Don't take columnists too seriously
by Jonathan Rosenblum
May 15, 2004
While on a recent trip abroad, a friend asked me to pick up two cartons of cigarettes for him at the duty-free shop. I was reluctant on two accounts. My first concern was the prohibition on placing a stumbling-block before the blind. The second was that I have always considered being seen with a cigarette in one’s mouth as tantamount to an admission of idiocy, and had no desire to place myself in that category.
Nevertheless, I owe this friend a huge debt of hakaros hatov, and knew that my failure to purchase the cigarettes would not lead him to stop smoking but only cost him more. So I swallowed my pride and went to the duty-free shop.
It has been a long time since I even saw a carton of cigarettes, and I must confess to being shocked by the warnings that cigarette manufacturers are forced to print in huge block letters all over their product: SMOKERS DIE YOUNGER.
It occurred to me that a similar warning – albeit in much smaller type and far less dramatic language – should perhaps accompany columns such as this one. That warning might read: The appearance of an opinion column in a reputable magazine does not entitle the reader to turn off his or her mind and accept the opinions expressed herein as holy writ.
Just because columnists have achieved a minimal degree of literacy and express their opinions with great confidence is no excuse for readers to abandon their critical faculties. Most columnists write at least once a week, and many of us far more frequently. That means we have to fill up a certain amount of space according to a pace dictated not by our creative juices but by external demands.
Admittedly, pressure can be a great stimulant to one’s thought processes – the halachic concept of migu is predicated on the assumption that a party to a lawsuit will think of his best claim under pressure. But deadlines do not always allow for the calm reflection that many issues need.
Besides deadlines, columnists operate under the additional pressure of having to say something fresh and original. But chiddushim cannot be produced on demand, and the effort to do so distorts the truth. Perhaps that is what Reb Chaim Brisker meant when he said that the best chiddush is to say a straight and clear pshat in the Gemara.
The process of opinion writing, then, itself requires readers to read with their skepticism intact. Too frequently, readers of religious magazines or newspapers treat columnists as if they were mouthpieces for the gedolei hador, and therefore attribute to their words oracular status.
During my nearly three years editing the English Yated Ne'eman, for instance, I was frequently asked how many times a week I met with HaRav Schach, ztz"l. I barely had the heart to tell those who asked that during that period I only met HaRav Schach twice, each time for no more than a few minutes. The 150 editorials written in that period were vetted by much younger talmidei chachamim, who would hardly have been household names to most of our readers.
The confidence with which columnists tend to express their opinions should not be confused with the value of those opinions. I will never forget the air of authority with which Jerusalem Report editor Hirsch Goodman wrote after the Camp David summit that peace with the Palestinians was a done deal with only a few details to be worked out. The intricate web of social, economic and political contacts formed since Oslo, he opined, could never be torn asunder. By the time the cover date of that issue of Jerusalem Report rolled around, Yasir Arafat had already launched the war on Israel now in its fourth year. Only Goodman’s confident prediction that America would never attack Iraq in 1992, hours before the bombs started raining down on Baghdad, topped that.
Even if most of us cannot top the hapless Goodman as a prognosticator, we have all had our moments of wiping the egg from our faces. Recently, I predicted that President Bush could not or would not offer Sharon much of value in return for the Gaza withdrawal. By the time that column appeared the next day, the front-page headline trumpeted Sharon’s triumphal press conference with President Bush.
Readers attribute more authority to the written word than they should. I claim, for instance, no expertise in the proper from of Torah chinuch beyond that gained supervising that of seven sons. In a recent column, I described the phenomenal bekius in nine tractates that I witnessed among the students in a particular yeshiva. I cited their achievement as proof of the untapped mental power that we each possess, as well as an example of the importance of setting ambitious goals and using every available minute.
But many readers treated the column as a recommendation of that particular yeshiva for their sons, and called for the name and telephone number of the yeshiva. I had a similar experience after another recent column describing the enthusiasm and yedios of students in a particular cheder. The description was fully accurate. But again, I am not the address to be recommending a particular style of cheder or to be able to evaluate the long-range pluses and minuses of a particular form of Torah chinuch.
In short, readers should take what they read with a healthy grain of salt. Neither this columnist nor any other necessarily knows more than you do, even if he or she expresses him or herself more felicitously. At most, we are providing food for thought, not the final psak.
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