Coming clean at Yom Kippur
by Jonathan Rosenblum
September 25, 1998
Tis the season for pangs of conscience - even among journalists - so let me share some of mine.
As a child, I used to love political dramas: Allen Drury novels; Slattery's People, a TV drama about an idealistic state legislator; The Candidate.
Many of these dramas centered on the following dilemma. A young idealist enters politics to do good. But to do good, he must be elected, and that inevitably involves all sorts of compromises of principle. In the end, the requirement of getting elected comes to justify so many compromises that the original principles are no longer recognizable.
Much of my youth was devoted to thinking about how I would avoid this trap as president. Somewhere along the line, however, I seem to have made a wrong turn and, as an adult, I have never had to confront moral dilemmas of this sort, certainly nothing fit for a sequel to Profiles in Courage.
Then suddenly a year and a half ago, this column fell into my lap and I had thrust upon me a bully pulpit with which to defend my community, explain its worldview, correct common misconceptions, and rebut, on commonly accepted logical premises, the attacks against Torah Jews and Judaism. Above all, I hoped to arouse an interest in Torah Judaism.
Given that The Jerusalem Post is unique among Israeli secular papers in offering such a perspective on a regular basis, I assumed (probably unfairly) that retaining this opportunity to do good would depend in part on the my ability to sell papers. And that would require maintaining a lively and provocative style.
My assumptions were seemingly confirmed by the Post's obvious delight in publishing outraged responses to my columns. (At one point, I even asked for a raise on the grounds that I was filling up the Letters to the Editor too, but the editor chose to treat that suggestion as a joke.)
The responses to the column were, I must admit, something of a shock. After a lifetime of successfully fooling at least some of the people some of the time, I wondered how the readers had so quickly discovered my true self - angry, hate-filled, insufferably self-righteous.
Luckily I had been shocked before. Like the first time I saw a big poster proclaiming 'Stop the haredim,' and realized that it was talking about me. Soon I learned to dismiss the letters as expressions of anger at the Post for daring to give space to a viewpoint long considered beyond the pale of respectable opinion in Israel.
That attitude was given credence by the absence of a single letter questioning my facts or attempting to refute my logic, as opposed to spewing invective.
Harder to dismiss, however, were a number of private communications from old friends and acquaintances accusing me of doing a horrible job. In their view, I have failed completely to convey any sense of the beauty of a Torah lifestyle or the depth of Torah and have needlessly fueled the flames of anti-Orthodox hatred. Some went so far as to suggest that I am the unwitting dupe in a vast conspiracy to discredit Orthodox Jews.
Most of these correspondents are, like myself, ba'alei teshuva, and share with me a desire to convey something of what we have found to all the friends and family with whom we grew up and who have been denied access to their most precious possession: the Torah. If they thought I was failing, that was indeed something to worry about.
Needless to say, I had answers for them too. For one thing, they all live in America, and so are not subjected to a daily barrage of no-holds-barred venom directed at religious Jews and Judaism.
While the urge to give back as good as one gets is hardly noble and ought to be stifled, it is a lot easier for those out of the range of fire.
More to the point, I tried to assure myself that am reaching those still far away from any knowledge of Jewish life. At any given point, I reasoned, 95 percent of people are too inertia bound to seriously consider another view. My task is to reach the 5 percent of truth-seekers, and for them it is important to frame the issues as sharply as possible.
Still, in more reflective moments, when I pondered my friends' criticisms, I had to admit that many of my defenses had taken on an institutional hew - e.g., the Post did not hire me to write divrei Torah, and certainly not for the op-ed page. And I am not unmindful that my editor's eyes glaze over as soon as he reads the words 'our Sages.'
I also noticed that my thoughts during Shmoneh Esrai have been increasingly invaded by attention-grabbing opening paragraphs and lines that might make for good pull- outs.
I am not sufficiently confident that the Messiah will arrive this year to predict that future columns will not outrage many: The issues dividing our society generate too much emotional heat for that. But at least I hope to reclaim Shmoneh Esrai for its proper purpose and to stop worrying about whether I'm filling others' expectations, real or imagined.
And for all those who are not sure they know everything anyone could ever want to know about the haredi/religious world, here is an open invitation to join the Rosenblums for a Shabbat.
Related Topics: Biographical - Jonathan Rosenblum, Rosh Hashana & Yom Kippur
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