Wednesday, April 19, 2017

Why I Criticize

Illustration form Mishpacha Magazine
I sometimes wonder if my sense of right and wrong is guiding me properly. When I write a critical post about an Orthodox Jew that committed a crime, I often get challenged by some people that accuse me of violating the laws of Lashon Hara, gossiping about fellow Jews. Or worse spreading false rumors about them that have been unproven. And even if they are proven, the laws of Lashon Hara forbid me to spread that news to others.

The criticism I get varies from mild rebukes asking me if I have checked with Posksim - to calling me the vilest of names - condemning me to an eternity in Hell. Sometimes  get a private e-mail about it. And sometimes I will get a comment on my blog about it. The truly vile comments I tend to ignore. It is the thoughtful critics that I sometime wonder about. (I should add that the vast majority of feedback I get is very positive. But the few negative comments affect me more.)

The last edition of Mishpacha Magazine featured  an article by Eytan Kobre about a symposium the magazine held. Several Orthodox journalists and one Yeshiva leader expressed their views on how observant members of the media that care about these issues as a matter of Halacha - should properly deal with them. The responses assured me that I am on the right track.

The participants were Ner Israel President, Rabbi Sheftel Nueberger, Boston Globe columnist Jeff Jacoby, Agudah spokesman and noted columnist Rabbi Avi Shafran, Mishpacha reporter Binyamin Rose, and community leader Marvin Schick.

Does an observant journalist have a different standard than a secular one?  Should they be holding Orthodox institutions accountable for their behavior? What news is fit to print – or not fit? How does such reporting impact observant Jewry?  Do general journalistic standards comport with Orthodox standards? These are the kind of questions asked of these 5 people.

Interestingly, but perhaps not surprisingly, Rabbi Neuberger’s approach was the most troubling for me. He said that an Orthodox journalist must be guided by the desire to always make Orthodoxy look good. And to try justify questionable behavior if there is a credible way to do so.

I will give Rabbi Neuberger the benefit of the doubt. I do not believe he meant that we must lie about an Orthodox Jew that was caught in criminal activity. By credible - he meant that if there is any way that can legitimately put a positive spin on it on a negative media report about an Orthodox Jew, we should do it. But only with the truth.  An example might be providing evidence that there was no crime at all – and the that media report was mistaken on the details, or incomplete. But even if that is what he meant, this approach comes dangerously close to whitewashing bad behavior. Especially if the media reports end up being the more credible version. The result of that kind of ‘positive spin’ just makes matters worse... making it seem like we are trying to excuse the behavior!

A far more reasonable approach was taken by Jeff Jacoby. He  made the point I often make here about accusations of Lashon Hara. That it is not only permitted but perhaps even required when an Orthodox Jew gets caught in a crime. This issue came up in a critical column he did about a convicted Orthodox Jewish lobbyist that was involved in a heavily covered scandal. He discussed the gravity of the Chulul Hashem that a Jew that was identified in the media as an Orthodox Jew. 

After that column was published, he caught flak in a letter from a fellow Orthodox Jew who was a friend of that lobbyist - berating him for speaking Lashon Hara about someone that had done many Mitzvos. His response was similar to my own when I am challenged that way. Publishing that criticism will help deter other Orthodox Jews from doing things like that. In other words, there is a Toeles – a legitimate purpose that overrides the Laws of Lashon Hara.

Rabbi Shafran made the point about staying above politics and trying to be objective about the political leaders in the country. Judaism is neither Democrat or Republican. One should therefore look at each individual act or policy by a politician and judge that, rather than who said it and which political party they are from. I fully agree with him there. That the Torah’s values should always be our guide in how we report things and that we should be honest about it - is something I agree with too. As he indicated every reporter is a human being and is informed by their own biases. It would be nice if they all admitted it instead of pretending to be objective.

Binyamin Rose basically just talked about how sources differ between the mainstream and the religious  media – making the claim that religious media sources tend to be more credible because the relationship that develops with an Orthodox source ends up being much closer than is the case with a mainstream media source. He also said that an Orthodox news publication does not practice ‘gotcha journalism the way the mainstream media does. Orthodox journalists are not motivated by catching someone in a lie, but rather in finding out the truth of a story.

It was Marvin Schick whose view most closely reflects mine. It was similar to Jeff Jacoby's view .There is no absolute Halachic or Hashkafic ban on publishing criticism of other Jews. Even Orthodox Jews. By name when appropriate. As long as it is done with a goal of prevention of future behavior of this kind. There is no hiding misdeeds anymore. Anyone can google a story and find out in an instant what an Orhtodox Jew is guilty of. Without offering pubic criticism it appears to green-light such behavior as long as it can be gotten away with.

What about Teshuva? If a miscreant truly regrets his behavior and turns his life around, that criticism will not be erased from the internet. It will remain there forever and hurt an individual whose Teshuva is sincere. But without criticism those that engage in criminal behavior will have think they have a green light to continue doing so. To put is the way Mr. Schick did: 
Scamsters and serial fraudsters depend on and are nurtured by an environment that mandates silence. 
I will add one more important reason for public criticism of Orthodox miscreants. By publicly condemning such behavior it counters the Chilul Hashem they make as an obviously Orthodox Jew. You are letting the public know (Jew and non Jew alike) - that kind of behavior is not OK. It is a violation of the Torah. These people may look religious. But they are criminals and do not represent the high ideals of the Torah.

This pretty much sums things up. I will admit that I sometimes err and when I do, I try to correct the error and apologize. But I hope that in the vast majority of critical posts, that they are justified.