The Attack of the Moralists

It is a bitter irony clearly lost on its editors that the so-called “Jewish Week” chose to impugn the well-regarded Rav Dovid Cohen during the very week the Torah castigates Miriam for slandering her brother Moshe (actually, mildly rebuking him). Perhaps the message of the weekly Torah portion was unknown to the writer, someone named “Staff Report” – apparently to protect his identity.

Rav Cohen came to my neighborhood approximately two years ago and allegedly said publicly that cheating on taxes is permissible for Jews as long as there is no desecration of G-d’s name through their arrest and exposure. It is hard to believe he would make such a statement, given the preponderance of Rabbinical opinion that the Talmudic principle “the law of the land is the law” applies first and foremost to areas such as taxes. Add to that Rav Cohen’s statement – quoted in the paper – that his remarks had been “totally misunderstood” and that he “repudiated” them, one wonders what was the necessity of finding a “news” story in this, two years after the event that I, living in this neighborhood, had not heard about? Isn’t that lashon hara (slanderous, evil talk) of the worst kind, and so from where do Jewish journalists derive the right to engage in blatant violations of the Torah – while paradoxically claiming the moral high ground and ethical superiority over their subjects ?

Newspapers often speak of the public’s right to know… whatever the journalist deems newsworthy. It is interesting that while Western law speaks almost exclusively in terms of the “rights” of individuals, the Torah never speaks directly of “rights” but quite frequently and extensively about the “obligations” of individuals. “Rights” flow, if they do at all, from the mutual “obligations” people have to each other, but people generally have no inherent right to “know” anything, certainly not if there is no imminent danger to them or to others. We do have an “obligation” to treat each other fairly, decently, and with respect.

But character assassination is the sport of journalists and so it is no surprise that Mr. (or Ms.) Report resurrected a dead, non-story and trumpeted their findings. It is one reason why I personally never read the so-called “Jewish Week” (this particular article was forwarded to me), nor do I understand why any serious Torah Jew would. The spiritual harm is insidious and persistent, and the advantages nebulous at best.

There is a broader point here as well. The media delights in skewering its favorite targets, with each editor or writer having his own favorites whipping boys or girls. Bernard Goldberg, in his new book describing the “Slobbering Love Affair” between the mainstream media and Barack Obama – essentially committing themselves to do whatever it took to ensure his election – lambasted the media for, among other things, its tendentious, baseless attack on John McCain’s relationship with a female lobbyist, while completely ignoring the effects on Obama of listening to twenty years of rabid, anti-American and anti-Jewish sermons from Obama’s pastor and mentor, Jeremiah Wright (its influence on Obama is becoming more apparent every day) or some of his other sordid associations. All this led to the election of what one commentator called the “most unknown person” ever to be elected president. But journalists love to expose the moral foibles of others, and some of them even live for that. Here is Goldberg’s suggestion:

“I have long thought that it would be a good idea to find some man or women with oodles of money and start a foundation of sorts that would bring in gifted reporters and writers and assign them just one mission: to snoop into the lives of…journalists !

“These hired guns would nose around and then write hit pieces about some pathetic reporter who got stood up on prom night. They would dig into the life of an editor to find out why he got divorced…  They would discover why a certain journalist had been in therapy for quite some time. They would do a story about why some writer was not popular with his neighbors. They would humiliate the poor journalists by running these “big scoops” in newspapers, websites and on television networks.

“Sounds like fun, doesn’t it – reporters getting a taste of their own medicine ?… It might imbue these journalists with a bit of sensitivity next time they go out to try to unearth some titillating but useless information about, to use one example, the wife of a candidate running for president”  (pages 112-113).

It is tantalizing ! After all, the watchers are watching, but who is watching the watchers ? Journalists have set themselves up as the moral authorities of modern life, who can pass judgment from their inaccessible perches on any individual or group. So what are their biases ? What do they say behind close doors, how are their relations with their wives and children, why do some seem to have an undisguised contempt for Rabbis and Torah ? Were they raised with those attitudes, is it a reaction to their upbringing, or did they rebel against their parents, teachers and communities and carve their own moral path ? Who really knows anything about them ?

Isn’t this a great idea ?

No. There is already enough lashon hara in the world, and the Jewish world, without adding more to it. Rabbis especially are always constrained from responding forcefully and publicly to many accusations against them, because of propriety. It is unseemly to climb into the mud, difficult to climb out, and all mud-throwers eventually become soiled. Enough already.

We should be dialing back the lashon hara in our lives – avoiding like the plague (literally; think Miriam) those individuals and organs that are purveyors of verbal trash, who will always find a ready audience for their wares but never an audience among the decent and virtuous. When the merits of Rav Dovid Cohen are weighed against the merits of his detractors, Mr. Report and others, the scales will be wildly unbalanced in the Rabbi’s favor, and that itself should give pause to the gossipmongers and their willingness to disseminate “titillating but useless” information, since denied and repudiated in any event.

Bernie Goldberg’s suggestion (perhaps, half in jest) is tempting, but it is a temptation that all good people should resist. Right ?

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5 responses to “The Attack of the Moralists

  1. Rabbi, with all due respect, how can we, who try to hold ourselves to very high moral standing, ignore such public comments that are k’neged everything we stand for. Many people were there and heard Rabbi Cohen say it is mutar to sign a false tax return as long as you will not get caught and it will not create a chillul hashem, yet it was ignored or “brushed under the rug” for too long and we continued to turn to this man for Psak. Too many people were there and heard it to deny that the incident took place and why must we fall all over ourselves apologizing for this when we should repudiate these statements and distance ourselves from the man who made them. Do we in the Modern Orthodox community have no self respect, can we not find more main stream poskim to rely on others than those who publicly advocate cheating on your taxes? The truth is what it is and I am sure it would not take too much of an effort for you to find a number of people who heard these disturbing comments and the subsequent non action taken by our leadership to call out what was done.
    While I recognize, as you point out, the need to minimize lashon harah, I also recognize the need to stand up for true torah principals and values and call out those, regardless of who they are, if they choose to misinterpret or pervert those sacred values.

  2. Srully Epstein

    Lichvod Harav,

    I’m just sorry I moved to Bergenfield in August of 2007 and missed the speech…

    What I’m wondering is: Is it possible Rav Cohen was simply quoting the Gemara and speaking theoretically, rather than issuing a practical psak?

    And I totally agree (not that the Rav needs my haskamah!) that reading Jewish papers in general is, at best, a waste of time, and at worst, depressing.

  3. Pingback: Rabbis Vs Journalists

  4. On the other hand, it is improper to ban a rabbi because I do not agree with something that he has said.

    He was not banned. He was removed from positions of communal authority. Having a leader say these things (which you assumed in your response he said) implies you find them acceptable. Having a lead RCA posek say these things implies it is a legitimate halachic position that the RCA would be duty bound to defend to the world (“no, we would never say that, but he said that and its legitimate only for his followers to do that”… it would go over very well). Hence he was removed from these roles.

    You wrote above of spiritual harm from reading one newspaper written by some individual lacking any moral authority over you. It was a point of pride for you that you did not read it and you felt a need to explain how you read this article despite that. Yet, when it comes to the spiritual harm from the positions of a “well-regarded” rabbinic leader … whose role means we would each take what he has to say seriously … the community should react in silence and leave the person in positions of honor and prestige?

    • Factual correction:
      calling Rav Dovid Cohen a “lead RCA posek” is just incorrect. I am a Vice President of the RCA, been a member of the Executive Committee for over a decade, and I never would have thought to say that Rav Cohen is a Posek for the RCA, much less a “lead” posek.
      Rav Moshe Feinstein zt”l was also consulted by RCA rabbanim. Was he then an “RCA posek”? The Vaad Haposkim was disbanded because it confused more than elucidated. It was an informal group that never met, whose “members” were consulted on a variety of issues and offered their opinions, if they wanted to. Others were consulted too.
      The RCA does have a Vaad Halacha that deliberates, advises and publishes on a variety of issues, that is composed of RCA Rabbis.
      To term Rav Cohen an “RCA posek” is flat-out wrong. In any event, the point of my piece was not to defend or criticize Rav Cohen, but rather to underscore that such matters do not belong in newspapers. That is not the Torah way.
      -RSP