Monday, November 28, 2016

Truth? …or Lies and Embellishments?

It appears that Yeshiva World News has taken down the story about the Orthodox Jewish businessman and the South Korean Diplomat.

I don’t know why they did this. But I suspect it might be because there has been some doubt cast on the veracity of that story. If in fact it did not happen and the entire thing is a hoax, then what happened here is troubling on many levels.

First let me say that if indeed this story is a hoax I do not believe the Orthodox Jewish businessman is at as fault. His reputation as an honorable man precludes any deliberate participation in this. What is troubling is that someone may have made up the story and put it out there as fact. Do we need hoaxes to make us look good? Is there not enough of us that do good in the world that we need to make up stories? 

It seems, however, that there are some people that feel that way. Are they’re right? Are our sinners more prevalent than our saints? 

After examining the story more closely, it does seem a bit odd that the thing the South Korean diplomat praised was Mr. Werdiger’s accommodation to his Jewish employees religious practices. While that is a wonderful thing for a religious businessman to do, I’m not really sure why a South Korean diplomat would see that in the same light observant Jews do. Surely letting his staff Daven Mincha everyday is not something a South Korean diplomat would consider all that valuable a contribution to mankind.

That Mr. Werdiger treated an employee (the diplomat’s daughter) with respect and dignity should also not be something all that out of the ordinary. How else should an employer treat their employees? It may be true that many businessmen don’t treat their employees well. But singling out someone who does for so much praise – to the point of trying to reimburse his daughter's employer for the fair wages he paid her seems like a highly unlikely event. Just as unlikely is the fact that a UN ambassador would vote contrary to his nation’s policies based on his daughter’s personal observations about one individual.

I should have read the YWN story more carefully before I re-posted it on my blog and then praised it as a Kiddush HaShem. My usual skepticism about stories like this gave way to a desire to report a feel-good story about a Jew whose behavior was something to emulate. We need role models like this. There are far too many among us that are the opposite of role models. And they’re the ones that get all the media attention.

According to Matzav (where it is still posted) this story was told by a popular speaker at the Agudah Convention and just like YWN, Matzav says they verified the story. The question first arises - why would a story told as truth by a respected religious figure need to be verified in the first place? Don’t they trust him? If he said it happened, should we doubt it? 

And if it is not true, what exactly was the verification that Matzav relied upon? And if it never happened, why was it told as truth in the first place? What is gained by a religious figure passing off a fairly tale as truth?

If this is a hoax or embellishment as I now suspect it might be, I have to wonder why a respected religious figure would pass it off as truth? I can’t answer the question. But I can speculate based on how the Charedi world treats its historical religious figures in the bios they write about them. There too they lie. Not about the things they mention. But about those they don’t - leaving out what they know to be truthful but believe to be unflattering information about them. 

This is not disputed by them. It is actually touted by them as a plus. They feel such embellishments of a Torah giant will inspire their readers.  Charedi publishers like Rabbi Nosson Scherman have made it abundantly clear that the truths of history don’t matter to them. Only the positive inspiration derived of them do. If one needs to lie by omission in order to accomplish that - that is what will happen at ArtScroll. 

Thus in an ArtScroll biography - great religious figures will be born great. God forbid we make them human via actual truth that they were not born great but became great. No. it would be disparaging to say anything negative about a past Gadol. What - after all - is to be gained by telling the world that Rav Aharon Kotler read ‘Uncle Tom’s Cabin’ as a youth?! Better to leave out that information. They’ll just say that Rav Aharon Kotler was pure Torah - cradle to grave.

As I said, I don’t know if that was the reason a popular Charedi personality would lie or embellish a story if that is indeed what happened here. But if it is and he made it up to inspire his listeners - that would not be inconsistent with the ways bios are treated in the Charedi world. 

Just to be clear, there is nothing wrong with using a fictional story to impart inspiration or positive values. Provided it is clearly labeled as fiction. That’s what Aesop’s Fables do. But once a fable is cited as fact, the lesson is not learned after the truth comes out. The opposite happens.

That said, I still hope the story is true, even though I am now very skeptical of it. Because in the alternative, no one comes out looking good here. A good man’s reputation (Shlomo Werdiger) will be unfairly tarnished for his possible participation it this. The popular Charedi personality that told this story as fact will be discredited. And the rest of the world will laugh at us if or when they hear about it. Turning a remarkable story that if  true is a Kiddush HaShem - into a Chilul HaShem if it isn’t.

I received the following note from someone I trust (It was actually an email he received and forwarded to me). This seems to corroborate the original contention that the story in question is true and helps explain why YWN took down the post. In light of the questions raised above, that this actually happened is even more remarkable.
This morning I spoke with Mr. Sol Werdiger regarding the story about the Korean diplomat Mr. Joon,  his daughter who worked for Mr. Werdiger,  and how positively Mr. Joon's daughter found working for Mr. Werdiger, and the net result that Mr. Joon never voted against Israel in the UN.
Mr. Werdiger told me that the story is absolutely true!  He said the reason why he had YWN take the story down is because some in Korea were upset to learn what Mr. Joon had done and that it might affect Mr. Joon's career in the future.  (Mr. Joon is returning to Korea soon.)
So here we have an accurate story about how Jews behaving properly as Orthodox Jews can make a real Kiddush HaShem.
Hopefully there will be more true stories that cast Orthodox Jews in a positive light.  Sadly,  there are too many that do just the opposite.