Crossing the Red Lines in Jewish Journalism

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journalismBy Rabbi Yosef Shubert

I have been itching to write an article, or a series of articles, about the current Jewish media, the role it plays, and the responsibility it carries., both in print and on-line. Then, out of the blue, I chanced upon two phenomenal articles on the very subject. The two columns, authored by Rabbi Avrohom Birnbaum in the pages of the American Yated Ne’eman, aptly put the topic in perspective. If you are able, get hold of the two articles, titled “Glossy Ahavas Yisroel,” which appeared, I believe, two weeks ago and three weeks ago.

Here, I’d like to share some excerpts that I have selected and typed up. They are obviously taken somewhat out of context, but I feel that the message they convey is accurate nonetheless and is so important to consider.

It is important for both us, the Jewish reader, in deciding what to bring into our homes and who to patronize, and important for writers and publishers in the Jewish world, who must know their mandate and responsibilities.

The following are some key points. I have bolded the one that are the most vital, in my opinion:

…The slogan invoking ahavas chinam and using the hallowed Torah ideal of ahavas Yisroel to supersede all else is often used by those with vested interests to encourage people not to have a strong value system, not to differentiate right from wrong, not to disagree, dislike and express dislike for ideas that are wrong, that may be contrary to what the Torah demands of us, that may constitute rebellion against Hashem. It tells us to overlook improper conduct, to overlook the perpetrators, and instead to love them – to have ahavas chinam!

Ahavas Yisroel does not mean accepting or condoning wrongful acts, or even wrong ideas that are contrary to Torah and hashkofas haTorah.

Whereas the misunderstanding and abuse of the concept of ahavas Yisroel in the distant past was generally far more prevalent in non-Chareidi ideology, over the past few years, the increasingly “sound-byte”-oriented Chareidi community has also begun to suffer from this unfortunate, tragic surrender of intellect in favor of cheap sloganeering.

This has become especially troubling when these kinds of feel-good slogans are taken up by publications that cater to the Chareidi Jews, who often read them for entertainment when they are half asleep on the couch after a Friday night Shabbos meal…

At that point, everything is fuzzy, everything looks so wonderful, glossy and good. At that point, we lack the ability to think, to differentiate between right and wrong, between lechatchilah and bedieved, to understand nuance, to understand that people or ideas may have many amazing qualities that should be emulated, while simultaneously possessing serious flaws that can cause great damage.

The reading may be entertaining. However, the power of the written word is the power of implanting ideas in the mind – in many minds, some of them young minds that are not yet developed, minds which often inadvertently have components of their worldview and ideology shaped by those whose primary motivation is the “bottom line,” the lowest common denominator, and not the “top line,” orach chaim lemaaleh lemaskil…

…There should be a basic kav, an ideological mandate, an understanding that, as publications representing the community of G-d fearing, Torah-observant Jews, we have a responsibility to our readers and to Hashem. Of course, we must entertain; we can’t expect leisure readers to want to buy a sefer every week. Understandably, the articles must be engaging, interesting and informative, but they also should have a uniformity of principle. There must be red lines.

The printed word in our community perhaps more than anything else is a medium of communication of values. Like it or not, people are influenced and educated by what they read. If a magazine or newspaper does not display the requisite achrayus, the requisite sense of responsibility, to its core clientele, and more importantly to Hashem, they are shirking their responsibility in a public way that is unforgivable. Lack of responsibility in a public forum is not the same as lack of responsibility in a private forum. When there are thousands of readers being affected by that lack of achrayus, the consequences are far greater and far deeper.

Somehow, today, the media-saturated society in which we live has, at times, made our own publications resemble celebrity magazines, more than magazines that should entertain in the modest, restrained fashion that characterizes our nation.

Focusing on the rich and famous, on entertainers, wealthy moguls and tycoons, being akin to a frum version of “People Magazine,” which may admittedly arouse reader interest and curiosity and certainly sell copies, may in essence be a colossal display of lack of achrayus. It is putting commercial interests above values, above the responsibility that a frum publication has to both entertain and educate. Make no mistake about it. Frum journalism, with its publishing of newspapers and magazines for Torah Jews, is a holy mandate, not just a for-profit enterprise. It is a shlichus – a holy shlichus. Not properly carrying out that mandate is a me’ilah b’shlichus, an unforgivable forfeiture of responsibility.

If ultimately, magazines or papers, in pursuit of a greater market share, choose to publish articles and features that cross hashkafic red lines, or if they publish material that cool readers off from authentic Yiddishkeit, they are being guilty of the original sin, which precipitated the creation of frum publications in the first place. They are defeating their whole purpose. They are not fortifying the walls of Yiddishkeit, but are rather breaching them.

I could not have said it better.

{Excerpts taken from Yated Ne’eman, Monsey, NY}

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  1. Agree fully.
    In todays society, I can violate all halachic or hashkafa boundaries, and the when someone speaks up, I answer back “Ahavas Yisroel”, “Don’t be into Sinas chinam” etc.
    Of course we must love all Jews and avoid machlokes at all cost. That doesn’t mean we must let every fringe group follow through their agenda , in the name of ahavas yisroel. It doesn’t mean we can’t speak up for true Torah values.
    We shouldn’t need to be apologetic when standing up for the truth.

  2. Everything said in this article is 100$ correct.

    That being said, there is not a SINGLE so-called “frum” (or “yeshivish”) website that comes anywhere close to meeting the proper ideals expressed above.

  3. There are red lines and media must be careful not to cross them. BUT what about the complete rewriting of history by deleting individuals/speakers/rabbanim from seminal events to fit the ‘daas’ of the day.
    I am reminded of the 4 (if not more) biographies of Rav Sholom Z Auerbach zt”l, where only one of them deemed it necessary to tell the readership that Rav AY hacohen Kook was the mesadar kiddushim at the wedding…. or biographies that sterilize gedolim, their wives and families into holy shrines. Is deleting, voiding, rewriting information AS BAD AS crossing red lines? Would like your opinion Rabbi Shubert (& Rabbi Birnbaum)?

  4. Whatever frum journalism may or may not be doing, there is another major influence on frum Jews in this country, and that is talk radio. People who would never ever have a television in their homes think nothing of tuning in to non-Jewish radio shows where the hashkafa of the hosts and callers is anything but frum.

    In many cases, the manner of speaking and the lack of respect shown is nothing short of appalling. “What goes in the ear comes out the mouth,” and it works with adults just as with children. Over the last twenty years there has been, as far as I can see, a noticeable decline in everyday derech eretz and kavod habrios, and it seemed to start not long after talk radio began to be popular among frum people.

    Secular influences are secular influences, whether they come served up on TV, internet or the airwaves. In addition, many talk show hosts tailor their programs to conservative and evangelical Xtians. While at first glance this would seem to be compatible with Torah values, I have studied comparative religion and this is not true. The differences may seem subtle at times, but they are very real and in the long run will have a negative effect.

    Let’s be consistent. If you’re not going to be listening to late-night TV talk shows, you shouldn’t be listening to talk radio either. If you feel the need to know the news, buy a newspaper. But as the article above points out, it’s what you absorb when you’re feeling least aware that affects you most in the long run. Be warned.

  5. RAv Avigdor Miller once said to me not everything should be printed. My question is; there is plenty material printed today amongst the Yeshivah world that potentially can be misleading and turn off well meaning and good genuine youth. On the flip side there are potential authors that should be advanced amongst the Yeshivah world but are deleted or condemned for agendas that suit people whom should not be heard in the Yeshivah world. No wonder there are over 40 000 youth off the derech today and even more at risk that only Hashem knows. May Hashem send the Geulah soon for His children that are lost including the editors of this honorable web site. We really need Moshiach.

  6. Excellent, thoughtful piece. Mr. “sanctimonious baloney”, I don’t think this piece was written for you; it was written for those who can discriminate responsibility from selling points.

  7. The challenge is finding a perfect balance between achrayus, as you put it, and truth. the very charedi newspapers are sanctimonious and pompous, all ‘heileg’ but they don;t ring true.. They revise history and deem themselves the final arbiter of what is right and wrong.

    To my mind, the only publication which is honest and true, even with a full-time rov on staff, is Mishpocho.


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