Fresh Air Amid the Reek

Even more remarkable than the article itself was where it appeared.

Written by Elissa Strauss, an essayist and a “co-artistic director” of a “non-religious Jewish house of study for culture-makers at the 14th Street Y” in New York, the piece — “What Did the Orthodox Do Now?!” — graced the pages of the Forward, where Ms. Strauss is a contributing editor.

The essay’s focus was the non-Orthodox Jewish media’s “fixation with Haredi Jews”; those organs’ “hunger for sensationalism” in their reportage on the Orthodox community; the “crude laziness” evidenced by such tunnel vision; and the reduction of “a whole community of Jews” to “a kind of caricature in stories that often traffic in stereotypes.”

Points well taken, and the Forward, of course, is a good example of such invidious ink-spilling. It has some excellent reporters but also maintains a stable of writers and bloggers with chronically jaundiced views of the chareidi world.  And so it deserves credit for publishing Ms. Strauss’ piece, which was essentially a rebuke of its own journalistic bent with regard to our community.

Ms. Strauss attributes the obsessive negativity displayed by some non-Orthodox writers for chareidim to a desire to feel a “moral superiority” over their subjects, to “pat ourselves on the back for being so much better.” But she also raises the specter of other “much more complicated emotions” involved, “possibly including envy…”

A second remarkable article appeared recently in a Jewish publication that doesn’t display any noticeable anti-charedi bent: the venerable, politically conservative monthly Commentary. On the heels of Ms. Strauss’s piece, it published a lengthy, scholarly historical and sociological overview of the chareidi community written by Jack Wertheimer, a respected professor at the Jewish Theological Seminary.  Titled “What You Don’t Know About the Ultra-Orthodox” (although the latter term is eschewed in the text of the article, in favor of “Haredim”), it presents an impressively clear and unbiased picture of the American chareidi world and its ideals, and demonstrates what the piece’s subtitle promises: “The least understood and most insular American Jews have much to teach us.”

Professor Wertheimer acknowledges various grievances and complaints some Jews voice about chareidim; in each instance, though, he also explains the chareidi viewpoint, and does so eloquently and well.

As in every community, there are, unfortunately, distasteful things and unsavory players in our own. We do ourselves no favor pretending otherwise. “The Haredim,” however, explains Professor Wertheimer, “are expected” by other Jews “to be free of vice because they are supposed to ‘tremble in fear of G-d.’”

How wonderful a testimony to the Torah’s truth such perfection would be.  Alas, free will is what it is, and living a superficial chareidi lifestyle cannot preclude bad behavior.  But generalizing from outliers to the community as a whole is wrong and indefensible.

As is the refusal Professor Wertheimer asserts “to acknowledge the good and not only the problematic or off-putting [to some outsiders] aspects of Haredi life.”

Ms. Strauss puts it pithily: “We aren’t really interested in the Orthodox. We aren’t willing to see a full picture, the good and the bad, the complexity of these many individuals living so differently than us.”

That’s a sort of unwillingness many of us chareidim, too, are occasionally guilty of, whether the subjects of our opinionating are other groups of Jews, non-Jews or President Obama. But it is particularly glaring, all said and done, in Jewish media reportage on chareidim.

Not long ago, we read in shul of how Bilam broke the news to his sponsor King Balak that Hashem has thwarted their plans to curse Klal Yisrael,  with the king responding: “Come with me to another place from where you will see them; however, you will see only a part of them, not all of them, and curse them for me from there” (Bamidbar 23:13).

At first thought that puzzles. Why would Balak think that having Bilam look at the Jews from a different place and in a limited way might facilitate a successful curse?

Things, though, can look very different from different vantage points.  And a focus can be chosen.  One can aim one’s sights at the negative in a people — or a community or an individual; or one can pull back to see a larger, more comprehensive, and thus more accurate, picture.

Perspective, in the end, is everything, and a skewed one can be a very misleading and dangerous thing.  Balak clearly hoped that a view from a different “angle” might reveal something negative about Klal Yisrael, some vulnerability into which a curse might successfully settle. Baruch Hashem, he had no success.

Unfortunately, some Jewish media have succeeded for years in portraying chareidim from a malevolent perspective, sullying our community and beliefs with selective vision, animus and unjustified generalizations.

Ms. Strauss and Professor Wertheimer both deserve a kudos for pointing that out, and for suggesting that those media aim to be accurate and fair. May those writers’ words be taken to heart by those who so need to hear them.