Two weeks ago, the story of a haredi mother of nine raped by three Romanian workers gripped the country. Because her husband is a kohen - or so the story went - the couple was required to divorce.
On the basis of that tale, first reported in Yediot Aharonot and subsequently disseminated widely, a number of women's organizations staged a noisy demonstration in front of the Tel Aviv Chief Rabbinate.
Only one little problem: The story was fabricated out of whole cloth by veteran Yediot reporter Moshe Suissa, the self-styled rabbi of Meretz. When the fraud became known, Suissa was forced to resign.
So all's well that ends well. The guilty have been punished, and the press has successfully regulated itself.
Well, not quite so fast. The press did not exactly cover itself in glory.
No Bernsteins and Woodwards uncovered the fraud. The mainstream press bought the story hook, line and sinker, though it was totally lacking in corroborating details.
Suissa's overactive imagination only came to light because Dudi Zilbershlag, a haredi public relations consultant, was so pained by the story that he talked with leading rabbinic figures in Jerusalem.
Believing that he had a halachic solution for the couple, he set out to contact them via Suissa. When Suissa, for obvious reasons, refused to help him, he contacted all the rabbinical courts in the Tel Aviv area. Only when he drew a complete blank did he realize that no such incident had occurred.
What could have led a journalist, safely ensconced at the country's largest paper, to concoct such a story? Surely Suissa knew that exposure could end his career. He obviously felt that the reward for breaking such a scoop would be very great and the chance of detection negligible.
On the reward side, he recognized that haredi-bashing is a favorite national sport, for which successful practitioners are rewarded with fame and fortune. As for the chance of getting caught, Suissa had good reason to believe that credulous colleagues, eager for juicy stories depicting haredim in a negative light, would not check too closely. And voila - the scoop that wasn't.
Suissa's scoop is not the first such forgery to have been revealed, and one can only wonder how many other such cases have gone undetected. The authors of such fables follow in a ignoble lineage from the Jewish apostates of the Middle Ages who so often instigated disputations between Jews and Christians and supplied the Church with choice quotes from the Talmud ripped out of context.
THE lazy follow-up by other papers must certainly have encouraged Suissa's confidence that he would get away with it. That sloppiness extended to treatment of the relevant Halacha as well. The news item in this paper, for example, was replete with halachic errors, including the ridiculous suggestion that the Halacha imputes culpability to the rape victim. The high priest, for instance, is forbidden to marry a widow - and not because we suspect she murdered her first husband.
The Post article went on to quote various feminists to the effect that only the callousness of the rabbis involved prevented them from finding a solution to the problem. Now, it is clearly ridiculous to discuss how imaginary rabbis in a made-up case should have acted differently. But Dudi Zilbershlag's initiative itself shows how eager the rabbis always are to mitigate individual suffering.
Rabbi Moshe Feinstein, the leading recent halachic authority, provides in his published responsa a solution for many such cases that does not vitiate the Halacha.
The damage done by the Yediot story is not removed by an apology buried on page 19. Readers of The Washington Post and Detroit News who read the denunciation of the barbarity of the Halacha by the president of Na'amat will never know that the case was fabricated.
A powerful story or visual image - like the faked PLO photo of a little girl with her arms blown off from the 1982 Operation Peace for Galilee - remains even after exposed as false. Long after memory of Suissa's fraud has faded, the impression of the cruel Halacha will remain.
We have repeatedly seen how lies told about religious Jews develop a powerful momentum of their own. Last year, The Los Angeles Times carried the headline, 'Non-Orthodox not Jews, rabbis group to claim." And to this day, leading American newspapers continue to cite that view as an authentic expression of Halacha, even though no Orthodox rabbi or group ever made any such statement - a point made by Orthodox spokesmen until they are blue in the face. The patent falsehood contained in the headline proved too useful in the Jewish religious wars for proponents to stop peddling it.
When I heard that the Yediot story was a fabrication, I felt a degree of relief and joy that I have not known in a long time - something akin to awakening from a terrible nightmare and realizing that it was only a dream.