Connect the Media Dots, Anyone?

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Are you tiring of pinochle with the boys every Wednesday? Is bird watching just not giving you the oomph you seek in a pastime? Perhaps the following diversion will provide just the the sort of fun, intellectual challenge that’s needed to reinvigorate your leisure time.

Here’s how it works: Open the newspaper of your choice and peruse two articles. Try to discern any thematic continuities that may exist between them. Next, read a third piece and attempt to make a substantive connection between it and the second article. If serendipity smiles and you achieve a trifecta, move on to yet a fourth column and who knows . . . ?

In order to demonstrate precisely how this article-kiting exercise works in practice, we’ve selected, at random of course, this past week’s edition of The Forward. A piece on the papal funeral catches the eye. Several prominent American Orthodox rabbis, it seems, “are warning Jews not to watch the funeral on television . . . [noting] that . . . Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik had warned that Jews should not watch” President Kennedy’s funeral.

(An aside: Do Orthodox rabbis ever do anything other than go around ominously “warning” people to not do one thing or another? Put another way, can you visualize The Forward ever writing something like “in response to the inquiries of sincerely searching Jews, several Orthodox rabbis counseled that, irrespective of the pope’s merits as an individual, according to the Jewish spiritual path known as Halacha, even passive observation of another faith’s religious rite runs counter to the monotheistic belief that is so central for Jews?” Hold not your breath. Also, for the record, Rabbi Soloveitchik didn’t “warn” anyone of anything; his was a comment made after the Kennedy funeral.)

The article next reported on a “controversy” in Israel, where the chief rabbis stated that despite having met the pope and appreciating his love for the Jewish people, they “unfortunately, for technical reasons, . . . cannot attend his funeral.” The ADL’s Abe Foxman called the rabbis’ explanation a “lame excuse” and said their decision not to attend was a “sad, missed opportunity.”

(Aside #2: The article ends by quoting a courageous, albeit unnamed, Israeli official who “suspected the chief rabbis changed their minds under pressure from ultra-Orthodox leaders . . . .” ‘Under pressure from the right’ — yup, that’s another media favorite. Y.U. is under pressure, Reinman was under pressure, the chief rabbis are under pressure, yada, yada. Pressuring folks must be what Orthodox rabbis do when they’re not busy issuing warnings.)

A knowledgable Jew like Foxman surely understands the rabbis’ quandary and the delicate way in which they’re trying to resolve it. But business is business, and since Abe is in the anti-Semitism industry, he’s not one to miss his opportunity to focus media attention of non-Jews everywhere on his co-religionists’ failure to show up in Rome. But speaking of opportunities to stand in solidarity with other religions . . .

We turn next to a write-up on the United Jewish Communities’ (UJC) plans to send its first-ever mission of hundreds of homosexuals to the festival scheduled to be held in Jerusalem this summer. The mission was criticized by Agudath Israel of America (AIA), which “refuses to work with UJC because of its ties to the Reform and Conservative movements.” (A subtle, but crucial, correction must be made: AIA’s reluctance to join UJC bespeaks a refusal to be a co-equal member alongside heterodox groups in an umbrella organization like UJC, not an eschewal of UJC based on guilt by association due merely to the latter’s “ties to [heterodox groups].”)

Now, UJC’s announcement of the mission came on the same day that the New York Times ran a front-page story describing how leaders of all the mainstream faith communities in Jerusalem — Jewish, Catholic, Greek Orthodox and Muslim — have joined together in vociferous protest of the above-mentioned festival, which is utter anathema to all of them. For the sake of due diligence, we will be searching the ADL website for a press release from Abe Foxman praising these religious leaders, and his own faith’s rabbis in particular, for taking the opportunity to create a wonderful model of how religions can work together for common goals — not by engaging in mere symbolic gestures, like, say, attending a funeral, but through truly substantive joint efforts to further religious aims. We pledge to report back on the results of that search promptly so as not to keep readers in suspense for too long.

Reading on, we learn that Reform’s Paul Menitoff, by contrast, praised the mission, arguing that since UJC relies on financial support from all denominations, it should not promote any one particular religious doctrine on homosexuality. Come again? Did he say that that UJC’s abstention from espousing a position on homosexuality militates in favor of underwriting an exclusively homosexual mission to this “pride festival?” Surely, this can only be a typographical error, and, to the contrary, Menitoff must have intended that UJC’s pan-denominational support justifies its espousal of the doctrine of any Jewish “stream” it chooses. But that becomes problematic when . . .

The next news report in the queue tells of a tempest swirling over an article by Rabbi Berel Lazar, the leading Chabad rabbi in Russia, in which he wrote that the Reform movement “cannot be seriously called a religion.” In the wake of Lazar’s article, Reform leaders have called upon the American Jewish Congress (AJC) to reconsider its ties to the Chabad-affiliated Federation of Jewish Communities, a major Russian Jewish group with 430 local affiliated communities and 1,500 institutions led by 95 rabbis, as compared to Russian Reform’s 4 clergypeople. Per Reform leader Menitoff, however, AJC, as a pan-Jewish communal group, ought to be able to keep whatever Jewish company it wishes, assuming, that is, that Chabad rabbis are no more beyond the Jewish pale than are militant homosexuals.

On the topic of Rabbi Lazar’s article, his formulation was an intriguing one. Notice that he didn’t posit Reform as a religion distinct from Judaism, as many have done in the past, but that it is, in fact, not a religion at all. Not being privy to the full text of Lazar’s essay, we can only speculate about his rationale. The United States Supreme Court has, in its Establishment Clause jurisprudence over the years, addressed the question of what it takes for a belief system to qualify as a religion under the United States Constitution. It might be interesting to learn if the Court has arrived at a consensus on the matter and how the Reform movement would fare under that definition. Would any scholars of the Court’s decisional corpus like to edify our readers in this regard?

Rabbi Lazar’s thesis about Reform is, of course, directly relevant to the subject of yet another story in last week’s Forward, regarding the Israeli Supreme Court’s latest ruling legitimizing certain Reform conversions. Conversion presupposes, after all, that the prospective convert wishes to join a religion rather than a Jewish analog of the Rotary Club.

And on it goes . . .

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2 Responses

  1. Shira Schmidt says:

    I, too, connect the dots when I read the Israeli Press. HOwever, there is a danger of being paranoid about “the media” being against the haredim. Also, I can just as well connect the dots (usually mirror image of the secular press) when I read the haredi media Hamodia, Yated, Hazofeh, YOm L’Yom, etc. etc.

    Shira Schmidt 9 b Nissan

  2. Toby Katz says:

    Following the links as you’ve done is indeed a fun pastime (when it doesn’t raise your blood pressure too much). Here, for example, is a theme you can find every day in the NY Times: Religion is Dangerous. When you see a religious person, be afraid, be very afraid.

    This theme cuts across all articles about Bush appointees, about how evolution is taught in schools, about Terri Schiavo, about kipa-seruga OR chareidi Israelis, and so on. Oddly, you will not find this theme in articles about Islam. Also you won’t find it in articles about lesbian nuns.

    Anyway, I’m pleased to find someone else who shares my hobby of connect-the-dots.