Of Rabbis and Alibis

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Since several commenters criticized my fellow contributor Yonason (pardon the Hebrew!) Rosenblum for omitting an individual’s rabbinic title, I thought I’d post a recent correspondence of mine with a JTA editor on the very same topic.

To be sure, it’ll be a great day when omitting the title “rabbi” is the most egregious form of anti-Ortho bias in the secular Jewish media, and, in fact, as my correspondence below makes clear, I didn’t even see this as an instance of such bias.

Yet, I do find JTA to regularly exhibit what I term “passive-aggressive bias.” This means their slant is neither blatant nor particularly noxious (which is, sadly, not so of certain other media offenders);but over time, a perceptible pattern emerges in a variety of ways, of treating Ortho individuals and institutions more shabbily than others, dismissively or with bemusement. I therefore saw this “omission of rabbinic title” issue as a way to open a dialogue with JTA on the broader matter of their pervasive editorial attitude toward Orthos.

For years now, I’ve tried, as a private citizen, to engage various media players on their treatment of the Orthodox community, and I believe it would it would be great if other Orthodox “private citizens” would, in large numbers and with great frequency, do the same. At a minimum, it would signal to the media that what they write is being carefully read and evaluated by many of their favorite punching bags, even on as seemingly trivial issue as the omission of “Rabbi,” and all the more so on some of the truly bigoted stuff that gets sent our way.

The June 6 news item in question covered the ransacking of the grave of the Chozeh of Lublin, who was initially identified as Rabbi Yaakov Yitzchok Horowitz, but thereafter referred to only by last name.

Dear Sir or Madam:

I just fail to understand.

You’re a Jewish organization, serving the world Jewish community, and you’re discussing a distressing event that occurred to the grave of a religious leader revered by hundreds of thousands of Jews worldwide. Surely you’re aware of the great reverence with which these Jews refer to such leaders, even going so far as to append phrases like “Zecher Tzadik L’vracha” (May the memory of the Tzadik be a blessing) after their names.

Wouldn’t common decency, then — not to mention sensitivity to fellow Jews’ sensitivities — dictate that you not refer to the rabbi in question as “Horowitz” as if he was just some cab driver?

I’d appreciate a response.

Eytan Kobre

Mr. Kobre,

Thank you for your note.

I’m sorry that you’re distressed by the neutral tone of our syntax regarding that news brief. Our style is, as much as we can accomplish it, the Joe Friday model — the facts and just the facts. And part of our style is that a second reference to a person in an article just includes that person’s last name rather than restating their full name.

JTA, as a news agency that is read by Jews of many levels and traditions of observance, is also careful to avoid phrasing that is not universally used. We also avoid terminology that implies that JTA has an opinion (positive or negative) about any person, even a person who is widely revered within some segment of the Jewish world.

Again, I regret that this is problematic, but that’s our editorial style and has been for 90 years. We mean absolutely no disrespect by it.

Best,

Andy N.

Dear Andy,

Thank you for the prompt response.

I’d like to share a few further thoughts prompted by your response:

1) You write that “as a news agency that is read by Jews of many levels and traditions of observance,” JTA is “careful to avoid phrasing that is not universally used.” Had I been advocating for the use of “may his memory be a blessing” or similar denomination-specific honorifics, my request would be inane and your demurral appropriate.

My point, however, was that there’s a modicum of respect for rabbinical status which, I believe, the vast majority of, if not all, Jews agree upon; even Secular Humanists refer to Sherwin Wine as “Rabbi,” not “Wine”! Indeed, I wasn’t making a case for JTA to use “rabbi” throughout its news items only for Orthodox rabbis, but for all Jewish clergy, whose respective communities hold them in particular esteem.

This, despite the fact that my religious convictions lead me not to refer to heterodox clergy as rabbis, nor would I take any offense if, for similar reasons, a heterodox Jew was to reciprocate in kind. But JTA, as you noted, is not partisan, and thus ought to adhere to a universally-accepted standard of honorific reference.

My point, essentially, was that what you refer to as a “neutral tone” is not that at all. Where a tone of honor is called for, by tradition, social convention and, yes, religious dictate, and yet, such tone is not forthcoming, the resultant effect is dishonor.

2) In justifying the JTA’s style, you write that it “follows the Joe Friday model–the facts and just the facts.” But is that so? I’m a rather avid reader of the Daily Bulletin and have come across a number of items therein in which the writer included material that was extraneous, by any editorial standard, and thus effectively prejudicial.

For example, an item that appeared last July on the succession dispute within Satmar Chasidism provided the basic facts of that story, but then concluded with this paragraph out of left field: “The Satmars oppose the State of Israel because they believe Jews should not have political sovereignty until the Messiah comes.”

Relevance to anything in that story? Zero. Is the reader to reasonably conclude that this is anything other than a grauitous swipe at a group treated by many as anathema?

One more example from my — your — files: Also last July, a JTA news item reported that “a leading Israeli rabbi blamed local outbreaks of avian flu on sexual permissiveness.” Fair enough (although, at the time, I corresponded with someone at JTA — was it you, Andy? — about the prejudicial use of scare quotes in the item’s title “Kabbalist ‘explains’ bird flu”, which said person agreed was improper and would not occur again).

But the piece then concludes: “Basri is no stranger to controversy, and faces a criminal investigation for denigrating Arabs in a recent speech.” Relevance? Is it the notion of “no stranger to controversy” link, and, if so, do JTA items on public figures regularly provide a laundry list of every controversial matter they’re involved in, however unrelated to the story at hand? Methinks not.

I can only conclude that the JTA’s resolve to abide by the “Joe Friday model” is selective, and the criteria for its selectivity, well, I’ll leave that to you to discern . . .

3) Lastly, you write that “we avoid terminology that implies that JTA has an opinion (positive or negative) about any person, even a person who is widely revered within some segment of the Jewish world.” Two points on this: a) Again, I wasn’t asking for some special consideration for a particular figure or any indication of your positive opinion of Rabbi Horowitz, only for a baseline of respect to be accorded to Jewish spiritual leaders, to which I’d think all Jews would assent; and b) I’ve read many profiles, obituaries, etc. of various Jewish figures on your site, and I recall a fair number of them in which the writer’s affection and esteem, if not downright reverence, for the figure was as apparent as could be, from a simple perusal of the piece. I’d be happy to share examples of this at your request.

To conclude, we live in a time when there’s so much sensitivity — much of commendable — to the way others perceive what we say even when we didn’t intend it to be heard that way. This is true in matters of race, sexual orientation, religion, culture and many others. Granted that sometimes, one might say, this tendency veers into an excessive obssession with political correctness (see today’s WSJ editorial on judicial nominations for an example). But should a mechanistic “that’s the way we’ve always done it” really trump the sensitivities of a segment of the community you serve?

I thank you in advance for taking the time to read this lengthy response. I trust you recognize that my taking the time to write it reflects both the seriousness with which I approach these issues and my trust that the JTA is committed to high standards of journalistic ethics and open-minded responsiveness to its readers.

Best,

Eytan Kobre

Eytan,

I do apologize for not having the time at present to engage in this kind of discussion, since I’m currently wrapping up my tenure at JTA and have a ton of issues to get resolved before the end of this week. I have always enjoyed a lively give and take with our dedicated readership.

I’m not sure who’ll be replacing me, but feel free to convey your concerns to them once my seat is filled.

Best,

Andy N.

Andy,

I wish you best success where you’re heading. Where is that, if I may ask?

Can you share with me the name of your replacement at JTA, and, would you pass my comments along to him or her? If you agree I’ve raised issues worth discussing, I’d hope you’d agree to do so.

Hatzlacha to you in your new position,

Eytan

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8 Responses

  1. cvmay says:

    Eytan, glad you took the pen to hand and wrote to the JTA concerning this issue of correct titles for prominent individuals. For too many years, Torah Jews have sat on the sidelines and passively criticized events while activism was never considered. Let us remember our greatest rabbis of the 20th century who banded & marched together on erev erev Yom Kippur to the White House, stop complaining silently but rather confidently protest through telephone calls (for JP-whitehouse), letter writing, petitions, tefillah rallies, and in people groups.

  2. rejewvenator says:

    We’re hunting for issues now? Most major news organizations will commonly leave off the title of the President, referring to him as Bush, once they’re in the body of a story. This is a pot-shot at the JTA.

  3. Mark says:

    Harry,
    “But it really bothered me that he treated a Talmid Chacham and Rebbe to hundreds if not thousands of people as just ‘Rakeffet’.”

    If you haven’t yet read RJR’s explanation I think it’s high time you did because you’re making a fuss over a non-issue.

  4. Bob Miller says:

    Eytan,

    In blogs I see committed Orthodox Jews frequently using abbreviations for the names of well-known rabbis. This is no different from the use of names like “Rashi” and “Rambam”. Would you be satisfied if, after the first full reference, an article about a rabbi began using such an abbreviation?

  5. Harry Maryles says:

    I agree with your attitude with respect to how the Jewish media should to refer to rabbis of any denomination with their appropriate titles. And that makes it all the more troubling that you did not have the very same criticism of your own colleauge, Rabbi Jonathan (excuse the English) Rosenblum. I wrote a blog piece about precisely this issue.

    I just want to reiterate here what I wrote on my blog. I am a fan of Rabbi Rosenblum and agree with him the vast majority of the time. But it really bothered me that he treated a Talmid Chacham and Rebbe to hundreds if not thousands of people as just ‘Rakeffet’. Does Rabbi Rakeffet not deseve the same courtesy from Rabbi Rosenblum as you seek for Orthodox Rabbis from the JTA?

  6. Ori Pomerantz says:

    Do most JTA readers even know who the Satmars are? If not, then a paragraph at the end of a Satmar story explaining who they are and what are the main ways in which they differ from other Chasidim is appropriate as context.

    As for honorifics, a year ago to the day I read here about then president Katzav refusing to call a Reform Rabbi Rav. How is that different from JTA refusing to call somebody Rabbi?

    Please don’t tell me that the reason is that Eric Yoffe truly isn’t a real Rabbi, but the Chozeh of Lublin zt”l was. To the Heterodox Jews who run JTA it would sound like: “we’re right, you’re wrong, so you need to show respect to our leaders and we don’t need to show respect to yours”. Not the same as telling your enemy to leave the feast, but on the same continuum.

    BTW, for the record, I believe the JTA was wrong. “Rabbi Yaakov Yitzchok Horowitz” is verbose, and it would be tiresome to repeat it over the text. However, they should have used “Rabbi Horowitz”, or called an Orthodox Rabbi to ask if there’s a title that’s commonly used for him.

  7. Garnel Ironheart says:

    On one hand, the JTA has a certain point. There are some accepted styles in terms of news reporting. For example, one local paper where I live refers to people in the article with a Mr. or Ms. or appropriate title whenever their name comes up. Another paper doesn’t use them at all.
    Similarly, the standards considered normal in secular standard publication are quite different from those in religious ones. An observant writer, writing for a religious crowd, would never refer to the Chazon Ish, zt”l as Rabbi Abraham Isaiah Karelitz or just “Karelitz” but that’s because the religious crowd would find that incredibly disrespectful. A non-religious person reading such an article, however, would be mostly confused as to why a leading sage was not referred to by name but rather by the name of his book.
    One must also consider who the person is writing for. I think it’s fair to say most JTA writers are secular and are writing for the secular crowd. That leads them to the style they use.
    Finally, one must always distinguish between opinion pieces and news pieces. Fawning editorials and op-eds are fair game, but I agree that unnecessary swipes against the Satmars, whose members oppose the State of Israel because they believe Jews should not have political sovereignty until the Messiah comes (heh, heh), should be avoided. That would be withinthe job description of editor.
    The ultimate solution to this problem would be for the JTA to hire a number of religious writers to cover all aspects of news in the Jewish world just as the current secular crew does. Then we might see a more balanced perspective.

  8. Steve Brizel says:

    One should never confuse JTA or any of the secular Jewish weeklies, regardless of whether their editor is personally Orthodox, with any of the Orthodox oriented weeklies. The secular papers invariably avoid anything praiseworthy in the Orthodox world and focus on only the worst news in our communities as worth reporting. One must remember that just as in the secular world used to sell newspapers, so too-Ortho bashing of many kinds sells newspapers and magazines that are nominally Jewish in tone and orientation.