Media Manipulation Far and Near

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Much furor accompanied the exposing of a Reuters photographer’s creative Photoshopping of images from the recent Israeli invasion of Lebanon – and rightly so. Aish HaTorah produced a short film report on the deception, by turns amusing and infuriating. Among other examples of the journalistic deceit it documents is a gentleman posing first as a rescuer and then as a corpse. And the apparent placement, for maximum emotional impact, of a pristine wedding dress and an assortment of equally dust-free stuffed animals into the midst of Beirut bombing rubble.

Media manipulate, though, in myriad ways. Sometimes even with good, if misguided, intentions, sometimes even unintentionally, and sometimes even in our own backyard.

Take a recent front-page story in the New York Jewish Week. The article heralded what it claimed may be the “charting [of] new territory in the terrain of religious practice” in the Jewish world. The Sabbath’s move to Tuesday? The introduction of a new holiday? A set of laws governing e-mail? A time limit for sermons? No, no, something more radical: a woman was appointed to lead a congregation.

Now there have been women rabbis in the Reform and Conservative movements for decades. Although their salaries inexplicably lag behind those of their male counterparts, Conservative and Reform female rabbis have become commonplace over the years. So why the Jewish Week’s breathlessness over “a decision that could be seen as fracturing the stained-glass ceiling” of a synagogue?

That’s easy, says the paper. Because the congregation is Orthodox.

Only it isn’t. Back in 2002, the same paper identified the same Manhattan congregation, Kehilat Orach Eliezer (KOE), as an “Orthodox Shul” on a similar front page story (one might be forgiven for wondering if there are any other congregations in New York). The recent story more modestly bills KOE as “largely Orthodox in practice.” The synagogue, however, is pointedly – and significantly – unaffiliated.

KOE does not belong to any Orthodox umbrella congregational body – not Agudath Israel, not the National Council of Young Israel, not the Orthodox Union. It has no ties to any established Chassidic group. The strongest hint of its theological identity, in fact, lies in its name, which honors a late leader of the Conservative movement, Dr. Louis (Eliezer) Finkelstein. Indeed, KOE’s leader until recently was Rabbi David Weiss-Halivni, a well-known scholar who was associated with the Jewish Theological Seminary before becoming one of the founders and leaders of the Union for Traditional Judaism, a movement that broke away from the Conservative but opted to reject Orthodoxy.

To be sure, KOE claims to be a “halachic” congregation. So, though, does the Conservative movement itself. And “largely Orthodox”? Now there’s an interesting formulation. Can something be “largely kosher”? “Largely legal?”

Whether Conservative, “halachic” or “post-denominational” (we Orthodox, one imagines, must be “pre-denominational”), KOE’s practices, halachically defensible or not, are of negligible concern to either the haredi or centrist segments of the Orthodox world – which comprise the vast majority of Orthodox Jews. Why, then, would the Jewish Week – or The New York Times, which followed with its own story touting the “milestone for advocates of an expanded role for women in Orthodox Judaism” – deem newsworthy the appointment of a woman as a “community head” of a congregation that is Orthodox neither in name nor practice?

The answer lies in the fact of journalism’s dirty little secret: Those who manufacture the product have personal opinions and hopes that they are not always able to prevent from informing their reportage. That is manifestly true in the larger journalistic world and, it has become amply clear by now, in the Jewish one no less.

A reporter might be refined, sensitive and talented but if he or she has personal leanings toward, say, the place where the Conservative movement and “post-denominational” entities like KOE reside, or a particular affinity for “gender issues,” he or she is simply not the right candidate to write objectively about such entities or issues. The risk is simply too great that the result will be not a story reported but a story created. No, photographs won’t likely be doctored, but facts might well be bent subtly out of shape. As they were, once again, here.

Unfortunately, there is a pattern of precisely such carelessness in certain ostensibly neutral Anglo-Jewish publications (which, in turn provide fodder for far more widely read media like The New York Times). And it is both journalistically and Jewishly treif. There should be no room for agenda-driven “news” in either a profession that extols accuracy or an ethical system that hallows truth.

There is certainly no dearth of Orthodox women role-models who shoulder important responsibilities in bona fide Orthodox communities. They fill the fundamental, vital positions of homemakers (in the word’s most literal and sublime sense), wives and mothers – and in the roles, too, of spiritual guides and lecturers (within the bounds of traditional halachic norms). Such women, to be sure, do not seek to be featured in the press – as King Solomon wrote, “the honor of the princess” is expressed “inward,” not in public prominence. But those women, in fact, are the true crafters of the Jewish future. And the images of their accomplishments don’t need airbrushing to be impressive.

© 2006 AM ECHAD RESOURCES.
Rabbi Shafran is director of public affairs for Agudath Israel of America.

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18 Responses

  1. David Redfern says:

    “And it is both journalistically and Jewishly treif. There should be no room for agenda-driven “news” in either a profession that extols accuracy or an ethical system that hallows truth.”

    I’m afraid that the writer (of the above) must be quite naive if he thinks any article or writing by a human being has any possibility of being objective or as he puts it: not “agenda-driven”
    surely you know that blogs are being compared to and heralded as the new journalism and as you can well see, very few blogs don’t have a point of view. Similarly, no article or reporting can come from a human being who doesn’t already have many ideas, perspectives, etc. – all of which are different words for agendas, prejudices, etc.

    the above criticism of the two articles in the Times & Jewish Week is really about the definition of Orthodox and the blogger makes a good point that there is no affiliation of Kehilat Orech Eliezer to any Ortho umbrella institution – nonetheless, i can see that the reporters might have been told that KOE is orthodox by the people they interviewed – i actually am also of the opinion that the lines are not quite so clear between progressive orthodox and mesorati conservative

    anyway, if you start from the position that there is no such thing as an objective report, you will have less problems observing the more overtly subjective articles and not have to believe that there is some agenda driven conspiracy to tarnish the good name of orthodox judaism – just someone trying to tell the story :-)

  2. Jacob Haller says:

    Steg commented

    “Orthodoxy is not pre-denominational; the very identification of a group, that sets up boundaries around itself to distinguish itself from other movements/denominations makes it a denomination itself.”

    While the definition has merit, one question is, is it applicable to Orthodoxy in relation to Heterodox movements? Prior to the denominations within the Jewish community (early 19th century?) there was no shortage of boundaries that the then-monolith Jewish communities set up to distinguish themselves from the surrounding non-Jewish societies. With the advent of Reform and other heterodox movements, the newly labeled Orthodox may have set up other boundaries but apparently this was more a detail then a sea change from pre-denominational behavior.

    According to Rabbi Berel Wein, the term “Orthodox” was forced upon the Shomrei Mitzvos, Lomdei Torah, and yeshiva communities by the then nascent Reform movement.

    There are those who reject the idea that the Orthodox movment is a continuation of “pre-denomination” Judaism. However there’s apparently evidence to present a solid case to overule the rejection.

  3. LAWRENCE KAPLAN says:

    Even if Avi Shafran is right in his critique of the news coverage of KOE –and as bloggers have shown the issue is more complex than he says– to compare that to a Reuter’s photographer’s deliberate manipulation of photo images to blacken the good name of the State of Israel, is to state the matter as mildly as possible, ethically objectionable.

  4. Ken Applebaum says:

    Rabbi Safran’s well-written piece contains an error. The reference to King Solomon having said that “the honor of the princess” is expressed “inward,” is meant I believe to refer to a verse in T’hillim (“Kol Kvoda Bas Melech P’nima”). That verse is in a chapter authored by the sons of Korach, not King Solomon.

  5. Daniel says:

    Shira,

    In response to your questions, yes KOE has separate seating and a Mechitzah. The Mechitzah is on the low side, but I’ve definitely seen lower (e.g. Beth Jacob in Los Angeles and Anshe Shalom in Chicago). The siddur liturgy is standard-issue American Ashkenazi Orthodox (not Artscroll, Birnbaum I think? – the one I grew up using before Artscroll became ubiquitous). Men lead all aspects of services on Shabbos morning; they rarely have services on Friday night, and I’ve never attended when they do, so I can’t comment. Only men are called to and read from the Torah. The Torah does pass through the women’s section, women deliver divrei Torah, and there are various women’s services (which I’ve obviously never attended). But all of these are true of several Modern Orthodox shuls I’ve been to.

    In sum, KOE is a Modern Orthodox congregation in all but name, on the left certainly, but “Orthodox” in practice.

    Daniel

  6. Steve Brizel says:

    Jordan-The JW’s coverage on all things Orthodox, especially the items that I mentioned, speaks for itself. I don’t expect constant praise of Orthodoxy, but a persistant critique with very little positive treatment as well reportage loaded with spins that push an agenda can be easily found within the JW’s archives. There is much coverage on scandal and problems but relatively nothing on the many Torah observant Jews who live their lives in a proper manner. There is no question from its coverage that the JW views Chabad and LW MO are the only acceptable forms or representatives of Orthodoxy or that the JW deems worthy of news coverage.

  7. Jordan Hirsch says:

    I have a number of friends who daven at KOE. It is identical to an Orthodox synagogue in all its practices. In fact, one of the reasons its membership has gone down is that it has resisted the move to a kind of Ortho-Egalitarian Synagogue. I also know Ms. Najman personally, and can certainly vouch for her as a teacher, learner, and paragon of Tznius. She sees herself as a teacher of Torah, and this is a shul that wants to learn. What’s the big issue? Isn’t Orthodox originally a deragatory term heaped on us by the Reform movement inGermany? I respect the idea that perhaps Rabbi Shafran would not choose to daven at KOE, but lets try to keep our eye on the positive aspects of this developmnt. A talented teacher of Torah is united with a group of people who want to hear what she is teaching.
    I also must object to the slurs in the comments on Gary Rosenblatt, who is a fellow congregant of mine. You may disagree with him, as I often do, but he does not posess an anti Orthodox bone in his body.

  8. Daniel says:

    While KOE does not affiliate itself with any denomination, its membership is comprised overwhelmingly of self-defined Orthodox Jews, and its prayer services are indistinguishable from those of any other Modern Orthodox congregation. As an Orthodox Jew who frequently davens at KOE, I feel that the appointment of a woman as the spiritual leader of a congregation of Orthodox Jews (if not an “Orthodox congregation”) is a newsworthy event.

  9. Steve Brizel says:

    Bob-The editor’s stance as well is well known to anyone who watched his coverage morph from am exposure of a problematic employee into a full court assault on kiruv. He also has complained about coverage in blogs about articles that appear in his publication.

  10. abcdefg says:

    The notion that Orthodoxy is all of halachic Judaism is what KOE challanges. The Conservative movement failed in this capacity long ago; now a remnant of its serious wing has morphed, follows the halacha comparably to the Orthodox and accepts the basic creeeds of Sinai, obligatory mitzvot through the Talmud and psak as influenced by the Shulchan Aruch and ol malchut shamayim. But they are more egalitarian.

    Suddenly a challange. The question is whether one will be dismissive or whether one will examine and critique respectfully the halachic and communal issues raised by KOE.

    Its distressingly clear what this blog has chosen.

  11. Bob Miller says:

    Steve Brizel, you said,
    “Yet, it is a shame that such a policy should be spearheaded and supervised by an editor who graduated from YU and resides in a citadel of MO.”

    Have you spoken to him about this? That might help.

  12. Steg (dos iz nit der šteg) says:

    Orthodoxy is not pre-denominational; the very identification of a group, that sets up boundaries around itself to distinguish itself from other movements/denominations makes it a denomination itself.

    The contents of some types of Orthodoxy may be more-or-less identical to the contents of pre-denominational Rabbinic Judaism, but ‘Orthodoxy’ as itself — a self-identifying cluster of communities — is a product of the modern denominalization of Judaism just as much as the Heterodox movements are.

  13. Steve Brizel says:

    Many bloggers have wondered what kind of cheftza KOE is , etc.

    That issue is wholly irrelevant to that of the agenda of a large Jewish publication. One sees lots of talk about “continuity” in the publication at issue but nothing re kiruv or chizuk. In fact, one series on the malfeasance of a kiruv professional segued into pop sociology whether kiruv was a cult. Articles are published that attack the right of Gdolim to use adjectives that appear in the Talmud. One sees loads of articles about the admitted problems within our communities but nothing on men and women trying to live a Torah life. Anything that doesn’t fit into the editorial agenda of the paper is either ignored or only “exposed” whenever a scandal arises. IMO, there is an obvious editiorial and repertorial bias at the paper in question that borders on Orthodox bashing. OTOH, one sees virtually no coverage of documented worse conduct by heterodox clergy and cantors.

    Perhaps, in Jewish journalism, bashing the Orthodox is a nice way of appealing to a non Orthodox source of funding and sell subscriptions in that community. Yet, it is a shame that such a policy should be spearheaded and supervised by an editor who graduated from YU and resides in a citadel of MO.

  14. Joel Rich says:

    1. Reporters have biases and it does seem the “objectivity standard” has slipped over the years (perhaps as the news and entertainment divisions become more closely aligned?)

    2. I don’t know if KOE calls themselves “largely halachik” so I wouldn’t focus too much if it’s only the reporter’s shorthand

    3.Regarding women as role models with “vital positions of homemakers” it would be interesting to know the percentage of women within the traditional world work outside the home (and how much time) now versus the percentage in previous generations. Also perhaps a better formulation of “within the bounds of traditional halachic norms” would be “within the bounds of halachik norms accepted by the traditional.” It’s hard to imagine women in any number as “heads of seminaries” or principals or lecturers prior to the last century. I know there are good reasons for these changes, but they are still imho changes from the “traditional” role pre-20th century at least.

    KT

  15. Bob Miller says:

    What? I can’t believe everything I read?

    Every city and town with Jews in it seems to have some paper like the New York Jewish Week. Many such weeklies began as or still are the publicity arms of secular organizations in the Jewish community. Despite their ever-improving, professional physical appearance, few, if any, understand journalism (as in check out your sources, do your homework…)—or Orthodoxy. I would expect cross-currents.com readers to know all this and make allowances for bias and inaccuracy.

  1. August 28, 2006

    […] Last week, Rabbi Avi Shafran discussed media manipulation, comparing “a Reuters photographer’s creative Photoshopping of images” to various other forms of story-twisting—for example the recent story asserting that an unaffiliated shul whose namesake is Conservative and past Rabbi was a founder of the UTJ (a breakoff from the Conservative movement) is, in fact, Orthodox. […]

  2. August 29, 2006

    […] We’re seeing a bit of that ourselves. Rabbi Avi Shafran’s recent contribution, in which he contrasted the Reuters fauxtography with examples of spin in the Jewish media, is a case in point. Professor Tzvee Zahavy insists as follows: […]