Right of Reply: On journalism and myopia

I have challenged and critiqued both Orthodox and non-Orthodox Jews when addressing them.

kippa 88 (photo credit: )
kippa 88
(photo credit: )
In his book Letters to a Young Journalist, Columbia University journalism professor Samuel Freedman offers sage advice: "Reporting requires context, a knowledge of how a momentary event fits into the larger flow of politics or culture or history." It also requires the context of the actual event. In his March 23 Jerusalem Post "In the Diaspora" column headlined "Steinhardt's shtick," Freedman relied on a second-hand report, shorn of the most basic contextual details concerning the event, my remarks and the audience's reaction, to condemn me as a bigot with "a great deal of money with an intemperate mouth." If Freedman is running out of essay topics, my heart goes out to him. It's been a long winter. But I suggest he rely on more than six decontextualized words to build an 800-word character assassination. It might do him good to actually attend the events he writes about (for one thing, he'd get the date correct: It was not in early March, as Freedman reported in his piece, but in February). The original report indicated that I said of Orthodox Jews: "They come from a different planet." It went on to mention that "some of the kippa-wearing guests shook their heads; others squirmed in their seats." Freedman turns this sentence into "those observant guests in attendance 'shook their heads' or 'squirmed in their seats.'" He thus gives the impression that it was a largely secular crowd, with a minority of observant Jews in attendance, each of whom felt castigated by my remarks. Had Freedman attended the event, he would know that Reuth is an Orthodox social-service organization; that the honoree of the evening was an Orthodox philanthropist; and that a disproportionate percentage of the audience was Orthodox. That "some" took displeasure does not indicate that all Orthodox Jews in attendance took displeasure, and nowhere does the original report refer to the "awkward silence" Freedman conjures in reaction to my remarks. Why does this matter? If I had spoken disparagingly of Orthodox Jews before a crowd of non-Orthodox Jews or non-Jews, Freedman would be right to criticize my judgment. But I have never done that. I have challenged and critiqued Orthodox Jews when addressing them. Likewise, I have challenged and critiqued non-Orthodox Jews when speaking to them. Indeed, I speak more critically to non-Orthodox Jews because I am one of them. At the Reuth benefit, I was speaking to Orthodox Jews as a friend concerned about the vitality of clal Yisrael. Furthermore, the isolated sentence "they come from a different planet" reads like a potshot comparing the Orthodox to pernicious alien creatures. What I said - and what the journalism professor would have heard had he been there - was that Orthodox and non-Orthodox Jews are increasingly living separate lives, with the Orthodox sending their children to different schools, eating in different restaurants and often living in separate neighborhoods than their non-Orthodox counterparts. I did not say this to disparage the Orthodox. Indeed, I have repeatedly affirmed the Orthodox advantage in fighting assimilation. Still, the insulation must be acknowledged to address the challenges we face if we consider the unity of Jewish peoplehood a worthy goal. PERHAPS NOT content to lambast me for six words, Freedman goes on to cite a single word - "myopic" - to summarize other references to Orthodox Jews I have made in public. Again, Freedman sheds the word of all context. I have used the "myopic" remark to groups composed entirely of Orthodox Jews - once at Yeshivat Chovevei Torah, and once to a group of alumni from Yeshiva University. In both cases, the context Freedman failed to quote is as follows: "There are profound reasons why the Orthodox community should be concerned with the non-Orthodox world. The famous Hillel question, 'If I am only for myself, what am I?' applies. Any community that is unable to see beyond itself is doomed, eventually, to deterioration from within. By removing itself from the larger Jewish world, the Orthodox community isolates itself from other Jews and from other ideas. As we have seen in Jewish history, isolation can have immediate benefits, but it also has serious costs. I'm afraid that by refusing to be involved in the larger Jewish community, Orthodox Jews risk becoming self-satisfied and myopic - a risk inherent in all isolated communities." In these instances, I further asked why Orthodox Jews do not give more to the UJA and to birthright israel, despite the fact that Orthodox Jews are among the primary beneficiaries of the community's programs. Freedman's counterpoint - that Orthodox people work at non-Orthodox institutions, and that Chabad targets the non-Orthodox - evades my point that philanthropically, the Orthodox community has not contributed amounts commensurate with its numbers and its financial capacity to non-Orthodox and general Jewish communal causes. FINALLY, Freedman cites my performance in hassidic garb at a dinner honoring outgoing Hillel director Richard Joel as evidence of callous incivility. I do not know if Freedman attended this event, but if he was there he surely saw that the overwhelming majority of the Jewish audience, except for a small number of attendees, found the performance uproarious. The audience was well aware that I and the other philanthropists who strongly supported Hillel were in love with Richard; the satire was benign and edged with nostalgia and loss. Again, context is everything: I was teasing Richard for leaving a group of funders who thought he could do no wrong, and for joining a group in which important elements would be scandalized that his Hillel program included religious pluralism, women rabbis and women dressed immodestly. In a larger sense, I was satirizing the widening rift between those who believe exclusively in Orthodox in-reach and those who believe in engaging the unaffiliated. After all, Mr. Joel had helped rebuild Hillel with the goal of reaching disenfranchised Jews. Indeed, at the time of the dinner, a contingent of Yeshiva University roshei yeshiva called a psalms recitation rally, offering prayers in the hopes of torpedoing Joel's ascendancy to the presidency of Yeshiva University. In this case, the satire came disturbingly close to the truth. But to imply, as Freedman did, that I was merely pillorying the Orthodox is to engage in outright distortion. Freedman kindly acknowledged my philanthropic giving, but suggested it came with the price of inviolability. In fact, those who know me know that I am, more than most, welcome to fierce criticism. But I feel it should go both ways. Indeed, my contentiousness is all too well known. In speeches and articles, I have challenged the frequent mediocrity, the complacency and the self-satisfaction of communal culture. Undoubtedly, some people are made uncomfortable at such times. But were Prof. Freedman following the dictum of Ethics of the Fathers to "judge every person by giving them the presumption of merit," then he would have classified my words under the rubric of Proverbs (27:6): "The wounds a friend gives are faithful, while the kisses of a foe are perfidious." I do not mind being called to task for my critical comments on Orthodox Jewry or, for that matter, for my even more critical comments on Reform Jewry. I only ask that the criticism be factually based. Freedman's attack is the kind of baseless screed one might find on a 16-year-old's MySpace blog. It is not the sort of thing one expects from a person who teaches the fine craft of journalism.