Defanging Derfner

Last Thursday’s Jerusalem Post carried a particularly nasty attack on the chareidi community by columnist Larry Derfner. Derfner can be abrasive, but would hardly be classified as an inveterate chareidi-baiter.

In a recent response to novelist A.B. Yehoshua’s dismissal of the inauthenticity of Diaspora Jewry, Derfner wrote of his “ultra-Orthodox” brother-in-law and sister-in-law in Toronto, “Judaism isn’t the outer shell of their lives, it’s the core.” If asked to choose between a 100% secular state of Israel, with no practicing, believing Jews, and a Jewish Diaspora with Jews like his in-laws, the self-described atheist would opt for the latter. Two weeks later, he wrote a laudatory piece about a chareidi baal teshuva, with whom he had once done reserve duty.

The earlier articles only added to the pain of last week’s, which focused on the recent deaths of two chareidi infants. In the first, a nineteen-year-old chareidi father has been accused of manslaughter in connection with the death of his three-month-old infant. The arrest of the father led to rioting in Meah Shearim before Pesach, and charges of a “blood libel” by the police.

The second case, involving the death of an infant in Ashdod, after her parents allegedly relied on homeopathy to treat an infection, and the subsequent snatching of her body to avoid an autopsy, was the subject of my column last week.

These two cases, according to Derfner, demonstrate that there is “something twisted in the psyche of haredi society.” He goes on to compare (not equate) the chareidi community to the parents who poisoned their children at Jonestown – he kindly concedes that chareidi parents are not lining up to kill their children. Chareidim are all “moral collaborators” in the killing of the two children, according to Derfner.

Chareidim, he concludes, are “brainwashed members of a cult, . . . led by absolute spiritual rulers, [which] insists on utter conformity, . . . holds fanatical beliefs, and . . . views society at large . . . as demonic.”

About the young father’s “awful brutality,” Derfner entertains not the slightest doubt. (He cheerfully dismisses the presumption of innocence as relevant only to the judge.) Relying entirely on early press reports, including one that the baby’s body was covered with bite marks, suggesting a completely out-of-control father and a pattern of systematic abuse, Derfner accuses the father of “bashing and biting” his son to death.

Yet, an examination of the baby, while still alive, by Professor Hiss, the head of Abu Kabir Forensic Laboratory (and a long-time bete-noire of the chareidi community), found no such bite marks or signs of abuse. Another examination by Dr. Shlomo Constantini, one of the country’s leading neurosurgeons, found no basis to conclude that the baby’s injuries were intentionally inflicted. He observed no evidence of abuse or shaken infant syndrome.

Writer Sarah Shapiro spent days interviewing family members who were in the hospital with infant from the time that he was brought into the hospital by ambulance. They claim that the emergency room staff kept the baby under observation for nearly eight hours without responding to their pleas to begin treatment on the baby. According to Dr. Constantini’s report, the baby was still moving his arms and legs and responding well to light when admitted. Eight hours later, an x-ray found that blood had filled the entire brain cavity.

None of this interests Derfner. Nor was he notably more interested in my column from last week’s Mishpacha, which I sent him. That column, at the very least, proved that the chareidi community had not rallied en masse around those who snatched the body of the dead infant from the mortuary in Ashdod, or in favor of denying infants inoculations or antibiotics (a practice equally widespread in the secular community.)

Derfner’s responded that he doesn’t suspect me of membership in the “cult,” and does not consider me chareidi. Fine, I hear that all the time from all sides of the spectrum. But much of my column was quoting an earlier Mishpacha news story and leading rabbonim. Even if Mishpacha were fully staffed by Meretz members, most of its readership defines itself within the broader chareidi community. Were the views expressed in my column and in the Mishpacha news story beyond the pale of acceptable opinion to that community, economic interest alone would have dictated their censorship.

Derfner partakes of two familiar journalistic tropes when writing about the chareidi community. The first is treating a very diverse community as a monolith. The second is the myth of chareidim marching in lock-step conformity to orders from above.

Whenever one points to evidence showing the wide diversity of opinions, attitudes, and practice among those who broadly describe themselves as chareidi, one hears that those cited are not really chareidim. The question is: Who is left after all the exceptions?

In a private communication to me, Derfner accuses the gedolim of “basically” declaring the father in the first case innocent. Actually the Kol Koreh to which he refers does nothing of the kind. Rather it says that the father’s family and rabbis are working with all their might to prove him innocent, and calls upon the community to assist them in their efforts.

Anyone who contributes to the fund, Derfner wrote me, is a chareidi; anyone who did not isn’t. By that standard, there are very few chareidim indeed. How many people contributed to the defense fund? A few hundred? And of those, how many were outside the Meah Shearim community in which the father lives?

I would be surprised if anyone in the yeshiva minyan, in which I daven, contributed. True, those I spoke to all hoped that no avreich could kill his own son. But none dismissed out-of-hand the possibility of someone dressed in chareidi garb doing something horrible. Nor did they automatically assume that the police investigation was nothing more than a blood libel, or to burn garbage cans on that basis. To do so, they reasoned, could only result in a massive chilul Hashem, especially if the prosecution succeeded in adducing overwhelming proof.

Ironically, far from being the cultish, blind followers described in Derfner’s article, the broad chareidi community suffers as much from too little emunas chachamim as too much. Providing financial assistance to help the family with legal expenses was not only an act of chesed for the accused and his family, but an act of self-defense for hundreds of thousands who will inevitably find themselves tarred by the act of any member of the community.

More of us should have heeded the call of the gedolim, but, at least, by failing to do so we proved that we are not members of a cult.

Originally published in Mishpacha Magazine.

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10 Responses

  1. Shlomo Nissenbaum says:

    I am confused. It seems that in fact there are 2 professional reports dismissing the allegations of abuse discussed in the police reports as reported by the press. I will go on a short limb and say that given this fact – that there was no history of abuse – then it is very implausible that in one night the father sunddenly turned into a maniac. I am not an expert but I think that generelly abuse is something with a history, a la steinberg/nussbaum – (BTW,2 non-haredi Manhattan/secualr ‘elite’ Jews – but no one condemned the whole upper west side progressives for these monsters’ actions).

    So even if you dismiss my speculation as to making a case for the complete exhoneration of Yisrael Valis of charges of intentional murder – we do see one of two things:

    1) a libel done by the police in falsifying the evidence (why did they feel a need to do that?)

    2) a libel done by the press in falsifying the police reports

    Even assuming 2 – did the police ever in the past 3 months – come out to set the record straight?

    So I do not understand the implications in your article that indeed there are some Haredim who taka are brainwashed – just that these are the exception. The Meah She’arim haredim who dismissed the police reports or the reports of the reports at the beginning out of hand? Well, well, well… it just so happens that they turned out to be right, and indeed there was a libel going on. So instead of continuing to condemn them – it would suit you to reexamine your fundamental assumptions – that these people were acting out of ignorance etc. Maybe they were acting out of awareness of a past history of police brutality, lying, etc. A history that predates even the political murder of Yaakov Yisrael deHaan and subsequent cover up. The only thing wrong in fact with Meah She’arim haredim is that they have been unfairly ridiculed and delegitimized as extremists etc. by all groups who are not Meah She’arim Jews for decades that they have no voice willing to speak for them.

    Why you insist on treating the police and the press as respectable groups – and doing this at the expense of giving life to the slander that Yisrael Vallis is a sofek murderer of his own child – I am sure he suffers from the knowlege that people view him this way. I would! Would you not? So being that your reporting contributes to the tza’ar and hezek of a Yid who has a chezkas Yorei Shomayim – well, you really need to take stock of your own Yiras Shomayim. Stop relying on the police who are known to have a rather large bone to pick with religious Jews. I am appalled that the chezkas kashrus you deny a yorei shomayim you grant freely to apikorsim, goyim and stam porkei ol. The police certainly have no chezkas kashrus. For one small example – Yaakov Menken metioned the lie spread about excrement at the Western Wall. It is an outrage that you on the basis of their biased say so alone would slander a yorei shomayim.

    Ish l’fi mahallelo. Shame on you. We do not need to prove ourselves to the enemies of the Torah who run the state that has the gall to call itself Israel. Is it theoretically possible the haredim could do terrible things. Of course. Anything is possible. But that is a far cry from giving us the right to lend any credence to any enemy of Torah’s assertion that such horrible things were actually done. Until evidence is shown we must maintain 100% the standing of the subject – Tzedek Tzedek Tirdof – this is an Aseh (see CHofetz CHayim intro) to comepletely assume innocent a fellow Jew who remains in the community of believers unless a history is shown or evidence – the halachos beyond this point are nuanced – even in cases where the evidence against him is built on much stronger stuff than the kash served by those out to slander the Torah and those who represent it. That you would not maintain 100% Yisrael Vallis’ innocence based on the police – is a big kashya. “Let us wait for the court decision to pass judgement” is holding him as a sofek murderer of his own child. Lichoirah, dragging his name thorugh the mud in public as a sofek murderer of his own child lichoirah is a violation of this Aseh. Go ask a posek if indeed it is mutar to do this – (being choshesh in a situation of possible Hezek is a different story and this has no relevance here whatsoever).

  2. leonard oberstein says:

    Jonathan Rosenblum is a great advocate for the chareidi community. He combines his legal training, vast knowledge and most of all, his American sensitivities to explaining the charedi point of view. He is always reasonable and doesn’t get into bombastics or ad hominem attacks. He is not a product of Israel, especially not of Israeli chareidi society, which just doesn’t get it when it comes to public relations or “hasbara”.

    Much of what Derfner writes has a grain of truth, but he gets carried away. The fact that he can write positive articles and then loose his cool on the Valis case is just an indication that there are some very good things about Israeki chareidi society and some that are not so good.

    Derfner does indeed “throw out the baby with the bathwater” but we should also not sanctify the bathwater. There is much that needs tikun in Israel, in all elements of Israel, secular, religious and chareidi.

  3. Seth Gordon says:

    In a private communication to me, Derfner accuses the gedolim of “basically” declaring the father in the first case innocent. Actually the Kol Koreh to which he refers does nothing of the kind. Rather it says that the father’s family and rabbis are working with all their might to prove him innocent, and calls upon the community to assist them in their efforts.

    If the Kol Koreh is asking the community to come forward with evidence to demonstrate the father’s innocence, rather than asking for any information that would shed light on the case either to condemn the father or to exonerate him, then one can reasonably infer that the rabbis involved are convinced of the father’s innocence. I had less than a year of formal Gemara study, and this seems like a pretty straightforward diyyuk to me.

    Would you rather have Derfner conclude that the rabbis aren’t sure of the father’s innocence, but would rather have a charedi who killed his son go free than see him convicted in a secular court?

  4. Yaakov Menken says:

    Seth, I might reply with mild sarcasm that another year of Gemara study would be worthwhile, but that goes without saying in any case. The Amoraim of the Gemara were, in fact, extremely careful to choose the minimal inference that could reasonably be made when presented with a list of options.

    In this case, the defendant is from a lower economic class and faced by a prosecutor backed by the State itself. The defendant’s family paid for an extremely important examination by Dr. Constantini — important, in that the doctor observed no evidence of the physical abuse alleged by police, including the now-infamous bite marks. How much do you think one of Israel’s top neurosurgeons charges for his time… and how do you imagine the family afforded it? What would have happened hade they not paid for this independent examination?

    I didn’t hear calls for people to come forward to help fund the prosecution of OJ Simpson, even though he bought himself a “Dream Team” of attorneys that overwhelmed the prosecutors. Why on earth would people call for support of the prosecution of an impoverished Kollel student?

    To infer from their call to support the family and assist their efforts that the Rabbis were certain of his innocence is simply unreasonable. Although the more we learn, the less credible the police reports appear to be.

  5. Steve Brizel says:

    Seth-the more that we read and is revealed, the shakier the case of the police. A case that was built in a rickety fashion on a stress and anxiety induced confession is now a house of cards, especially with a suppressed confession and the absence of any evidence of physical abuse. Based upon the fantasies of the secular media about charedim, one can reasonably conclude that the secular media “was sure” that there was evidence of abuse.

  6. Ori Pomerantz says:

    Yaakov Menken, from your translation: “… are working with all their strength … to prove that he is clean of transgression … and ever person should do what he can to work with them”

    This part does sound like a call for evidence showing he is innocent, rather than any evidence. If I misunderstand the translation, or the original Hebrew (I’m a native speaker of Hebrew, but Charedim might use it differently from Chilonim), please explain.

    This is followed by a call for financial help, which as you said does not imply innocence or guilt: “and to also help the family because the expenses are great and the family doesn’t have in their hands enough to withstand the expenses”.

    Of course, being convinced that somebody is innocent isn’t a fault unless you refuse to change your mind when confronted with sufficient evidence to the contrary. After all, that’s how we expect our courts to work.

    RYM: another year of Gemara study would be worthwhile, but that goes without saying in any case.

    Some of us (me, for example) haven’t had any Gemara study, and have a problem scheduling lessons for the same time every week (little children). The easiest way for us to learn is to get a weekly e-mail lesson. I learn Pirkey Avot and Ruth that way. Any chance of a similar class about Talmudic logic?


  7. Baruch Horowitz says:

    “Whenever one points to evidence showing the wide diversity of opinions, attitudes, and practice among those who broadly describe themselves as chareidi, one hears that those cited are not really chareidim. The question is: Who is left after all the exceptions?”

    Were there absolutely no diversity in the Charedi world, there might be a need to respond to Larry Derfner’s complaint. However, there is in fact more diversity than people–both on the Right and the Left– would like to admit. I also feel that such diversity is actually healthy for any society.

    When stereotypical statements are made on other internet forums by people outside the charedi world that “this is how charedim think or act”, one of the things that I try to point out to them is the existence of diversity in the charedi world. It also seems to me that some of these people might be expressing their genuine need for diversity and individuality, albeit improperly, perhaps.

    Personally, I consider myself to be an “independent thinker”, and accordingly, I have given much thought to the question of the correct balance of independent thought versus Daas Torah and societal conformity. As the Torah community has grown and expanded, and it has come to include members with different backgrounds and needs, I think that this question has become more of an issue to some people. This is where the importance of having a Rav or personal Rebbe comes in.

    From my perspective, I would note on one side of the issue, that there were Gedolim who were well within the general Mesorah of the Yeshiva World, and yet were known at times-on certain issues- for their own individuality and independent thought. I feel a particular affinity(”cheshek”) for this reason towards their legacy, when reading about their lives.

    One of the most interesting and pleasurable experiences for me, is when I discover that a recognized Gadol has held of some idea that some layman had previously said or implied “was contrary to Daas Torah”.

    On the other side of the equation, the idea that Torah leaders can offer authoritative views on technically non-Halachic issues is something that is found in sources prior to the twentieth century, and furthermore, is embraced by some Rabbonim outside the charedi world as well. Additionally, my experience is that the more I learn, paradoxically, the more I realize that I don’t know. I therefore accept, at least as a possibility, that my own ideas may be wrong.

  8. Yaakov Menken says:


    You’re making a valid point. Nonetheless I think it’s very easy to see that there’s no declaration of innocence — merely a call to people to help the family prove it that way. Obviously that’s primarily financial, but free legal advice would also be good.

    In the Talmud as well, they searched for ways to declare someone innocent. This doesn’t mean, however, that the Rabbis never convicted anyone!

    I think an online text-based Talmud program would be too simplistic or something, but you may find Talmud classes here.

  9. Evallace says:


    If you’re looking for a free and worthwhile talmud class that does not require a rigid adherence to the schedule I would suggest you contact Parnters in Torah or 800-Study42 and sign up to learn with someone. They’ll interview you to make sure that they match you up with someone who is compatible and you can let them know that your schedule will change and you need a study partner with flexibility. They’ll do their best to accomodate and you’ll love the program. It’s free, convenient, and totally customizable.

  10. Seth Gordon says:

    Steve, there are two questions here: (1) Is Valis guilty of murder? (2) Did leaders of the broader haredi community react appropriately to his arrest?

    Derfner’s article, and my comments above, focused on the second question. IMHO, even if Valis turns out to be innocent, some of the actions taken in the name of his defense were improper.

    In my experience, when a crime is reported in the media, it is common for the first stories about the crime to focus on the allegations made by the police (or the alleged victims); evidence in favor of the defendant appears later, if at all. (Remember that the defense attorneys may not want to say too much to the media before the trial; why should they help the prosecution by giving a free preview of their defense strategy?) This is arguably a bad thing, but haredi defendants are not the only ones burned by this tendency.

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