A Personal Note to Cross-Currents Readers
I had been planning to write a follow-up message about my posting “The Earth Trembles” even before Illana B.’s comment (# 20) appeared. But her request – taking me back to my family’s wonderful years in Providence – convinced me to put aside some other pressing things and get down to addressing concerns that have been raised about what I wrote.
I have to confess that I don’t usually read the Cross-Current comments posted to my essays. To be honest, I have found that posters often seemed to not have really read the essay on which they chose to comment; and that the tone of some postings seemed unnecessarily abrasive. I receive much feedback from individual subscribers to Am Echad Resources and so I get ample thoughtful responses and constructive criticism from that source.
Having been apprised, though, of comments on various blogs that mischaracterized my words as “blaming” the Haitian disaster on “a cartoon,” I looked at the comments C-C readers had offered and, at the moderator’s suggestion, cleared those I felt deserved to be posted, and deleted those about which I felt otherwise. The latter category included repetitious comments and those that included name-calling, were crass or disparaged Gedolim. There are places on the web where such writing can feel at home. C-C is not one of them.
But I think most, if not all, of the points that were made even in the rejected postings are reflected in one or more of those that I approved – which can be read following my recent essay. The points, rendered as questions, can be put as follows:
1) How could I blame an earthquake on a cartoon?
2) Why did I only “tell other people” to engage in introspection, but not Orthodox Jews?
3) Why did I limit my suggestion for introspection to forbidden speech but not include other bad behavior and communal problems?
4) Why did I indulge in precisely what I was condemning, by naming particular writers of whose recent writing or portrayals I disapprove?
5) How could I call an editorial to task for its disparagement of Gedolim without commenting on the editorial’s topic – the alleged ugly wrongdoing of an Orthodox rabbi? And how could I characterize that wrongdoing as “alleged”?
6) Why have Gedolim not spoken out in condemnation of that alleged wrongdoer? Especially when they have spoken out about many other things of which they disapprove?
7) Would I have focused on haredi riots or name-calling had such things occurred the week of the Haitian disaster?
Let me take each question in turn.
1) I did not “blame” the earthquake on anything, much less a particular piece of writing or art. I simply cited the Jewish mandate to soul-search in the wake of disaster, and quoted a Godol of our generation who suggested that speech fueled by ill will is a particularly rampant evil in our day. I cited the cartoon and editorial as recent examples, nothing more.
What I wrote was like noting that “two new factories just this week began spewing particulates into the air” in an article about how pollution may contribute to the incidence of lung cancer. That some blogs chose to “simplify” my message to the point of wildly distorting it only reiterates the very problem on which my essay focused.
2) I wrote quite explicitly that the articles I cited were examples only of anti- Orthodox invective, but that “ill will and its expression, tragically” exist in the Orthodox world as well. I didn’t cite particular examples only because I couldn’t find any recent public ones. But my message was clearly intended – and clearly directed – toward Orthodox Jews, myself included, no less than anyone else.
3) I felt that I should follow the lead of Rav Steinman, and our speech was what he suggested we focus on. In no way did I mean, G-d forbid, to minimize other bad behavior we have seen of late, ethical, moral or otherwise.
4) I did not name any writer or artist, or even the name of the papers in which the material that offended me appeared. Even had I done so, though, I think there is a qualitative difference between decrying speaking or writing negatively about others and citing public examples of such already published writing to illustrate the problem.
5) I did not consciously decide to ignore the topic of the editorial; it simply had no bearing on my own topic. Needless to say (I hope), the descriptions of the alleged behavior of the accused man leave me deeply disgusted and saddened.
But until a court of law or beis din renders a judgment of an accused individual, no matter how heinous the crime and no matter the seeming preponderance of evidence, he or she may not be referred to as guilty. My use of the qualifier “alleged” was not meant to imply a defense of the accused, only to hew to the journalistically normative (and, I believe, halachically mandated) practice.
6) I cannot speak for any Godol with regard to something I have not discussed with him. But Gedolim, too, are bound by the halacha that prohibits judgment of guilt without a trial.
When it comes to religious issues that are not subject to beis din adjudication but which they consider important (even if they are issues that some people might not consider so), Gedolim have not only a right but a responsibility to speak out. Warning the community about kashrus concerns may seem a less important mandate than condemning individuals for grave moral or ethical offenses. But kashrus concerns are part of a Jewish religious leader’s mandate, and condemning people is only arguably so (personally, I don’t think it is, unless they judge that there is a danger of the offense being regarded by the community as insignificant). And in a case where no guilt has been established by a court, condemnation of the accused is not even an option.
7) Again, I was following Rav Steinman’s lead. But I do believe that had there been some example of outrageous behavior on the part of haredim the week of the Haiti cataclysm I would indeed have written something on the order of what I wrote at http://www.cross-currents.com/archives/2009/07/24/how-to-promote-baseless-hatred/
I hope the above clarifies what I wrote in my essay. I realize that that some readers will still feel strongly that, rather than the societal ill on which I focused, I should have addressed other things. I fully respect that feeling, even if I don’t agree with it. I recognize that many other issues seem of greater gravity than our speech and the emotions that fuel what we choose to say. Still and all, I believe that speech is our most powerful strength and potential – for good and, G-d forbid, for evil.
Dear readers, feel free to disagree – but, please, do so agreeably. Comments to this note are invited, as long as they are offered, even if in dissent, in a spirit of good will and the greater good of Klal Yisrael. Just as in any chavrusah, here too give-and-take, disagreements and even arguing can help lead to greater understanding. But just as in a chavrusah, the dialectic has to be, ultimately, between friends, respectful and aimed at a common goal.