writes that perhaps “our community is too credulous when it comes to every form of alternative medicine” — implying that “our community” is more credulous than others. I really don’t know what the situation is in Israel, but it is my impression that most of those promoting homeopathic mumbo-jumbo are baalei teshuvah, those who adopted Jewish observance rather than growing up with it [for the record, I’m in this category], who have imported this mishegas (silliness) from the outside. Most of the “regular” frummies go to regular doctors and tend to follow the conventional wisdom. Unfortunately, this means they are the ones still eating oily potato kugels and cholent thick in beef fat, while it’s the homeopathic types most likely to be eating the whole grains and vegetables that doctors now opine are vastly superior. That, at least, seems to be changing.

OK, this is already too long for a blog post — and I’m being called to dinner. I’ll try for Part II by tomorrow, iy”H…

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13 Responses

  1. JR says:

    Reb Menken,
    Aside from the fact that your article can be easily “fisked'” line by line, something I will leave to others, you seem to misunderstand both Derfner and others’ view of the situation. The problem is not Valis’ guilt or innocence, the courts will decide that, all we have is speculation (both the accusers and the apologists). The problem is the Haredi reaction to seemingly every situation in which the Haredi community is in disagreement with outsiders. The instinct to riot, burn things, destroy property by hundreds of young men, man of whom subsist on fund provided by the State, is what people find objectionable about that particular community. And I am not trying to paint with a broad brush, neither is Derfner. I am sure during the Rodney King riots and the Crown Heights pogrom, you had no problem stating that the Black community behaved in a shameful and uncivilized way. Whether the LAPD was guilty was irrelevant, as it is here. So for the sake of honesty, when HAredim riot in Jerusalem, Ashdod, Beit Shemesh, Boro Park, Williamsburg, you would do better to condemn this behavior rather than “fisk” LArry Derfner. As far as I know he is not suspected of either killing his baby, or destroying public property. And the reason the HAredim are painted by a broad brush, is because all we hear from them and their leader is apologetics (and that includes you and Rabbi Rosenbloom), instead of trying to isolate and condemn the destructive elements in the community.

  2. Baruch Horowitz says:

    “It is certainly interesting that when he has something nice to say about charedim, he calls them “ultras,” and when he launches a withering, virulent, and remarkably fact-free critique, he calls them “haredim.””

    I actually prefer “Yeshivish” and “Chassidic ” to the terms “Charedi”, “Fervently-Orthodox”, “Ultra-Orthodox” , or “Right-Wing”. If my memory serves me correctly, one of the protagonists in this article felt similarly, and so described himself to the Times reporter. (“Yeshivish at Yale”).

    However, it is likely that the first two terms that I mentioned would confuse the poor media even more.

    It is interesting to note the view of Dr. Haym Soloveitchik, in “Rupture and Reconstruction”(endnote # 1):

    “The term “haredi” has gained recent acceptance among scholars because of its relative neutrality. Designations as “ultra-orthodox” or the “Right” are value laden. They assume that the speaker knows what “Orthodoxy,” pure and simple, is or where the “center” of Orthodoxy is located.”

    In a recent discussion elsewhere on the internet, someone referred to a certain Halachic opinion as the “haredization” of psak I countered:

    “My objection is to the conjugation of the word charedi, which has stereotypical implications. One can not call the opinion of a Rishon Charedie or non-Charedie without being anachronistic. Although the term Charedi serves a practical purpose as a means of social and ideological identification, I think its usage-on both sides of the spectrum – has deviated a long way from the original meaning of “trembling for the Word of Hashem”, which is a synonym for Yiras Shomayim. Just as no word has been coined, to my knowledge, for the “Modern- Orthodox-ization” of halacha, neither should we due this to haredim.”

    Whatever the correct nomenclature may be, when all is said and done, the real label which matters is “Eved Hashem”(servant of Hashem), and that crosses ideological boundaries.

  3. Dov Kay says:

    With respect to your discussion of New Age medicine, I note that a prominent Dayan in this town is also a prominent advocate and practitioner of Reiki, a dubious New Age cure. And he’s no baal teshuva (as that term is popularly used nowadays). I think that non-scientific alternative medicine is far more widespread in “frummy” charedi circles that you would have us believe. I believe that this dovetails with the Slifkin affair…

  4. Calev says:

    I agree with JR to a certain extent: what we have here, to quote a classic old movie, is a failure to communicate. From the outside, charedim appear to be an indistinguishable mass. For those of us lucky enough to have had at least some personal exposure to the charedi world it is easy to see why that impression is so false. However, most people have not had such exposure and so they build up an idea in their own mind that reflects more their own prejudices than reality. It is therefore important that the limited knowledge most people have of charedim is augmented by clear words and action to rein in the rowdy element (of young men) that does, alas, exist in that community. I suggest that, in the long term, any embarrassment and/or chillul Hashem that may come from a concerted drive against this element will be more than balanced out by the pride and kiddush Hashem that will derive from a community that has not only raised its already high standards of behaviour but has been seen to do so.

  5. Steve Brizel says:

    Anyone interested in a Posesk’s POV on alternative therapies should read R A Z Weiss’s withering critique of the reliance upon such “remedies” in Minchas Asher , Parshas Bchukosai. RAZ Weiss clearly views alternative therapies as unreliable and not permissible to even consider violating Hilcos Shabbos.

  6. Yaakov Menken says:

    JR, please go back and re-read the first line of the Derfner article. The topic he wishes to discuss is precisely not the charge you are dredging up. The behavior of the rioters in all cases you mentioned was roundly condemned on these pages and elsewhere, long ago. You are simply finding a handy tool for your own gripes with the charedim, since I’m dismantling Derfner’s.

    At the same time, you surely concede that the average group of ten charedi teenage boys/men is better behaved, more respectful of authority, more devoted to intellectual pursuits, and less at risk for abuse of drugs, alcohol and/or “xtreme” physical activity, than the average group of ten secular teenage boys/men. The disgraceful behavior of the few makes, as I said, for a handy tool. But on balance the charedi community has nothing for which to apologize in this area. Do remember that the last time the Lod airport workers went on strike, they burned aircraft tires. Do you know how much financial damage is done by vandalism to one aircraft tire? And these, need I mention, were all adults, not minors.

    Dov Kay, I hope to think that the Dayan you mention is the exception that proves the rule — and you don’t mention whether he sees conventional doctors as well. I’ve certainly never heard anything similar.

    Francine, the author of the “eight hour” charge does live in Israel, and he claims it comes straight from the family. My experience with US emergency rooms is that cases perceived to be less urgent do wait much longer, and it all depends on what else comes in that evening. Baltimore has codes for when a particular ER is unable to accept new cardiac or other patients.

  7. joel rich says:

    Let me start by stipulating I have no knowledge of any individual’s guilt or innocence. I think there is much to be gained by moving from anecdotal evidence (Is X guilty, did the police do Y ?) to a more general cheshbon hanefesh (soul searching) as to why the perceptions of those outside our (defined on a case by case basis) world are what they are. IMHO there’s a lot we can do ( including kiruv and honesty and ahavat chinam (unconditional love)) to impact the perceptions of those around us while remaining true to our values.


  8. francine marino says:

    As the parent of a chronically ill child I have visited the pediatric emergency wards of several hospitals in Jerusalem numerous times over some eighteen years. Never, ever have I been made to wait anything near eight hours for treatment. Usually I have waited up to an hour for the assessment and tests to begin and often a lot less. The paper-work and release can drag the procedure out.

    Regardless of your criticisms of the Israeli government, it is absurd to maintain that the medical care is of a third world standard. How about living in this country before you disparage it? If Valis’ argument is predicated on a lie as outrageous as this one, (i.e. that his child received absolutely no attention for eight hours)I suspect he’ll have a hard time proving his innocence in court.

  9. Zman Biur says:

    I think you’re reading way too much into Derfner’s use of the terms “ultra-Orthodox” and “haredi”. It is by no means well-known that “ultra-Orthodox” is pejorative. What other English term is available to distinguish haredim from the non-haredi Orthodox? I understand that many if not most haredim reject the term, but I don’t see a good alternative in English. I doubt that most writers who use the phrase intend it pejoratively.

  10. Gershon says:

    1) Rav Y. Belsky is on record as being very opposed to what we would call “non-conventional” medical treatment.

    2) for those historians out there, the first group to use the term “chareidi” in modern Israel was the OU (Ichud HaKehilot Hachardeiyot Sheba’America) back in the mid 1980’s before the term was politicized. 🙂

  11. Toby Katz says:

    Reiki is total nonsense, I don’t care who believes in it. Unfortunately FFB charedim are not immune from gullibility.

  12. Steve Brizel says:

    IMO, focussing on whether Mr. Derfner has a favorable view of Charedim misses the vote. Of course, he mistated the facts as to what happened in Ashdod. More critically, one wonders why he was so willing to accept a “confession” extracted under the duress of hours of police interrogation. One wonders whether he would automatically accept the same if someone other than a Charedi allegedly confessed to a heinous crime. The other issue that Derfner neglected was the unseemly rush to perform autopsies by the Chief Pathologist’s Office which has caused that office to develope an adversarial relationship with the Charedi community over the course of time. These facts were neglected by Mr. Derfner in his rush to convict the Charedi community of obstructing an investigation, etc.

  1. June 12, 2006

    Fisking Larry Derfner, Part II…

    Comments are closed here — please comment to Part II instead.

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