July 26, 2007
Question of Proper Journalistic StandardsBy Ralph M. Lieberman
I must question the standards of journalism the New York Times Magazine applied in publishing Noah Feldman's recent article, "Orthodox Paradox."
If you remove the personal interest story and the extensive background, the thesis of his essay is quite damning: he argues that the modern Orthodox community has drawn inappropriate and even dangerous lines in matters of life and love:
For many of us, the consilience of faith and modernity that sometimes appears within the reach of modern Orthodoxy is a tantalizing prospect. But it can be undermined by the fragile fault lines between the moral substructures of the two worldviews, which can widen into deep ruptures on important matters of life and love.
To the latter, of course, he refers to his own marriage to a non-Jew. But as if to give his thesis greater solemnity and to universalize the message, he insinuates that modern Orthodox exclusivity is, in fact, a danger to the wider (i.e., non-Jewish) community.
Is that too strong? Well, then why -- having just insisted that modern Orthodoxy is playing with fire in matters of life -- does he launch into a halachic discourse on the laws of Shabbat pertaining to doctors? Orthodox Jewish doctors, he implies through this discussion, are taught to not treat non-Jews on Shabbat.
This charge, I would argue, rises to the level of anti-Semitism - not in spite but rather because it comes from the mouth of one knowledgeable in Jewish halachic practice. I know of no modern Orthodox leader or modern Orthodox physician who has ever held that a doctor not treat a non-Jewish patient or has practiced in that way. My modern Orthodox synagogue is filled every Shabbat with doctors, and I routinely hear their beepers go off for patients who are -- in most cases -- non Jews.
The charge rises to anti-Semitic libel, I believe, because Professor Feldman knows very well that not even the teacher he cites would even think that a physician should deny treatment to non-Jews. It is, however, entirely natural in the halachic process to explore the underlying rationale, to debate these fine issues of law even when we know -- on the basis of secular law, morals and religious obligations -- that a modern Orthodox physician [or nurse, for that matter] must treat all patients in need, whether on Shabbat or even Yom Kippur. To give the halachic arguments without this context is to leave the impression with readers that Orthodox Jewish doctors are not to be trusted.
But now let's examine his second and even more damning charge: modern Orthodoxy spawns murderous hatred of others: Feldman writes, "modern Orthodoxy's line-drawing has been implicated in some truly horrifying events [my emphasis]."
He then launches into a discussion of Baruch Goldstein, dissecting his thought process as though Goldstein's decision to attack Moslems represented a natural outcome of modern Orthodox teaching. There are two serious journalistic standards breached in the section:
First, the factual errors: he makes a serious error that would mislead a reader. He writes that, "according to one newspaper account, when he was serving in the Israeli military, he refused to treat non-Jewish patients."
This charge was made in some news reports right after the attack, but was definitively disproved in the Shamgar Commission report. Yet this charge, of course, neatly confirms his earlier argument: Jews [particularly modern Orthodox doctors] are a threat to the non-Jewish community because, as Goldstein shows, they will fail to give proper treatment to non Jews.
Professor Feldman also argues that "[Goldstein's] actions were not met by universal condemnation: his gravestone describes him as a saint and a martyr of the Jewish people, ‘Clean of hands and pure of heart [my emphasis].'"
The gravestone, of course, was not erected by the modern Orthodox community but by his family; Goldstein's actions were met by universal condemnation across the entire gamut of the modern Orthodox community. Feldman acknowledges that with his quote regarding the tears of the patriarchs, and yet his assertion remains.
Both these errors should be corrected by the New York Times.
Second, a more insidious problem: what is the relevance of the story in his essay? Does Feldman argue that Goldstein's deranged action reflected his modern Orthodox upbringing, and particularly the challenges in setting appropriate lines? That modern Orthodoxy preaches such hatred for non-Jews as to pose a threat of massacre? He doesn't exactly say that; yet, if not, then why is the story presented? Did the Times editors ever ask this question? If the story is relevant, then we, the modern Orthodox community, in drawing a line between ourselves and the non-Jewish community, are directly responsible for Goldstein's actions.
Having demonstrated the very real "danger" of modern Orthodoxy, Feldman then examines the underlying driver of this ‘line-drawing'. Here, he neatly shifts back to the "love and life" theme, addressing the question of marriage: why do modern Orthodox Jews reject intermarriage?
To me and to the members of our community, that seems patently obvious: but Feldman obfuscates. In a subordinate clause, dispenses with the real reason (i.e., Jewish law and concern over the continuity of the Jewish people), then launches into an assessment of what he argues motivates this rejection: a) misogyny or, at least, medieval sexual taboos [thus, the story about hand holding], and b) his broader theme of modern Orthodoxy's rejection of full integration with non-Jews -- implying that we as Jews think less of non-Jews and therefore refuse to marry them (or eat with them, or carry on normal social discourse). While he is entitled to his opinion on this matter, I don't think any scholar would take his narrow (self-interested) view seriously.
The article is a religious attack, couched as a personal story and historical analysis. And perhaps, because of the personal interest story, the Times missed the underlying arguments this lawyer is making: he uses stories quite effectively as weapons; his essay has a clear point of view. And it is made more -- not less -- vicious because of his former affiliation with the modern Orthodox movement and the community. Here, in assessing the Times' journalistic integrity, we must consider not just whether the story is factually correct, but also whether it's appropriate to devote 5,000 words to this particular point of view.
Let us consider the initial human interest story, his "removal" from the alumni picture. Could you imagine making similar light of other religious communities: asking why, for instance, should an abortion doctor's new practice not be announced in his local Catholic newspaper? Or perhaps a former Muslim woman could walk into the main sanctuary (i.e., men's section) of a mosque during prayer -- wearing her shoes. Do you believe that her picture would be proudly displayed in the next Mosque bulletin? Would their stories -- the rejection these former members of their communities may feel -- be appropriate fodder for a long article attacking their religions?
I should add that the initial story in Feldman's article strongly suggests -- without directly stating it -- that his girlfriend's picture was excised on account of her race: Korean-Americans are not allowed; her presence would be too conspicuous, and our community is racist. That notion is contemptible; she would be quite welcome in our community, if she chose to join. My synagogue and the Maimonides School both testify to the wide range of faces -- races and ethnic groups -- integral to modern Orthodoxy.
Professor Feldman clearly has an ax to grind -- against the Maimonides School as an institution, and against an entire culture and religious group. Yes, modern Orthodox Jews reject intermarriage, and the simchas that he insists on posting to the alumni journal do not bring "simcha" (i.e., joy) to the community. These are not idle thoughts: ironically, the injustice he feels is that he wishes to impose his standards on a community that rejects those standards. In fact, our community is defined by our norms, and his rejection of those norms (not the community's rejection of Feldman as a person) is what creates the gap he so laments.
Perhaps his animus reflects some nagging sense of guilt and insecurity over his own choices; it is Professor Feldman who has failed to maintain the balance between tradition and engagement. I can point to scores of successes in our synagogue and wider community, stories that resonate with much greater human interest than his.
Feldman is free to associate with anyone he chooses -- and admits that his friends and even the rabbis from the school are civil to him personally. But he cannot insist that our institutions celebrate or, for that matter, even acknowledge, his public renunciation of our beliefs.
Which returns me to the original question: what are the Times' standards for publication? I don't believe that a newspaper has to be overly deferential to any institution, whether religious or secular. But here, a writer with a clear bias -- one rising to hatred -- has been allowed to attack an entire religious group in 5,000 words. How can we, as members of the community, refute these nasty insinuations? The article not only contains serious factual errors; in my opinion -- and I believe I have demonstrated it -- the article fails to meet minimum standards of journalistic integrity, in terms of balance and judgment.
Imagine we even remove the religious context: essentially, what we have here is a prominent person who exploits his name and success to carry on, in the pages of the New York Times, a personal vendetta against a small institution and community that lacks the same platform.
Yes, I admit he's written a great story - but it comes at high price, for the New York Times and for the Jewish community