The Importance of Ignoring Headlines – and of Being a Mensch

In February, 2001, I penned a piece for Moment Magazine that caused quite a ruckus

I had titled it “Time to Come Home,” and it was addressed to Jews who belonged to Conservative Jewish congregations.  I made the case that the Conservative movement’s claim of fealty to halacha was hollow and that the movement essentially took its cues from whatever non-Jewish society felt was acceptable or proper.

The issue of same-sex relationships, I contended, would prove my point.  At the time, the movement hadn’t yet rejected the Torah’s clear prohibitions in that area.  I predicted that, as the larger societal milieu was coming to embrace such relationships as morally acceptable, the Conservative movement would follow suit in due time.

(It did, of course, rather quickly.  In 2006, the movement’s “Committee on Jewish Law and Standards” endorsed a position permitting “commitment ceremonies” between people of the same gender and the ordination as Conservative rabbis of people living openly homosexual lives.  But the accuracy of my prediction is not my topic here.)

I pleaded that Conservative Jews who truly respected the concept of halacha  should join their Orthodox brothers and sisters, and “come home,” as per the piece’s title.

It was most upsetting to me to see the final proofs of the article.  The editing and pull-quotes were great, but the piece had been retitled (with the artwork reflecting the renaming) “The Conservative Lie” – in large, bold letters.   I protested mightily but the magazine was adamant about its right to title the piece as it wished.  A newcomer to its pages (and having worked for many weeks on the piece), I relented.

I had expected a torrent of righteous indignation from Conservative leaders for daring to call their dedication to halacha into question.  And it came; the truth hurt.  I also heard from many thoughtful Conservative and ex-Conservative Jews who affirmed my thesis.

But I lament to this day the fact that the harsh title likely prevented many readers from actually weighing what I wrote, that it biased them from the start to regard the writer of the piece as a rude name-caller and to read my words (if they even bothered to) through the lens of that bias.

The experience returned to my consciousness not long ago when I saw the title the Forward placed on a piece I had written, this one about haredi women in the Israeli workplace.

The point of my piece was a simple one.  In much of the multitudinous reportage about high haredi poverty and unemployment rates in Israel, one interesting factor seems to have gone missing: the upsurge in employment of haredi women, trained and placed in a variety of professions by various private groups.

I noted the irony of that ignoring, since women’s economic empowerment has traditionally been celebrated by liberal-minded folks.  And I noted further that while haredi society embraces distinct male and female roles, it seems to have no objection to couples who decide that the husband’s full-time Torah-study is worth the wife’s becoming the family breadwinner.

The title the Forward placed on the piece: “How Ultra-Orthodoxy Is Most Feminist Faith.”

Not only was that not my thesis, but the word “feminism” didn’t even appear among the nearly 800 I had employed

The bloggerai, predictably, went bonkers.  Various armchair commentators seemed to not realize that headlines and titles are the choice of the medium, not the writer.  Some knee-jerk pundits  seemed to have read little beyond the title itself; others read the piece and were outraged that it didn’t fulfill the promise of the title; others still ignored the point of the piece altogether and just took the opportunity to vent spleen over the fact that I had dared address an interesting aspect of the haredi economic situation rather than condemning haredim for their choices.  And some, it seemed, just saw the word haredi and, reflexively, saw red.

A friend of mine, a non-observant Jew, recently sent me some unsolicited comments.  While he is puzzled in some ways by haredim, he noted how, deep into middle age, he has discovered how important it is to “understand that the other person has a point of view, that one should not judge a specific situation without knowing the specifics.”  As he grows older, my friend continued, “I increasingly appreciate, on a deep emotional level, the virtues of genuine tolerance and a certain degree of humility” when looking at seemingly disturbing things.

My recent re-titling experience, and my friend’s words, hold some lessons for us all:

Don’t pay attention to headlines or titles.  Rather, read what a writer has actually written.

And don’t make an automatic target of people who have made choices different from your own.  Sure, criticize, if you think it’s warranted.  But do so thoughtfully.  In your zeal, don’t jettison menschlichkeit.

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