Category Archives: Journalism

Defining Debauchery Down

Rabbi Avi Shafran

One would have been forgiven for assuming it an elaborate Purim joke.  In fact, assuming otherwise would have strained credulity. 

But credible, unfortunately, it is. “It” — a new glossy magazine I prefer not to name, aimed, its marketing team says, at Jewish “men age 25-65 from the right and the left who are Conservadox, Modern Orthodox or Yeshivish; and live in Flatbush, Lakewood, the Five Towns and Bergen County” — is apparently all too real, a crazy cartoon come to life.

The new periodical is for you. If, that is, you “are enthralled by men’s luxury and higher end products.”  If so, the mag “has it all covered for you,” focusing on “all fine goods in the consumption industries for Jewish men,” from “an old fashion [sic] to bourbon or wine.” And, of course, cigars, grilling, cars, cologne, man caves and fancy watches.

And there will be photos! Of “first class dining, men’s hobbies & lifestyle,” depictions that will “captivate our readers [sic] attention for their elegant experience,” whatever that is supposed to mean.

An article in a Jewish newspaper about the new offering helpfully informs readers that “Sure, you have your chavrusas, seforim and shiurim,” but you need help to “make the best use of your precious free time, with premium content by experts in their fields about the rewards that come after a hard week of work and learning.”

Maybe it is a Purim shtick. 

No, I checked again. It’s not.

Something is rotten in the state of Orthodox-ish. The “ish” is indicated because hedonism is as mixable with authentic Orthodoxy as cool spring water is with grease dripping from a succulent steak on a high-end barbeque grill.

Interestingly, in  response to the ongoing Covid crisis (and thankfully unaware of the magazine’s debut), the members of Moetzes Gedolei HaTorah recently issued a call to the Jewish community to recognize that the crisis’s challenges and tragedies should be regarded as “an appeal from Heaven to correct our ways,” in particular with regard to “a fundamental and broad point.”

The point? That “Klal Yisroel is a ‘nation of princes and a holy people’.”  And that Jews must, as a result, “distance themselves from the pursuit of excess.”

“There are among us,” the call to sensitivity continues, “those who, notwithstanding their care with mitzvos, pursue fine foods and expensive vacations; they boast of their clothing and furniture,” people who are not exclusively focused, as Jews should be, on living “a modest life centered around Torah, service to Hashem, and kindness to others; a life purposed on being close to Hashem.” Who ignore the “spiritual danger” of “a life of materialism.”

There are, to be sure, occasions when somewhat “fancy fare” may be excusable, for the enhancement of simchos and such. There are even times when we might need to pamper ourselves in order to revive our emotional energies, when treating ourselves to a special treat helps us to better serve Hashem bisimcha. But elevating luxury to an ideal, putting hedonism on a pedestal? Ugh.

The Moetzes members’ call will probably strike the new magazine’s machers as wildly preposterous, even insane. Just like the glassy-eyed fellow with the tin foil hat walking down the street mumbling to himself about Martians thinks everybody else is deranged. 

As it happens, though, the Moetzes statement should stimulate introspection in the rest of us, too, we who don’t salivate at the prospect of a good bourbon or fine cigar. We may not be “enthralled by… luxury and higher-end products,” but can we say we haven’t drifted a bit from modesty toward excess ourselves?

Things that once were extravagant luxuries have bizarrely morphed into “necessities.” Larger and more elaborate homes than we really need testify to such change (not to mention that they draw resentment from others). The sort of cars we drive, the type of vacations we take, the foods and drinks we consume, the size and elaborateness of the simchas we host (something the current health crisis has in fact taught us are unrelated to true simchah) — all point to an imbalance in priorities.

Even, at least in some places, rewards given to talmidim and talmidos by rabbaim and moros have become extravagant; stars on charts and small tchotchkes no longer cut the mustard (even our mustard doesn’t anymore, having yielded to gourmet condiments). 

Some candymen in shul have reportedly also felt the need to “upgrade” their offerings, lest the youngsters find more rewarding places for worship (or whatever).

Rewarding deserving children is undeniably important, yes, but so is teaching them about limits.

It’s a truth universally acknowledged in principle but increasingly ignored in practice: Even in times of plenty and even for the financially fortunate, there is dignity in modesty.

And the opposite in the opposite.

© 2021 Agudath Israel of America

Bursting Bubbles

Two people dear to me — a talmid from a former lifetime and a respected colleague in my current one — forwarded me links to an outrageous set of comments attributed to Texas State Representative Terry Meza, explaining her proposed bill to change parts of her state’s code about the use of force in self-defense. 

Ms. Meza’s bill was characterized as a repeal of Texas’s “castle doctrine,” a catch-all phrase for an assortment of laws in various states offering a person the right to use deadly force on an intruder. 

She was quoted as justifying her effort by contending that “Thieves only carry weapons for self-protection and to provide the householder an incentive to cooperate,” that “in most instances the thief needs the money more than the homeowner does” and that “on balance, the transfer of property is likely to lead to a more equitable distribution of wealth.”

The outrageousness of that report is equaled only by… well, its falsity. 

It turns out that the bill at issue simply added a clause requiring a person not on his own property and not personally threatened to retreat rather than shoot to kill someone engaged in a robbery.

And the quotes? They were fabrications, the work of a satirical website.

Neither of the people who sent me the untrue item — which appeared widely on social media — is gullible. One is a doctor, the other a lawyer. 

But their assumption of the item’s veracity highlighted something unsettling, even dangerous, that has been steadily increasing and particularly apparent in recent years: the proliferation of “fake news” — and the challenge of distinguishing fiction from fact.

With the presidential election now blessedly in the rear-view mirror, the subject of misleading reportage and opinion writing can be addressed, one hopes, dispassionately. And so, for what it’s worth, I’d like to share some advice about how to best ferret out facts from falsehoods and formulate informed opinions.

The only college I attended was Ner Israel Rabbinical College, but my professional life over the past quarter century-plus has included closely monitoring news. And I’ve confirmed — stop the presses! — that journalists, like all people, have biases. The best among them work to suppress their prejudices, but the preconceptions are often evident all the same, if not on the lines, then between them.

Ditto with news organizations, and kal vachomer with social media. Which means that, in a way, all news is “fake” — if not necessarily like the blatantly misleading example above, then at least in the sense of… slanted.

So what’s a news consumer to do? I suggest something simple, if puzzlingly seldom done: Hear out disparate claims and do independent research. 

That means consulting not only Fox News and the Daily Caller, but the New York Times and CNN; listening not only to NPR but to Rush and Sean and even Rudy. And then — most important — employing critical and objective thinking (and tools like Snopes and FactCheck).

People who proudly proclaim that they trust only this or that news source are proudly proclaiming that they don’t really care about truth, only about keeping the bubbles they inhabit intact. The only way to establish facts and formulate educated opinions is to hear different voices. Doing otherwise is like a judge hearing out only one litigant and then rendering a decision.

Sometimes due diligence and hearing all views will yield confirmation of one’s own original gut feelings. Other times, though, an honest person will find his own preconceptions to have been successfully challenged. And so, it’s important here to remember, as it is in life in general, that admitting a mistake is simply declaring that one is smarter than he was earlier.

Objective evaluation of disparate sources can still yield different conclusions for different people. There can be, and often are, entirely legitimate differences of informed opinion. But opinions need to be based on fact, not partisan propaganda or someone else’s biases.

As I was writing this, yet a third person dear to me forwarded a headline from a “frum” medium. It read: “JOE’S MATH: Biden Talks Of 300 Million Vaccines For 200 Americans.” At one point in a recent address, Mr. Biden said “300 Americans” and then corrected himself and said “300 million Americans.” The video on the “news” medium was not only doctored to omit that real-time correction but clumsily edited to make Mr. Biden seem addled.

How many viewers of the fake video, I wonder, cared to consult the original?

© 2021 Ami Magazine

Malicious Misrepresentation

I have no beef with anyone who wishes to take issue with anything I’ve written.  But I do object to the publication of something that blatantly and irresponsibly misrepresents what I have written.  Like this recent piece in the Forward, ostensibly responding to an earlier one I wrote in the same medium.

If you read my essay, you will see that nowhere did I argue or insinuate, as Mr. Nosanchuk claims, that that “only Haredi Jewish leaders can speak for our city’s Jewish community.”

Nor does associating me with “violent attacks against journalists” have any respect for truth. In fact, it insults it. I have publicly and repeatedly condemned (in print and on-air) all such behavior, and didn’t reference it at all in my Forward piece, since it was irrelevant to its thesis.

And if Mr. Nosanchuk wishes to attribute to me the claim that Orthodox “practice of Judaism requires an exemption from public-health restrictions,” he really should be required to show where I have ever written such a thing.  I have not. What I did write was that New York Governor Cuomo’s recent edicts were illogical and unfair — to any and all houses of worship. 

I, further, never insinuated anything remotely like the contention that people should “risk their health or the health of their loved ones by attending a large indoor religious gathering.”  Nor would I ever do so.

And I nowhere suggested that non-Orthodox rabbis “have no right to opine on the issue because they interpret Jewish law differently” than I do. I simply noted that non-Orthodox Jews are not hampered as much as Orthodox ones are by Mr. Cuomo’s draconian rules — and that representatives of the former should not call the latter “blasphemous” for standing up for their rights as Americans.  The ugliness and falsehood of that accusation was what my article was about – and something Mr. Nosanchuk chose to utterly ignore.

As to his accusation that I align myself “with a small minority within the Haredi community that has flouted public-health restrictions and resorted to violence against fellow Jews who disagree with them.”  That is beyond untruth; it is perilously close to libel. He maliciously created it out of whole cloth.

As he did his statement that I have resorted to “claims of antisemitism” against, presumably, the governor.  Never have I ever made such a claim, not in my essay, not in any other writings and not in private conversation.

Finally, I didn’t “try” to “spin” the NYJA’s words as name-calling.  Its words were name calling, at least if one considers “blasphemous” an insult.  I really think most people would.

A Note from Agudath Israel’s Executive Vice-President About an Unfortunate Article

August 28, 2020

By: Rabbi Chaim Dovid Zwiebel

A number of people have called my attention to an anti-Agudath Israel screed that was recently published as an op-ed column in a Jewish periodical. The article defames Rabbi Moshe Sherer z’l, distorts the words of my colleague Rabbi Avi Shafran, and slanders the Agudah. I feel I must respond.

The article insinuates that the Agudah, going back to 1980 when Rabbi Sherer served as president of the organization and continuing still through today, supports Democrats over Republicans to the detriment of our community’s interests, and does so for financial gain. Thus, writes the author, “the late Rabbi Moshe Sherer of Agudath Israel had promised President Jimmy Carter the Orthodox vote [in the 1980 presidential election]. We can only speculate what he got in return for choosing the spendthrift candidate over the moral candidate.”

To anyone who knew Rabbi Sherer, the notion that this legendary Agudah leader who enjoyed the absolute trust of the greatest Gedolei Yisroel would favor a “spendthrift” political candidate in order to get something “in return,” is beyond preposterous and deeply offensive. What is the author’s source for Rabbi Sherer’s alleged promise to President Carter?

And what is his source for the equally startling assertion that Vice President Walter Mondale called Rabbi Sherer to complain about people wearing Reagan buttons on Ocean Parkway, to which Rabbi Sherer supposedly replied that they were disciples of a “fringe rabbi” who had no real following in the community? Whether any rabbonim encouraged people to wear Reagan buttons I do not know, but it’s a bit hard to believe that Vice President Mondale would place a special call to complain about the buttons of Ocean Parkway. And it’s even harder to believe that Rabbi Sherer would denigrate a choshuve rav in conversations with any other people, let alone the Vice President of the United States.

How does the author know the details of these alleged conversations? Were they disclosed in the public memoirs of President Carter and Vice President Mondale? Have any historians of that era written about these alleged conversations? Did Rabbi Sherer confide in him? Did Rabbi Sherer reveal this information at the Agudah convention? Did it get written up in the Jewish Observer? Are there minutes of these conversations in the Agudath Israel archives?

I would venture to say not. I would venture to say these conversations probably never took place. And yet they are cited in the article as confirmed fact, and for one reason alone: to attack the Agudah.

The author intensifies that attack by pointing to one of Rabbi Avi Shafran’s recent articles in which he opines that most Democrats, including Vice President Biden, are reasonable people and generally supportive of Israel. This opinion, in the author’s eyes, constitutes “criminal naivite and negligence at best, cynical manipulation and distortion at worst.”

Further, it proves that “Rabbi Avi Shafran and Agudath Israel were still engaging in their misguided behavior from 1980.” (Just to make sure his readers understand what’s really on his mind, the author congratulates himself for his temperate language in describing the Agudah’s behavior as simply “misguided”; “the alternative,” he ominously proclaims, “is too awful to contemplate” – thereby inviting his readers to engage in precisely such awful contemplation.)

While it is true that Rabbi Shafran serves as Agudath Israel’s public affairs director, he also frequently speaks in his own voice as well, not as a spokesman for the Agudah but as a private individual. His column about the Democratic Party was an expression of his personal views, and cannot be attributed more generally to the Agudah.

But beyond that, it is dismaying that the anti-Agudah op-ed columnist cites Rabbi Shafran’s article so selectively, treating it as a de facto endorsement of Mr. Biden and the Democratic Party. In fact, Rabbi Shafran took pains to disavow any such endorsement. Here’s what he wrote:

“None of the above is intended as a call to support Mr. Biden. There is ample and understandable enthusiasm in our community for President Trump, who has taken a number of steps to show support for Israel. And there are other issues where our stances resonate with the Republican ones. Personally, I am a registered Republican, and have, over decades, most often voted for Republican candidates.

“I’m suggesting only one thing: that we refrain from demonizing either of our country’s major political parties.”

Finally, a word to the periodical that published this anti-Agudah screed: What conceivable to’eles is there in attacking Rabbi Sherer? What heter is there to publicly denigrate an organization that works tirelessly and effectively under the leadership of gedolei Yisroel to promote the interests of the klal?

The writer’s words, were they true, would be lashon hora of the worst sort. As it is, they are worse, a hotzo’as shem ra, an inexcusable slander.

Recent Ami Articles

For the past month and a bit, my weekly columns have been appearing in Ami Magazine. My agreement with the periodical allows me to share links to the pieces on its website, but not to share them in their entirety in other ways.

So I’ll be posting links to the pieces, and their first sentences, in the future here, in addition to articles that may have been published elsewhere.

Recent offerings are at https://www.amimagazine.org/2020/07/29/cut-the-curls-youre-out-of-the-band/ and https://www.amimagazine.org/2020/08/05/dont-kick-the-donkey-2/

The Gray Lady Swoons

James Bennet, who served as the editorial page editor of the New York Times for the past five years, was recently walked to the journalistic guillotine by the powers-that-be at that once-venerable institution. His sin? A controversial idea appeared on the paper’s opinion page on his watch.

Mr. Bennet’s figurative head rolled out of the Times’ glass doors onto 8th Avenue because of two sets of riots — those on the streets of many American cities and a more genteel but no less disconcerting one in the paper’s newsroom. 

The latter unrest followed the Times’ publication of the op-ed at issue, by Sen. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.), who made a case for the deployment of military forces and even, if necessary, the invocation of the Insurrection Act, to control attacks on police and looting of businesses that attended some of the recent public protests.

Mr. Cotton was, of course, echoing President Trump in that proposal. In his remarks at the White House before embarking on his trek across the street to pose with a Bible in front of a church, Mr. Trump called the street violence “domestic acts of terror” and pledged that “If a city or state refuses to take the actions necessary to defend the life and property of their residents, then I will deploy the United States military and quickly solve the problem for them.”

One can find that threat, for its incendiary nature, entirely objectionable. One can find the very idea of using the military domestically entirely objectionable. One can find even the president himself entirely objectionable.

But no less objectionable should be the barring of a citizen, much less a sitting Senator, from expressing his feelings otherwise. And just as objectionable is wailing a post facto mea culpa for not having prevented the expression of that opinion.

But with a considerable number of the Times’ black staff expressing their feeling that publishing Mr. Cotton’s piece had endangered their lives — who knew that Times employees rampage and loot in their spare time? — and other staffers concurring that the op-ed was an odious and perilous thing, the swooning Gray Lady had to pop a pill, and her gentlemen-in-waiting dutifully beat their breasts in remorse.

Although Mr. Bennet and the paper’s publisher Arthur Sulzberger had initially, and sanely, defended the op-ed’s publication on the grounds that it was the paper’s duty to present views at odds with its own opinions, the swell of anger in the newsroom (and, reportedly, a number of cancelled subscriptions) quickly convinced them that Mr. Cotton’s words constituted a veritable call to fascism. Mr. Bennet admitted, or at least claimed, that he hadn’t read the piece before its publication, which an assistant had green-lighted, and thus he became the plumpest sheep to offer the angry snowflake gods. He quickly offered his resignation.

Leave aside whether the idea of calling on the military to quell domestic crimes is a good one. It is not. And leave aside whether threatening to do so was a good idea. It was not. Focus only on the right of someone to feel otherwise.

It’s always been an essential part of liberal philosophy to allow people to profess, and others to consider, their opinions. To be sure, an op-ed advocating armed insurrection or the shooting of protesters on sight would arguably be worthy of rejection by a responsible medium. A business is entitled to its standards, indeed obligated to have some.

But is the very idea of invoking an established federal law, in this case the Insurrection Act, which dates to 1807 but was amended as recently as 2007, that empowers a president to deploy military and National Guard troops domestically in limited circumstances, so beyond the pale?

Even conceding — though it deserves no concession — that such deployment here to stop violence on the streets would somehow endanger innocents, would an op-ed advocating, say, the deployment of the military in a hostile foreign country to protect Americans — an act that could much more easily result in casualties — be equally unworthy of publication and discussion?

Someone should introduce the Times’ editorial board to the Talmud, where the concept of presenting a misguided view of a law’s implications for a situation is essential to the ferreting out of the true approach. Putting forth something illogical or unreasonable isn’t merely a stylistic diversion, it is a vital part of the process of getting to truth.

And so, the paper could have best served the public by simply soliciting an op-ed countering Mr. Cotton’s point of view. (Hey, I was available.)

The irony here, for those, presumably including members of the Times’ editorial board, who consider the president himself a danger to American society, is that the paper’s action handed Mr. Trump a golden opportunity on a silver platter to reiterate his contempt for the “lamestream” media. Look, he could say (and did), the “fake media” are afraid to countenance any point of view that differs from their own.

And, at least this time, at least one medium could have no reasonable rejoinder.

© 2020 Rabbi Avi Shafran

Criminality in the Streets and in the Cloud

As sad as it is ironic, those who have seized the opportunity during protests over the killing of George Floyd to vandalize police vehicles and attack officers, deface buildings and loot stores are perpetuating racism.

Because, by their actions, they effectively reinforce the prejudices of people who view people of color as unbridled and lawless. Instead of images of black or brown scientists, doctors, lawyers, teachers or social workers, what the face of a nonwhite person conjures in their minds is a threat.

That’s what was perceived by the white woman who was firmly perched at the precipice of the news cycle until the killing of Mr. Floyd pushed her off. A black man who was bird-watching in New York’s Central Park politely asked her to restrain her unleashed dog and she responded by calling police, claiming that an “African-American” was threatening her. His words “Look, if you’re going to do what you want, I’m going to do what I want, but you’re not going to like it” probably wouldn’t have struck her as threatening had the bird watcher been Caucasian.

But he wasn’t and so they did.

And the looters of late have only empowered such prejudice. Of, course, thugs don’t give a first, much less second, thought to the impact of their actions on others. Their only concern is about what good stuff they might grab from violated stores. How unfortunate, though, that the national conversations about racial injustice and police misconduct have again been marred by mindless marauders.

As it happens, it wasn’t only on American streets that roguery reigned. As always these days, when chaos and stupidity blossom, the noxious pollen of Jew-hatred is released across the internet, particularly on social media.

And so it is that we have, on Twitter, a man (whose identifying graphic is a Hebrew declaration of fealty to Christianity) proclaiming that “Jewish whites were the most prolific slave owners in history. They practically created slavery in America,” and concluding that shuls are “free game” for vandalism.

Aside from his hogwash “history,” his conclusion is, to put it delicately, illogical. It takes a twisted mind to invoke something that didn’t happen in order to vilify distant descendants of those who didn’t do it.

There was further lunatic logic, too, from another Twitter twit, who explained that “Jewish Americans hold all the power in the country, thus you cannot be racist or anti-Semitic towards them.”

So, you see, since many Jews have been successful in their professions, in the public sphere and in public service, hatred and harm can be directed against them.

Interestingly, falsehoods propagated by social media became a recent major news item, too, right alongside the killing of George Floyd and its aftermath.

Twitter took the unprecedented step of placing a fact-check notice on a tweet by President Trump in which he asserted that mail-in ballots lead to voter fraud. The notice directed followers of the president’s tweets to a site offering facts showing otherwise.

And then, a day later, the social media company put a warning label on what it regarded as the president’s threat against protestors in Minneapolis, his tweet that “when the looting starts, the shooting starts” — a sentence that has been used by racists in the past and that, Twitter said, “violates our policies regarding the glorification of violence [because of the sentence’s]… historical context… its connection to violence, and the risk it could inspire similar actions today.”

In response, Mr. Trump accused Twitter of bias against him, and issued an executive order aimed at removing Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, a move could change the status of social media giants from “platforms,” which absolves them of responsibility for things posted on them, to the equivalent of newspapers, leaving them open to lawsuits over anyone’s postings.

Although it’s safe to say that it wasn’t Mr. Trump’s intent, removing Section 230 would likely force the social media giants to disallow him to post on them — entailing a loss of eyeballs they will be anguished to suffer — and open the door for decentralized, under-the-radar alternatives to take their place. Some of those alternatives will be more than happy to host the president.

And they will be happy, too, to host people seeking to destabilize society. The Wall Street Journal recently reported that Facebook hid a study it undertook that found that its algorithms exacerbate polarization — that 64% of all extremist group ‘joins’ produced by the platform “are due to our recommendation tools.”

And so, if Twitter’s attempts to correct misinformation is effectively undermined, we can expect a slew of new “post what you will” platforms that will become newly popular and eagerly employed by the always-ready-to-pounce anti-Semites on the extremes of the political spectrum.

Such actors will be itching to spread canards about Jews and to encourage violence against them. As itching as amoral rioters are to steal sneakers and luxury goods.

© 2020 Rabbi Avi Shafran