Target (Mal)Practice

Some unwarranted criticism that was lobbed last week at several Orthodox writers greatly disturbed this one.

The target of one volley – though the shots widely missed their mark – was Rabbi Jonathan Rosenblum, one of the preeminent representatives of the charedi world. He was harshly criticized in a magazine editorial for a column he penned in a different magazine wherein he sought a silver lining in the current political disenfranchisement of charedi parties in the Israeli government coalition.

Rabbi Rosenblum suggested that the current situation “affords new opportunities to meet our fellow Jews on the individual level” and that now that they know that “we no longer threaten them” in the political realm, “they may be more open… to getting behind the stereotypes that fuel the animus” against charedim in Israel. “On a one-to-one basis,” he suggested, “we can show them what Torah means to us, what we are prepared to sacrifice for it, and what it might mean for them as well.”

Astonishingly, the writer of those words was pilloried for that sentiment, and misrepresented, too, as having asserted that “the hatred secular Israelis have toward charedim is the fault of the hated rather than the haters” (which, of course, he never contended). The censure of Rabbi Rosenblum continued in much the same vein, with the censurer lumping all non-charedi Israelis into one undifferentiated “secular” mass brimming with ideological hatred for religious Jews, and concluding that the only possible way to truly alleviate anti-charedi sentiment would be for charedim to abandon their beliefs and “adopt… the culture of the majority.”

To be sure, there are secular ideologues in Israel, and elsewhere, for whom Judaism itself is anathema. Rabbi Rosenblum knows that well, every bit as well as his attacker. But the vast majority of non-charedi Jews are not ideologues. Most Jews who may bear bias against their charedi fellow citizens do so because of anti-charedi propaganda – and the fact that they themselves have few if any positive personal interactions with charedim. It is precisely that latter unfortunate reality that Rabbi Rosenblum suggests charedim try to address.

Rabbi Rosenblum is a friend of mine, but I have not always agreed with him (nor he with me) on every issue; I would never hesitate to take issue with him if I felt it were warranted. But his straightforward, heartfelt and wise contention that religious Jews in Israel (and I’d extend it to those of us in America no less) would do well to seek opportunities for demolishing negative stereotypes about charedim is simply beyond any reasonable argument.

Two other Orthodox writers, members of what is often called the “Centrist” Orthodox world, were also strongly taken to task last week in a charedi newspaper. These targets, criticized by a respected columnist, were Rabbi Gil Student and Rabbi Harry Maryles, each of whom presides over a popular blog.

The columnist’s complaint was that the rabbinical bloggers did not see fit to condemn a third Centrist rabbi, a celebrated scholar whose reputation was, sadly, recently upended by the revelation that he had engaged in internet “sock puppetry” – the assumption of an alternate identity on the Internet. It was hardly the most scandalous of scandals but was still (as the culprit eventually admitted and apologized for) an act of subterfuge below someone of his scholarly stature.

Since the pretender had often posted, been quoted or been lauded on Rabbi Student’s and Rabbi Maryles’ blogs – the columnist contended – each of them needed to vociferously denounce him. That, because their blogs regularly link to stories in the general media that portray charedi Jews’ real or imagined crimes and misdemeanors, and because many comments appearing on each blog evidence clear animus for charedim. Why, the columnist asked, the double standard, the seeming readiness to extend mercy and the benefit of the doubt to a Centrist rabbi’s misdeeds but not to fallen charedim? The columnist, moreover, insinuated that Rabbis Maryles and Student themselves harbor ill will for charedim.

I cannot claim to be aware of everything (or even most things) that Rabbi Student or Rabbi Maryles have written. But what I have seen of the writings of each has never given me the impression that either man bears any such animus. They are not charedi themselves, to be sure, and I have disagreed with some of their stances. This is not fatal; indeed it is healthy, like all “arguments for the sake of Heaven.” But I don’t think it is reasonable to demand that they denounce someone whom each of them has looked to as a rabbinic authority. IMHO, as bloggers are wont to write – “in my humble opinion” – there was simply no need to pour salt into the wound here.

An important point, though, was registered by the columnist, and it is one that I hope Rabbi Maryles, Rabbi Student and, for that matter, the “charedi websites” alike all ponder well: Comments sections attract ill will, slander and cynicism like some physical materials do flies. While there are certainly responsible commenters out there, there are also many people with clearly too much time and too few compunctions. And it doesn’t strike me as outlandish to wonder if permitting the posting of cynical or vile comments is complicity in what such comments “accomplish.”

It’s a propitious time for talmidim, which we all are of our respective rabbaim, to do our best to ratchet up our “kovod zeh lazeh” – our proper honor for one another, even when we may be in disagreement. That can be done agreeably.

© 2013 Rabbi Avi Shafran

This essay and other material as well can be accessed here

If you’re interested in what the Chasam Sofer saw in the prophet Amos’ comparison of righteous Jews and black people, click here.

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