No, I Can’t Prove It — Nor Do I Need To

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This post follows up on my last one re Ortho-bashing. A recent JTA report, discussed below, illustrates why, in part, this sort of negative reportage is a chronic problem: because the bias is oftentimes not at all blatant, but nuanced; it has to be perceived, sensed, rather than read. And, in fact, it may not be consciously perpetrated at all; often, it may involve a good deal of just plain ignorance of things Jewish. And it’s so very hard to counteract and eradicate, or call to account the disseminators of, that which one can’t quite prove exists in the first place.

My illustrative text is a JTA piece on the passing of Rav Yitzchak Kadouri, ZTVK”L. We begin at the beginning. Although the article itself puts the number attending his funeral at close to a quarter-million, the headline reads “Death of Israeli sage and mystic draws many thousands of mourners.” A gathering of that size is vanishingly rare not only in Israel, but in the world as a whole and is, thus abundantly newsworthy.”Many thousands” is thus a vast understating of the event. Sloppy writing? An oversight? A quasi-conscious/subconscious downplaying of Ortho strength? Your guess is as good as mine.

Next, there is the de rigeuer Jewish blooper, this time in the caption under the accompanying picture showing people surrounding the bier, which reads: “Mourners pray over the body of Rabbi Yitzhak Kadouri before his funeral, Jan. 29 in the Nahalat Yitzhak synagogue in Jerusalem.” A glance at the picture doesn’t seem to show anyone doing anything like praying, nor am I aware of any particular desideratum in Jewish law or custom for that to happen. Recitation of psalms? Perhaps; but not “praying over the body.” Not a big deal, really. But still, for those in the know, this one line already tips the reporter’s hand as having come, for all Jewish intents and purposes, from Mars.

We move on, and here’s where things start to get more . . . elusive. Search the piece from start to finish and you won’t find one phrase that shouts anti-Orthodox animus — and yet, and yet . . .

Reread the piece in entirety, this time a bit more sensitively, let the paragraphs pile up and sink in and a certain picture emerges. The article begins “To many Jews, he was the celebrity of the century, a mystic with mystique.” Flashy and alliterative, but discordant and inappropriate in an article of this nature.

Later on: “Well before the Kabbalah Center in Los Angeles began recruiting superstars like Madonna, well before Kabbalah was well-known outside the secretive circles of Jewish mystics, Kadouri was studying it, prognosticating and even concocting his own talismans.” Kabbalah Center? Madonna? In the same sentence as this towering titan of Toras HaNistar v’HaNigleh? Can the writer be that much of a dupe — or a dope? “Prognosticating”? “Concocting”? Is this really the way a respectable writer on Jewish matters for the preeminent Jewsish news agency writes of a 106 year old saintly scholar revered by multitudes of Jews, and mere days after his passing? Open hostility? Certainly not –but there’s a foul odor wafting about.

The next paragraph gets worse, but out of respect for the great niftar (deceased) and because it pains me so, I won’t quote what appears therein. Again, nothing explosive, nor bluntly slanted or abrasive; but deeply distasteful, nevertheless, given the subject and context.

There’s more. Little things, like the fact that after referring to him at the article’s beginning as Rabbi Kadouri, the title is dropped thereafter and in the seven references that follow only his last name is used. Hey, I don’t know or care how this particular writer feels about rabbis or religion, nor do I expect or demand that any writer live up to my, or anyone else’s, personal standard of reverence or religious feeling. But isn’t there some minimal sense of decency. a simple combination of menschlichkeit and seichel, that dictates that in writing for Jews about a Jewish leader of this stature and influence and, yes, revered standing, that in keeping with all that, a certain tone be employed?

Quotes or stories about — in a life spanning three centuries! — good works done, lives influenced, struggles endured, scholarship achieved, something to leave a reader impressed, inspired, touched? Don’t bother looking. Only trite, People magazine catchwords: “ascetic,” “ethereal,” “charismatic figurehead.” The writer explains: “Unlike other leading rabbis, he left no great writings and never specialized in founding yeshivot.” I’m not certain, but I think he’s just wrong on the first point, and laughably off-base on the second. The Chazon Ish, Rav Shlomo Zalman, the Steipler, ybl”ch Rav Elyashiv, Rav Chaim, etc. etc. etc. didn’t do so either; for insiders, it’s a nonsensical yardstick.

Perhaps some readers think I’m being hypersensitive, pedantic or downright paranoid. And, maybe they’re right. All I can say is that for me, the confluence of the not just irreverent, but anti-reverent references, the smart-alecky, disdainful tone, the downplaying, it all just adds up to something disturbing, perhaps all the more so precisely because it’s not black-and-white demonstrable, but gossamer intangible.

To check my own perceptions, I ran the following “test.” I did a random search on the JTA site of just a handful of obituary-type pieces on Jewish personalities. The just-deceased Wendy Wasserstein and Betty Friedan, Saul Bellow, Arthur Miller, longtime Reform head Alexander Schindler. Without exception, not only did the write-ups either ignore or delicately apply light gloss to anything negative in their personal lives and careers — and, Heaven knows there’s what to write for some of these folks — but the tone of each piece was unmistakeably respectful, and yes, in it’s own way, reverent. It was as if the writers set for themselves the challenge of taking some of these lives that were nearly devoid of significant connection to Judaism and Jews — in some cases fairly hostile thereto — and posthumously shoehorning in dubious Jewish content; also, of writing glowing, euphemism-laden portraits of people who were famously abrasive, foul-mouthed, egocentric, abusive, etc. So, yes, when the will is there, JTA’s writers know how to craft endearing portraits of Jewish figures, ones in which the reader can feel the good vibes coursing through the lines.

When the will is there.

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24 Responses

  1. Jewish Observer says:

    “lists every Rosh Yeshiva who is niftar as ZT”L everyone else Z”L”

    – who else in the book might have been ZT”L ?

  2. mycroft says:

    “R Weinberg ZTL’s hesped was printed in a book of hespedim on RYBS entitled “Memories of a Giant”, published by Urim.”
    Just a query-if I recollect correctly-the book opf hespedim lists every Rosh Yeshiva who is niftar as ZT”L everyone else Z”L. Is that the definition of a Zaddik-a Rosh Yeshiva. A very good book to read.

  3. Jewish Observer says:

    Nitpicking is what you are doing when I don’t want to answer. Obstinate is what you are being when you don’t want to answer. Carl Reiner had a similr vort about something being funny when it happens to you.

  4. Michoel says:

    Thanks Steve.

  5. Steve Brizel says:

    R Weinberg ZTL’s hesped was printed in a book of hespedim on RYBS entitled “Memories of a Giant”, published by Urim.

  6. Michoel says:

    Mycroft,
    I am not nitpicking. I have this funny interest in seeing the words of an adam gadol inside. “He said this, he holds that, I overheard it on the train from the Rosh Yeshiva’s third cousin.” I don’t consider such discussions fruitful. They can actually cause problems. (I don’t doubt for a minute that what you are saying is true.) I googled around for some quote of the hespid that Steve mentioned but haven’t come up with anything. If someone knows of a link or a place that I could get hold of a tape, I would appreciate it greatly.

  7. mycroft says:

    Michoel:
    My recollection is that to put it mildly Rav Weinberg ZT”L was upset at the JO obituary.
    Since he is in the olam haemet-surely in a high place in the Yeshiva Shel Maala=mothing is gained by nitpicking the details.

    Regarding my 327 AM post Just a clarification-I know I have met Eytan Krobe. We may disagree on political matters at times- but notI not only believe he is nice and personable-I know that he is a mentsch. I hope in the cross-current world that my approbation of Eytan is not held against him.

  8. Steve Brizel says:

    Mycroft-we agree more than we disagree and when we disagree, it is always in a respectful manner and yes, I do own at least one hat. I wear a cap during the week but a hat for Shabbos, Yom Tov and any special event. R Weinberg ZTl was quite willing to and gave a hesped at Shomrei Emunah for RYBS . I would also disagree with your description of R M Tendler as being Charedi. RMT is as close an advertisement for Torah Umadah as anyone and his views on
    Metzitzah BaPeh and brain death are not exactly accepted by the Charedi world.

  9. Michoel says:

    Bob,
    I thin that Jewish Media Resources is try to be a Torah true JTA of sorts, and that is a very positiv thing. However, I also think that it is well within the range of normal hishtadlus to try and get JTA to change. From looking at there staff profiles, I don’t think they have on writer who is a shomer mitzvos. That can be changed with some effort and it should be changed.

  10. Bob Miller says:

    No effective pressure can be brought on JTA, since its biases are shared by a high proportion of its media clients and the overall Jewish news-reading public. If someone else now wants to tell a truthful story from an Orthodox perspective, many ways now exist to get the word out. No need to waste ink or pixels on JTA.

  11. Michoel says:

    Mycroft,
    I understood from your first post that he was upset. I ask you again, what did he say?

  12. Jewish Observer says:

    “Rav Weinberg may be the most prominent Chareidi person to have prepared a Hesped for Rav Soloveitchik”

    I agree. I think the operative phrase is “most charedi”, because I can’t imagine RW would have labeled himdself as charedi (I knew him a little).

    I read the RW hesped. From my memory it focused on RS’s scholorshaip and abilities as a pedagogue but steered clear of his tzidkus. Knowing RW this was not at all due to any charedi PC-ness (I never observed that trait in him) but a reflection of his true hashkafa. The bottom line is that reactions to RS’s petirah were consistent across the spectrum. RW (whom, as I said, I doubt would have called himself charedi) had enough tolerance/respect for RS to be maspid, however neutrally. If you slide to the left you got more viogr, and if you slide to the right you get less (e.g. the agudah article) or none. Charedism is not black and white and correspondingly neither is its hashkafa. I still have a hard time calling RMT a charedi.

  13. mycroft says:

    “What did Rav Weinberg have to say about that article?” He was upset-and like Rabbi Tendler protested the article. Of interest is that Rav Weinberg-may be the most prominent Chareidi person to have prepared a Hesped for Rav Soloveitchik-unfortunate4ly Rav Weinberg is niftar so one does not know if it was in response to the JO insult.

    “Did I infer correctly fron you that R. Moshe Tendler is in the Charedi camp?”
    At least partially. When one reads his letter-that circulated at the time in protest of the JO action-he refers not only to his “shvers” connection to the Agudah-but also his connection to the Agudah.

    “Mykfroft-that was precisely my point. Mishpacha walks the edge between being objective but also never goes negative”
    So Steve: we do agree occasionally? Tp the best of my knowledge we have never met-of course-by the picture when you were honored-you own a hat-I own no hats-certainly no black hats. Full disclosure_I own a lot of caps.Caps-not symbol of chareidism.

    “The style is apparently consistent” In which case Eytan Krobe’s point is incorrect. Full disclosure-I blieeve I have met Eytan-and recalll him aw very nice and personable.

  14. Henry says:

    The article on Schindler calls him rabbi in the first paragraph but drops the title for him and for Eric Yoffie in any successive mentioning of a name. The style is apparently consistent.

  15. Steve Brizel says:

    Mykfroft-that was precisely my point. Mishpacha walks the edge between being objective but also never goes negative. Its serial story re a young kollel couple in all kinds of tzaros is as edgey a column
    that any Charedi organ will ever publish.

  16. Edvallace says:

    Eytan,

    As much as I agree with your general point that the Orthodox are treated like shmattes in the media, I honestly don’t think this is an example of that. To my eye, this is a fairly typical shoddy reporting job. Nothing more or less. They never really heard of him and theefore have no clue how to write in a manner that’s anything but generic.

    Having served as a resource for the local media I now all too well their complete inability to speak intelligently about most issues and thus I don’t see the big deal with this one. Maybe I’l naive but that’s how I see it.

  17. Jewish Observer says:

    Mycroft,

    Did I infer correctly fron you that R. Moshe Tendler is in the Charedi camp?

  18. Michoel says:

    Mycroft,
    What did Rav Weinberg have to say about that article?

  19. mycroft says:

    “Since when did we expect JTA to provide Othodox friendly news and
    analysis? I think that we delude ourselves to think otherwise.”

    Steve: What papers provide “objective” news about Orthodoxy?
    None.
    The Forward generally tries to be objective but not put a positive slant on Orthodoxy.
    The Jewish Press ,Homodia, Yated etc. depend on being in the good graces of the mosdot and thus will never write negative about the leaders.
    Steve most publications can be snide in obituaries. I hope that the writers in Cross Currents will in general avoid putting scarcastic comments in obituaries. By what I see so far Iam hopeful. Even chareidi monthly publications have done that-see eg the JO “obituary” of Rav Soloveitchik ZT”L in 1993. Of course, there were some in the Chareid camp who were outraged including R. Moshe Tendler and R. Yaacov Weinberg ZT”L.

  20. DP says:

    i fully agree that statements such as those found in this article/eulogy are offensive. the question is, are we to think this expresses a disregard for, or a desire to cheapen of the chashivus of rav kadouri, and, by extension, for orthodoxy? or is it just that, contrary to the pieces written about freidan, etc. – the writer just really couldn’t relate?

    now, if they just couldn’t reflect an appreciation for someone whom they – well, did not appreciate – then it’s a shame that the editor who commissioned the piece didn’t see fit to get someone who could work up some more enthusiasm.

    perhaps it’s naive to think that the editor would want to find this person who could have done better, because that would have been a sort of endorsement of a lifestyle that the paper would rather not present.

    my feeling is that the editor, too, couldn’t relate and had not much of an idea how clueless the gaffes showed the reporter to be. after all, if you don’t knwo that it isn’t praying per se which is done at the funeral, you just don’t know…

    to me, this is another sad reminder of how far apart we are – it doesn’t neccessarily demonstrate a willingness to be scornful, as much as it does a real lack of awaremess that is quite overwhelming.

    when you don’t get it, you just don’t get it!

  21. Steve Brizel says:

    I am not sure that I understand your comments re the other Gdolim who certainly published either in their lives or had monumental seforim published by their families and Yivadleinu LChaim R Elyashiv. T. Since when did we expect JTA to provide Othodox friendly news and
    analysis? I think that we delude ourselves to think otherwise.

  22. Esther says:

    I read the article and did the same searches you did. What I noticed was that the article we are discussing was in the Mideast section, while the other personalities were actual obituaries. So on one hand, it’s not going to be an accurate comparison because the purpose of an obituary is to state the positive. But your point still stands because, why doesn’t a major Jewish figure merit an actual obituary in a Jewish publication? Also, there was definitely the emphasis on how Jewish the people you mentioned were, where there was really no content to the article on Rabbi Kadouri (except, as you avoid mentioning above, the irrelevant negative remarks on his personal life.). I do think that Ori Pomerantz may be right, though, because what most stood out in the article was the paragraph about his followers believing that everything he touched is holy.

  23. Ori Pomerantz says:

    Is it anti Orthodox bias, or anti Kabbalah bias? Many Heterodox Jews are uncomfortable with Kmeot and the like.

  24. mycroft says:

    “A glance at the picture doesn’t seem to show anyone doing anything like praying, nor am I aware of any particular desideratum in Jewish law or custom for that to happen. Recitation of psalms? ”

    I am not a Kabbalist-but I once went to Sefat. My biggest memory is one apparently Chasidic person-judginh ny his clothes stating in front of the kever of the Ari Z”L “Ari aneini” I don’t want to engage in
    theological discussions-but to me it is probable that some did actions like praying at the
    niftar. Certainly not a Brisker way or standard Yeshivish-but believe some mekuballim would.