The Yated’s Hatchet Job

It’s not so easy to come up with time to write, but when you tell the tworld you’re going to write, you’ve got to write.

The Yated this week (Friday April 19, 2013 edition) dealt with the Broyde-Goldwasser controversy in two pieces. The first was an article by Avrohom Birnbaum. He tried taking Rabbis Gil Student and Harry Maryles (primarily them; he jabbed the hatchet at at least one other, I believe) to task for…I guess for not decrying R. Broyde’s actions vociferously enough. In the opinion piece Birnbaum managed to err in his description of the award Jimmy Carter recently received at Cardozo; describe R. Student’s blog in a brief and wildly inaccurate way; implicitly blame blog owners for their commenters; blatantly mis-state the nature of a brief summary R. Student had written on a critique of R. Broyde; refer to R. Broyde’s apology as “half-hearted”; and issue what seems – to my mind – the harshest criticism of a non-celebrity I have ever seen in a modern newspaper in his description of R. Maryles.

One of the worst parts of Birnbaum’s article is the fact that he may have a point. Do people judge scandalous activity from people they like more charitably? I don’t know. Some certainly do. Some likely don’t. It’s very hard to remove all biases from the equation when issuing judgment. But by turning a reasonable question into something entirely different – something stunningly accusatory and incredibly offensive – Birnbaum prevented his question from being addressed. (I also think it fair to ask Birnbaum: Does he interpret dan lekaf zechus in the same manner when judging a bearded, kapote-wearing man and a clean-shaven fellow in jeans?)

*     *     *

Birnbaum used the word schadenfreude to describe the joy that Hirhurim commenters feel when discussing chareidi improprieties, but I think the word would be used at least as aptly in describing the feelings of those who wrote the Yated’s scathing indictments of Rabbis Broyde, Student and Maryles.

Nobody (that I’ve seen) is talking about it, but I found the aggregated article on R. Broyde to be appalling. I honestly don’t remember it all and I’m not going back to read it now, but the jabs they took at a man who is down were in extremely poor taste. The article quoted liberally from Steven I. Weiss’ original investigation, something you can be certain it would not have done if a chareidi rabbi committed some wrong.

Like I said, I don’t remember it all and I’m not going back to read it now. But if Birnbaum wants to find a media double standard, I think he should look in his own paper.

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Some Thoughts on The Broyde-Goldwasser Controversy

As has been extensively (though I’m not sure accurately) reported, Rabbi Michael Broyde has been using a pseudonym,  Hershel Goldwasser, to engage in various discussions in the Jewish community. R. Broyde has used the the Goldwasser name in various forums: print publications, the comments sections of blogs, and even the private listserv of the IRF, a rabbinic group in which Goldwasser has membership(!) but Broyde does not. At times, the Goldwasser character spoke in high praise of R. Broyde and his work. This story went public on Friday; before Shabbos, Broyde had penned an apology for his “error in judgment” to a former IRF president, and subsequently released a more thorough and explanatory public apology.

As could be expected, R. Broyde has been castigated by some, while others have looked at him more favorably. Here are some of my thoughts.

First, a thought on dishonesty. (Because I don’t think anyone was actually harmed by R. Broyde’s actions, the dishonest nature of them becomes the major point.) Honesty is not a value in and of itself. Let us assume a gunman entering a school and asking a teacher he meets in the hall where the students are. I think we can reasonably agree that honesty should not be the teacher’s policy in this instance. Honesty is generally the proper path, but there are times when it is unnecessary or counter-productive. If we are to assume that R. Broyde was acting for the sake of Heaven, that his heart was in the right place, then judging him on strict true-false honesty seems improper.

Beyond this, it’s not clear to me that (other than his conversation with the reporter) R. Broyde actually lied. With a friend, he created Goldwasser, a composite albeit nonexistent personality. The stories Goldwasser told were all stories that R. Broyde heard from others. I really don’t see this as dishonest. If R. Broyde were using a real person’s name (i.e. R. David Feinstein) and relating stories that R. Broyde had heard from various acquaintances, this certainly would be dishonest as people who trusted R. Feinstein would be sure to trust the stories. But Goldwasser never existed, which means that nobody knew him and would therefore trust his stories. R. Broyde heard the stories from people one generation older than him and related them to the public through a figure he created who was one generation older than him. (As I write this, I realize that there are sometimes errors of transmission; we don’t treat a firsthand story the same way we treat a secondhand one. This is a fair, but relatively minor, point.)

That Goldwasser frequently approvingly referenced R. Broyde’s work doesn’t warrant an apology. That he frequently complimented R. Broyde is – to me, at least – more curious than criminal.

About this, R. Broyde writes in his apology “anyone who has read the comments section of the Orthodox Jewish blog world knows that they are very harsh and unkind. I erred by sometimes saying something nice or validating in order to change the conversational tone.” His description of the J-blogosphere is certainly accurate. Still, that does not mean that his actions were appropriate.

Second, I find it bizarre that one can become a member of a rabbinic organization without having fulfilled the pre-requisite of existence. The IRF and R. Broyde both come off looking better if we bear in mind what commenter Yaakov Komisar stated here.

Broyde refers to joining the IRF listserv back when it was in its infancy. At that time, before the official founding of the organization, there were no by-laws or anything of the sort. It was simply a listserv. I was not then a member, so I don’t know what the requirements were to join. I believe that the handful of members from that era were possibly grandfathered into the listserv after the by-laws were passed and the organization became official. (that is my understanding, anyway)

Komisar further states that when the IRF left its infancy, there was a crackdown on membership. (I still find it bizarre that one can be a member of a rabbinic organization without existing, but I suppose it’s less of a black mark if they’ve cracked down on membership.)

There’s a lot more to say, but I think that’s all for now. I’m basically thinking of this whole debacle by asking myself these questions:

  1. What evil/inappropriate acts did R. Broyde engage in?
  2. Did they hurt anyone? Were they malicious or was their intent to help the world?

I think that if we answer these questions honestly, we will find room to judge favorably.

 

Fisking a Screed – Defending R. Schachter

From time to time, my ire is raised by things I read. This is, perhaps, a bad thing – though there are those who argue, the Rambam believes that anger is never justified. Clearly, I am far from a perfect person.

R. Shmuly Yanklowitz recently penned a harsh diatribe against R. Hershel Schachter wherein R. Yanklowitz attempted to marginalize R. Schachter by citing some curious statements R. Schachter has made over the years; in effect, he seems to say that R. Schachter is not fit for leading a Torah community. In the process, R. Yanklowitz – seemingly eager to make his point – drags up ancient (sometimes spurious) complaints against R. Schachter which, I suppose, are designed to vilify him in the eyes of the reader.

As I said, my ire was raised. My problems with this screed were multitudinous; as such, I’ll be going through it bit by bit, with R. Yanklowitz’s words in bold and mine in this standard font.

Here goes:

Recently, a scandal emerged within the Orthodox community when Rabbi Hershel Schachter, a halakhic leader and member of the faculty of Yeshiva University’s Rabbi Isaac Elchanan Theological Seminary (RIETS), made an overtly racist comment that was recorded at a London conference.

R. Schachter made a(n almost certainly off-the-cuff) statement that could be taken in numerous ways. Some people thought it racist; others thought it was a slip of the tongue which he “corrected in the same sentence.” That said, I have trouble swallowing that the comment was “overtly racist.”

The greatest objections (including from Yeshiva University) revolve around his reluctance to sanction the reporting of sex crimes directly to the police (mesirah), warning that if a Jewish sex offender were sent to a state prison, he might be killed by the warden, or beput “in a cell with a shvartze, in a cell with a Muslim, a black Muslim who wants to kill all the Jews.”

It is true that we must be cautious to be sure that innocents are not thrown in jail. I recently made the case for how many mistakes our penal system is making in this regard. However, religious leaders are not the judges of who is guilty and who is not. We live in one of the most sophisticated judicial systems in the world, one of the reasons why Rabbi Moshe Feinstein argued that we live in a “medina shel chesed” (a nation of kindness) where on the whole we can trust the judicial system.

I would assume that R. Schachter would agree with this assessment of the judicial system. In fact, he shows little hesitation in turning alleged criminals over to the judicial system.
Rabbi Schachter admitted that decades ago a Yeshiva University High School student confided that he had been abused by a Yeshiva administrator. While the details are in dispute, Rabbi Schachter did not follow up on the investigation, and the administrator in question continued to abuse students for years afterward.

This seems to be a rather unfavorable description of R. Schachter’s actions.The Forward writes “Schachter said that he asked the student to tell his story to a rabbi who served as the school psychologist…” which would seem to be the appropriate call. As R. Schachter was (we can assume) not very experienced with abuse cases, he referred the student to a mental health professional, which would seem to be the proper course of action.

While acknowledging in his talk that there is no violation of the halakhah in allowing mesirah for child sexual abuse and most other crimes, Rabbi Schachter then weakened the argument. He proposed that a board of Torah scholars should first hear the charge to determine if there were raglayim l’davar [a credible charge requiring a report to the police], as a child’s report of abuse could be made up (a “bubbe-mayse”).

R. Schachter actually said that a board of psychologists should first hear the charge. (See what I did there?)

He also demeaned the student who had reported the initial abuse to him: “So now, 40 years later, the guy’s spilling everything out to the newspaper.”

I’m not sure how this is demeaning. He was presumably trying to say that there is little to gain by talking to newspapers about crimes committed 40 years ago. I don’t know if he’s right, but I’m not sure how that’s demeaning.

He further stated that it was the student’s responsibility to follow up with the school psychologist, and if he did not he bore the blame for any further abuse that occurred at the high school.

I might be wrong, here, but I think R. Yanklowitz – just a few sentences ago – tried to intimate that it was R. Schachter’s fault that further abuse occurred at the school.

Put yourself in R. Schachter’s shoes for a moment. He’s not a youngster, but he’s not ancient, either. 40 years ago, he was a rather young, relatively inexperienced faculty member. A student came to him and accused one of R. Schachter’s colleagues of abuse. When R. Schachter – ill-equipped to deal with this issue and uncertain as to the veracity of the claim – suggested that the student speak to a mental health professional, the student backed off. The student – assuming he was telling the truth (and I’m not suggesting we assume either way) – knew that there was an abuser on the loose. R. Schachter didn’t.

I thank G-d that I was never abused and don’t know the trauma involved, but from my vantage point, I hear where R. Schachter is coming from.

We need Modern Orthodox leadership that represents the sacred moral values of our Torah!
Rabbi Schachter’s prowess as a Torah scholar is extraordinary.

I think this is true. Let me cite a bit from a Jewish Journal article to demonstrate. The article at this link, which seems to piggyback on a legal stringency of R. Schachter refers to him as “one of the greatest Jewish legal authorities in America” and “the leading rosh yeshiva at Yeshiva University [who] is a halachic adviser to the kashrut division of the Orthodox Union and is unwavering in his commitment to the integrity of Jewish law.” Curiously, the author of that article is one R. Yanklowitz

 At age 22, he became the assistant of the noted Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik, z’l, and at age 26 became the youngest Rosh Yeshiva at RIETS. Since then, he has written and taught extensively on Talmud and Jewish law. Even the student who confided in vain about sexual abuse acknowledged that Rabbi Schachter was a “true Gadol B’Yisroel (giant of torah).” Further, Rabbi Schachter’s reputation as a man who is kind, sensitive, and sweet in most of his interpersonal dealings is surely warranted.

I’m vacillating about whether the student’s respect for R. Schachter is relevant. I think we could interpret his statement to mean that he believes that R. Schachter is a great man who erred, not that R. Schachter – in general – is not a good example of Torah leadership. I find it interesting that this person who suffered so much seems to be willing to look at all sides of a person before speaking against him.
A teacher has responsibilities beyond instructing content and disciplinary method. We teachers have a responsibility (second to parents) in molding children – an appreciation for faith, ethics, and other healthful values. When a student confides in us, it is our responsibility to consider what is good for the child and to act upon those considerations.

Is there a point to this educational philosophy. Are we to assume that R. Schachter cares little for the faith (!), ethics (!) and health of his students. I don’t think so. I may be misreading this, but it seems to me that R. Yanklowitz feels that R. Schachter erred and is attempting to paint R. Schachter as an uncaring, poor educator rather than an educator who made a mistake.

This case is indicative of an unfortunate tendency of some Modern Orthodox educators who have moved to an ultra-Orthodox position that can obstruct justice. It must be acknowledged that sexual abuse was tolerated at Yeshiva University for years, and that several well-known administrators and faculty, even after their guilt was established, were allowed to resign and move on to other positions in youth education rather than face sexual abuse charges or even social or professional cost. Furthermore, even if Rabbi Schachter’s claim that he told the student to go to the school psychologist is true, he should have realized that many in the Orthodox community considered it shameful (and still consider it so today) to go to a psychologist, and so it was unlikely that a student would go there with a story like this.

Ah! And nobody in the Orthodox community considers it shameful to take a rabbi to the police, so of course that was the perfect solution! (R. Yanklowitz, if you’re reading this, I really don’t understand you.)

To establish layers of bureaucracy or throw blame on the victims is to hurt the students who are supposed to be served by institutions of learning.

This trend can also lead to intellectual isolation. I remember I was once at a Friday night tisch when I was a graduate student at Y.U. and a student asked Rabbi Schachter if he was allowed to study English literature. Rabbi Schachter responded that he could, as long as it was for parnassah (supporting his livelihood), but not because there was any value to this learning – this occurred not at Ponevezh or the Mir, but at Yeshiva University, the center of Torah U’Madda (the integration of religious and secular studies)!

We seem to have reached the “enough with abuse, let’s bash R. Schachter for various things he has said over the years” segment of this article.

Rabbi Schachter’s obtuse desire to ignore the world outside of his personal focus may help explain his many notorious statements. In the London speech referred to above, for example, he raised no objection to sending a Jew to a federal prison, since they have kosher food and better conditions (and presumably less menacing clientele than in state prisons).

Basically, R. Schachter has a broad understanding of “cruel and unusual.” And this is because of his obtuse desire to ignore the outside world?

Consider the following examples:
• In 2004, when asked about the question of women reading a ketubbah at a wedding, he replied that a wedding was valid even if “a parrot or a monkey” did the reading, which angered many women’s groups.

R. Yanklowitz is right that this is a notorious statement; I think he’s right that it angered women’s groups.
In 2008, he reportedly told a group of yeshiva students that if any Israeli government would “give away Jerusalem,” then the Israeli prime minister responsible should be shot.

I’m going on memory here, but I believe I heard a recording of this notorious statement. After he said it, everyone laughed. In other words, not only was it a joke, it was recognized by those who actually heard it as one.
• In August 2012, Rabbi Schachter was criticized by the Board of Directors of the Council of Centers on Jewish-Christian Relations  for accusing some Orthodox rabbis in Israel of promoting idolatry (avodah zarah) and conversion from Judaism (shemad) by teaching Gentiles about Judaism, ignoring and perhaps threatening decades of progress in Christian attitudes toward Jews and Israel. Abraham Foxman, national director of the Anti-Defamation League, stated that Rabbi Schachter “seems to know nothing about the different Christian denominations or the current state of Jewish-Christian relations,” and lamented “that a religious figure and university academic who is well respected in the Yeshiva world would publish such a distorted and error-filled text which promotes negative attitudes.”

I don’t know much about this; if I’m understanding this correctly, R. Yanklowitz had determined thus far that R. Schachter mishandled one situation forty years ago and has made three offensive statements in the last decade. (By my tally, one was a joke, and was only offensive to those with excessive wax buildup in their ears.)
While teachers may have areas of concentration in their studies, they should welcome the opportunity of learning something new, and passing it on to their students. Rabbi Schachter, especially due to his prominent position, owes his students the finest education available, without racist vocabulary and trivializing sexual abuse.

I have never heard any indication whatsoever (except from this article), not even the slightest bit, that R. Schachter trivialized sexual abuse. (It is also fair to point out that these quotes were not made in school.)
Louis Brandeis was an admirableJewish scholar dealing with justice and society. As the first Jewish associate justice of the Supreme Court, a Zionist, he was a tireless proponent of the social welfare. Brandeis understood that secular institutions such as the courts could help secure the liberty of the people, and that it was incumbent on citizens to guard their liberty. In addition, he established a legal precedent of filing court briefs (called “Brandeis Briefs”) that combined legal, economic, and sociological data to advocate better working conditions and other worthy causes. Consider the wisdom of an intellectual who also acted in the public interest:

• “Neutrality is at times a graver sin than belligerence.”
• “Our government … teaches the whole people by its example. If the government becomes the lawbreaker, it breeds contempt for law…”
• “The greatest dangers to liberty lurk in the insidious encroachment by men of zeal, well-meaning but without understanding.”

We now have quotes from an American Jewish jurist. Two of them speak in favor of following the law (one, perhaps other action) and one speaks about the dangers of well-meaning people without understanding. (In all fairness to this segment, I do like the name Louis.)
Yeshiva University deserves credit for publicly rebuking this rosh yeshiva who has crossed the line of offensive rhetoric once again. The Torah demands that we see the dignity in all humans and that we be honest and forthright in all of our ways.

I’m actually glad R. Yanklowitz brought up honesty; I wasn’t going to ask this before but now I will: Would R. Yanklowitz have rather R. Schachter lied about his feelings on literature.

One who uses racist slurs and impedes justice for abuse victims does not represent the Torah community.

Is it accurate to say that R. Schachter uses racist slurs?

I’m going to assume that R. Yanklowitz means abuse perpetrators, though I highly doubt R. Schachter has any intention of impeding justice for either of them.

We honor Torah scholarship and we respect the good intentions of sincere men and women, but the Modern Orthodox community needs moral leadership deeply sensitive to contemporary human needs and responsible in legal and ethical discourse.

I might even addend that if we had leadership that was “deeply sensitive” to critical discourse that would be nice, too.

A Couple of Blog Comments

  1. I’ve been treating this blog with something approaching neglect. Hopefully that won’t last, but we’ll see. I titled it Machshavos and was hoping for a place to post random thoughts. I haven’t done that as much as planned.
  2. My sort-of neglect notwithstanding, I am happy to say that this blog did receive (what I believe was) its first link from another blog, when The Life in Israel blog linked to this post.

What Would R. Moshe Feinstein Say About the Weberman Trial?

Once again, I’m going to be posting about the Weberman trial…so sue me. There were various reasons for the opposition to some of the proceedings. Some people felt that the trial wasn’t fair. I’ve dealt with some of those feelings before. For now, I want to talk about a different bone that people picked with the events that occurred few months ago.

One of the issues people had, I believe, was not with punishing Nechemya Weberman, but with his being dealt with by the criminal justice system. In other words, people felt that he should have been punished (or tried) by his own community. It was concerns of this type that had people throwing the term “moser” at his accusers.

I think the following excerpt from R. Shlomo Aviner’s blog sheds some interesting light on how R. Moshe Feinstein might   respond to people with that type of complaint.

An observant Jew once came to the yeshiva to speak to Ha-Rav Moshe Feinstein and explained that his son was in prison for selling drugs, and he wanted Reb Moshe to write a letter to the judge asking to have mercy on his son.  Reb Moshe harshly said to him: “Your son causes people to be sick and hurts them.  Let him sit in prison!”  And the father tried over and over to convince Reb Moshe, but he in no way agreed to sign such a letter, and added that his actions were against the laws of the country, which are not forfeited.

Chumra of the Day

Reading glasses

There is a rather well-known “chumra” in certain circles. Men, while courting, take off their glasses so as not to look at their respective dates. (Whether this is a legitimate attempt at holiness or simply pseudo-holiness, I’m not sure. It probably depends on the individual)

The problem with engaging in such a practice is clear: The fellows look ridiculous and are doing something which, at the very least, is mechzi k’yuhara.

This evening, I came upon a solution. If the fellows would put on reading glasses with the wrong prescription, they would fulfill their objective of not seeing their date while not, frankly, looking like idiots. This could even be done practically; to wit, one could drive on the date with the appropriate prescription and switch after parking to the inappropriate one. I think that if the frames are similar, this could be done without anyone being wise to it.

Lessons from Yisro

Towards the beginning of this week’s parsha (Exodus 18:13-27), something rather interesting occurred. Yisro, who had just joined the Jewish nation, observed Moshe acting in a manner that the fromer found troubling. Moshe, as leader of the Jewish people, was personally adjudicating disputes from morning to night.

Yisro didn’t like this arrangement, thinking that it was too much work for his son-in-law. Instead, Yisro suggested, there should be various levels of leaders each of whom dealt with a relatively small group of constituents. Simple matters could be resolved on the lower levels, and only the toughest questions would be dealt with by Moshe.

Moshe followed the instructions.

I think there are two important lessons we can learn from this.

  1. People are fallible. Moshe was the greatest leader of the Jewish people and, as a prophet, was unrivaled by those who came before or after him. But he, like all human beings, was fallible. Daas Torah or no da’as torah (and you might want to argue that this incident is irrelevant to that question because it occurred before matan torah), all people do make mistakes.
  2. Sometimes you need an outsider to tell you what to do. There were 3 million people Jewish people among the Jews before Yisro came, but it was he who came up with a workable leadership structure. People often get accustomed to doing something in a certain way, which may or may not be the best way of doing it. An outsider has the benefit of being unfamiliar with precedent and is sometimes more inclined to judge procedures on their own merits. Sometimes the simple act of thinking through a problem – and not just repeating what was done yesterday – brings you most of the way to the solution.

R. Yerucham Gorelick and Talmud vs. Hashkafa

I stumbled across something rather interesting from a few years back. As reported by Marc Shapiro, Rav Yerucham Gorelick’s* son,  R. Mordechai Leib Gorelick, apparently denies that his father taught gemara at Yeshiva University. As quoted here, apparently the younger R. Gorelick wrote “מעולם לא לימד שם גמרא כלל” – he never taught Talmud there whatsoever. Instead, says R. Mordechai Leib, his father taught exclusively “hashkafa” at YU.

Rav Yerucham Gorelick in the 1960 Masmid.

Rav Yerucham Gorelick in the 1960 Masmid.

It is well known to many (though probably not to the readership of the charedi publication in which his letter was published) that this is false. Despite his son’s denial, R. Gorelick did teach gemara at YU.

Why the falsehood, though?

As Shapiro notes, it is presumably because “the son is embarrassed that his father taught Talmud at YU.” What I’m not clear on is why teaching hashkafa at an inappropriate institution is less of a crime than teaching gemara there.

My kneejerk reaction was that R. Gorelick’s son’s claim was further tarnishing his father’s reputation. While Talmud study is certainly a religious act, it is also largely an intellectual pursuit. On the other hand, hashkafa – essentially religious philosophy or thought – is (at least compared with Talmudic study) not considered an intellectual field of study. For a group which considers YU out of bounds, one would think that the teachers of religious philosophy wold be considered more villainous than the teachers of Talmud.

The younger R. Gorelick clearly disagreed with me and felt that he could save his father’s reputation by pretending he never taught gemara at YU.

R. Yerucham Gorelick in YU - Note the English "Jerome" and the specification that he was a member of the Talmud department.

R. Yerucham Gorelick in YU – Note the English “Jerome” and the specification that he was a member of the Talmud department.

I’d rather not talk about R. Gorelick (either one), in particular, but to simply discuss the greater discomfiture at teaching Talmud than hashkafa at an illicit institution. I have a few thoughts:

  1. People might consider teaching Talmud to be a full-time job and teaching hashkafa to be part-time. 
  2. (Nobody thinks that Lubavitch shluchim endorse every idea of all the people with who they interact. They are doing kiruv. Were they teaching a daily gemara shiur, you might be more inclined to think that they associated with their students.) Teaching hashkafa could be considered similar to kiruv.
  3. As Shapiro mentions, R. Mordechai Leib Gorelick has some interesting views, including his feelings that “Talmud study is not for the masses, but only for the elite.” I suppose for someone who possesses both that view of Talmud study and a negative attitude to YU, teaching gemara at YU is a bad thing and teaching hashkafa at the same institution would be more tolerable.

I don’t know which side of the argument is stronger. As I said, my initial reaction was that it is more of a crime to teach hashkafa at an inappropriate institution, but I’m not so sure anymore.

*Interesting facts about R. Gorelick: He was born in 1911 in Slutsk. Two famous Jews who share this birth year with him were Jack Ruby and R. Gorelick’s longtime boss, YU President Samuel Belkin. Belkin was born in Svislach, about a two day, non-stop walk from Slutsk.