In defense of a friend
by Jonathan Rosenblum
June 14, 2002
Anyone who undertakes to defend the Torah community, especially in the general press, better be possessed of a thick skin. I know from personal experience.
When I first started writing a weekly column for the Jerusalem Post five years ago, the Post was filled every week with so many letters that I was able to ask for a raise on the grounds that not only was I filling up my column every week, but also the letters to the editor.
One column trying to explain why my son would not be going into the Israel Defense Forces on his eighteenth birthday drew angry letters in the Post for over six months (many of them from shomrei mitzvos with sons in yeshivot hesder) -- surely some kind of record for irritating people in print. One striking thing about the correspondents was how few ever responded to the arguments, preferring to focus on the obvious defects in my character and those of the chareidi community.
Of late, those incensed by my columns have wearied. Perhaps they learned that few things delight the publisher of a newspaper more than controversy, and the more they wrote and cancelled their subscriptions, the more convinced the publisher became that my column sells papers.
This column, however, is not about me, but rather my friend and colleague Rabbi Avi Shafran, himself no stranger to controversy or any less in need of a thick skin.
Over the past decade, no person has more ably defended the Torah and the community of those who study and honor it than Rabbi Shafran. More important, he has found an idiom to teach Torah to a non-observant and Jewishly unlearned audience through op-ed pieces on modern life and events. In doing so, he continues his more than a decade in chinuch as a yeshiva rebbe.
His serious, yet affable, personality has enabled him to establish good relations with a wide variety of journalists, and to use those relationships to foster a more positive and accurate picture of Torah Jews in the mainstream press. An enthusiastic piece in the New York Times last year describing a major yeshiva gedolah was the result of the close relations that Rabbi Shafran forged over the years with The New York Times former religions correspondent Gustav Niebuhr.
More than a year ago, Rabbi Shafran wrote a piece in Moment, which the editors of the magazine entitled ``The Conservative Lie" out of a desire to stir controversy (Rabbi Shafran’s far less inflammatory title, addressed to members of the Conservative Movement, was ``Time to Come Home.")
In that article, Rabbi Shafran made two points, supported by an abundance of evidence. The first was that the Conservative movement can by no stretch of the imagination be called halachic because its ``legal" standards are outcome-determined, with an eye to providing retroactive justification for the practices of the laity. Supra-halachic principles, citations to modernity, and policy considerations result in responsa diametrically opposed to the codified halacha, such as the decision to permit driving to synagogue on Shabbat.
Already in 1955, Marshall Skare, the leading sociologist of the movement, wrote, ``Conservative rabbis now recognize that they are not making decisions or writing responsa, but merely taking a poll of their membership."
Rabbi Shafran’s second point was that the Conservative movement has failed to instill its followers with a sense of Halacha as a binding system of law. In support, he cited the Conservative movement’s own statistics on the very low level of observance of the most basic mitzvos by its members.
The article created an explosion. The editors of Moment announced that no article had ever provoked such a response, either in volume or heat.
Both Rabbi Shafran’s points lend themselves to debate and intellectual argument. Theoretically, if not in fact, there might be evidence that could refute or mitigate Rabbi Shafran’s points. Yet those who took violent exception to Rabbi Shafran’s article made little attempt to refute his arguments. Rather they confined themselves to ad hominem attacks on the author, whom they denounced as a nasty hater of Jews and a fundamentalist troglodyte.
Interestingly, both of Rabbi Shafran’s major points had been made previously in Commentary magazine by Clifford Librach, in an article entitled, ``Does Conservative Judaism Have a Future?" Librach, a Reform clergyman, argued that there was so little difference between Conservative and Reform, despite the latter’s explicit rejection of the idea of a binding halacha.
In the next issue of Commentary, a handful of letter writers attempted to refute Librach’s thesis of Conservative’s rapid slide ``away from the norms of law and tradition, according to an agenda increasingly dictated by an unlearned laity. . ." None called him a hater of Jews or resorted to ad hominem attacks.
The difference in the response to the two articles provided unwitting proof of the thesis that Reform and Conservative are on the same side of the fence, with Torah Judaism on the other. Thus Librach was treated by Conservative leaders with respect, as one of their own, while Rabbi Shafran was treated with opprobrium.
No charge could have been more unjust than that of being a hater of Jews. In fact, I can think of no one who better personifies ahavas Yisrael than Rabbi Shafran. He once worked alone under a blazing sun to place the final earth over a Reform Jew with whom he was friendly rather than leave the task to an earthmover. His book, "Migrant Soul,"describes his long relationship with an intermarried, interracial couple, who eventually became fully shomer Torah u’mitzvos.
Once reading a letter in a Reform publication from an 11-year-old girl wondering why the Orthodox hate her, he called the girl personally on the phone to disabuse her of that idea. (Unsuccessfully, as it happens, as her rabbis had taught her the opposite.) When a pluralistic high school near Philadelphia made it a class project to blast his article in Moment, he wrote offering to come speak to them. The students were eager, but the administrators vetoed the idea.
NOW Rabbi Shafran has once again found himself at the eye of a storm. For more than a month, the letters to the editor pages of a mass circulation Jewish publication have been filled with letters concerning the non-participation of Agudath Israel of America in the Washington D.C. rally on behalf of Israel. Much of that correspondence has focused on Rabbi Shafran, who in his role as director of public relations for Agudath Israel was called upon to explain the policy enunciated by the Moetzes Gedolei HaTorah.
True, that correspondence bears little relations to the correspondence generated by the Moment piece. Little of the voluminous correspondence could be classified as personal or ad hominem in nature. But the fact that most of the correspondents are shomrei mitzvos makes their attacks more hurtful. No matter how hardened one becomes, it is never a pleasant experience to find one’s name bandied about week after week, especially when one is described in ways very far from reality.
Knowing Rabbi Shafran, I’m sure that he bears absolutely no ill-will to any of those who have pilloried him. He knows that those who have been critical of him, and through him of Agudath Israel, write with such vehemence because of their tremendous pain over the plight of their Jewish brethren in Eretz Yisrael.
One of the qualities that makes Rabbi Shafran such an effective spokesman, as well as such a good friend, is his ability to try to understand other points of view, and his innate respect for his fellow Jews. A major reason that he finds himself today at the center of controversy is that rather than contenting himself with a press statement setting forth Agudath Israel’s position he undertook to personally answer the numerous communications to Agudath Israel over the issue. (Some of that private correspondence was subsequently made public.) Rabbi Shafran’s effort to personally answer critics of Agudath Israel is typical of his respect for other Jews and his desire to engage them in dialogue.
When Rabbi Shafran wrote to a correspondent that he could appreciate his position on participation in the Washington rally, and asked only that others appreciate that Agudath Israel’s position on the rally did not in any way reflect a lesser concern with the welfare and safety of the Jews of Israel, he was not resorting to a rhetorical device, but expressing his deep belief in the mutual respect required between Torah Jews of all stripes.
More, Rabbi Shafran knows that neither he nor Agudath Israel has any cause to be embarrassed about its commitment to fellow Jews. That commitment was expressed in the 50,000-person Tehillim gathering, sponsored by Agudath Israel in conjunction with other major Orthodox groups. One is entitled to believe that the Washington rally was a necessary act of histadlus, as did thousands of Agudath Israel members who went to Washington D.C. with the full support of their individual poskim. But to think that the message delivered to President Bush has more impact on Israel’s fate than heartfelt Tehillim directed to the Ribbono Shel Olam, comes dangerously close to relying on ``chariots and horses."
Agudath Israel minyanim recite Tehillim every day for the Jews of Israel, and anyone who has ever davened in an Agudah shul knows how intensely involved the members are in events in Israel. Agudath Israel members send their children to study in Israel and visit themselves, even in the worst of times, in greater numbers than any other group.
And Rabbi Shafran himself has been an effective advocate on behalf of Israel, in keeping with the policy of unbroken support that Agudath Israel has always shown for the state of Israel in the halls of power. He has written frequently protesting media coverage of events in Israel, and maintains a large mailing list of volunteers who are often encouraged to write to correct distorted reporting about Israel.
One can disagree with this statement or that by Rabbi Shafran, as he would be the first to admit, but Klal Yisrael would be immeasurably impoverished without his eloquent and passionate pen.
Related Topics: Pluralism
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