By CJ Strullowitz
A blogger whom I follow recently posted that, due to news coming out of Israel and certain events making headlines in America, he was “embarrassed to be a religious Jew.” It was the second time in two days I had read such a statement, and it disturbed me greatly.
This awful sentiment is the result of the constant attention and amplification given to these scandals. Yes, these scandals are despicable. Their perpetrators are guilty of the worst sin possible, desecration of the Holy Name. Yes, these scandals are embarrassing. Those of us who are law-abiding citizens of Halachah pay the price, too, in public perception.
Nevertheless, the constant, sometimes exclusive, harping on these dirty deviants demonstrates the utter disaster that many Jewish blogs have become. Rather than being sources of inspiration and introspection, most of these blogs simply serve to depress and alienate. The unceasing barrage of bile and vindictiveness leads their readers, and their creators, away from Yiras Shamayim rather than toward it. People read and read and read this stuff until they throw away their yarmulkas in disgust.
But that’s not how it should be. Mussar-particularly in our generation-should be about building up, not tearing down. Every time a religious-looking (notice I said “looking”) Jew lands in the newspapers for evil behavior, I too am embarrassed. But rather than hide, I stand up. It makes me want to keep my yarmulka on, to mount a counteroffensive, to show the world-both Jewish and secular-how a Jew is really supposed to behave.
Unfortunately, however, any input on these blogs that’s designed to bring insight, or even a bit of even-handedness (after all, not all scandals are created equal), to the conversation is met with dismissal at best and character assassination at worst. Essentially, these bloggers seem to be saying, “If you’re not with us, you’re against us.” You are said to be sweeping the problems under the carpet, and deemed an apologist.
With that in mind, there are a few points that ought to be made.
One, there is absolutely no statistical evidence that the behavior of religious Jews as a group is worse than that of the general society, or, in fact, not significantly better. Empirical evidence, as demonstrated by newspaper headlines, says less about Orthodox Jewish behavior and more about how newspapers operate. Newspapers aren’t interested in fair play. They are only interested in selling papers. To that end, “Man Cheats and Steals” isn’t a headline. “Rabbi [or Priest, for that matter] Cheats and Steals” is.
To believe that media scrutiny is an accurate barometer of behavior patterns, is to believe that athletes, politicians and celebrities are more likely than the rest of society to beat their wives, cheat on their taxes, use illegal drugs, engage in illicit sexual behavior, and shoot people. It is also to believe that plane crashes, which are always reported in the paper, are far more common than automobile accidents, which are not-unless there is an athlete, politician or celebrity involved.
Second, the Jewish blogosphere is not consistent. Its righteous repulsion is reserved for a certain segment of Orthodox Jews, i.e., those who happen to be of the beard-and-black-hat variety. This only betrays the blinders of their bias.
The recent Bernard Madoff scandal involved a very prominent Modern Orthodox man, who was president of his Modern Orthodox shul, and head of the investment committee at the Modern Orthodox Yeshiva University. He has been charged with civil fraud by New York State, named in countless lawsuits, and has had his picture in the paper for months.
What sayeth the bloggers to this scandal? Barely a peep.
Third, there is a startling inconsistency in this group’s trust of the media, which is vexing to the point that it can only be described as bipolar. The very same Jews who go apoplectic over the media’s slanted coverage of Israel, trust completely that very same media when they are covering stories about Orthodox Jews. If certain people want to base their opinion of the frum world according to what’s reported in the media, then, in fairness, they should base their opinion of Israel according to what’s reported in the media as well.
Only they don’t. Bloggers who throw fits, charging the media with bias and distortion, when news organizations refer to Israelis as a callous cabal of colonizers, stealing Arab land, violating Arab civil rights, and shooting Arab children-these same bloggers embrace whatever negativity the media reports when the subject is ultra-Orthodox Jews.
I’ll say it again: Every time a frum-looking Jew creates a chillul Hashem it is a tragedy of great depth and proportion. But to think that such behavior is disproportionately occurring within the frum world because of the disproportionate number of media reports simply reflects a naive view of how the media work. The publication of stories, even a lot of stories, is not a condemnation of the whole community or an indictment of its values.
Which isn’t to say that we should ignore these stories. We must face up to them and seek to restore our collective reputation. Rabbi Yakov Horowitz is very good at doing this in a positive, productive way. But, in many quarters, the conversation long ago degenerated from constructive criticism to a scorched-earth policy. We can and must do better.