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Jewish law versus Jewish journalism


Can traditional Jewish law sanction journalism? Can journalism be practiced by people who look to halachah as their guide for daily living?

At first, these seem like absurd questions. The profession of journalism is entirely about the public sharing of information — the good, the bad and the ugly. Halachah (Jewish law), on the other hand, demands that we be extremely circumspect about sharing information about others, even positive information.

Halachah contains broad prohibitions against being a talebearer. “Do not go about as a talebearer among your people,” reads the verse in Leviticus. Furthermore, Jewish law forbids lashon harah — literally, evil speech, or speaking badly of others. That alone would seem to severely limit the range of what a contemporary journalist could write.

So the question as to whether journalism — in particular investigative journalism within the Jewish community — can be practiced within the bounds of halachah seems almost nonsensical. On the face of it, the answer is: Of course not.

Yet journalism thrives in almost all Jewish communities, including, of course, this one. And how would one tell talented Jewish journalists that their passion for journalism and their passion for Judaism were simply incompatible? That would not only cast aspersions upon all of the Jewish journalists in the field, but it would present halachah as a system of thought and law that has nothing to say about one of the central institutions in our lives, one of the pillars of democratic, free society.

Yet the task of meshing journalism and Jewish law is anything but simple.

Consider the Lanner case. In 2000, The New York Jewish Week published a series of landmark reports on the abuse of Jewish students by their headmaster, Rabbi Baruch Lanner. Had journalists abided by what was then regarded as the correct interpretation of Jewish law, the reporters and editors would have been obligated to keep the information and the lurid details out of the public eye for as long as possible, instead sharing it only with those individuals who exerted direct influence over Lanner. But many of those individuals, we later learned, were unwilling or unable to stop his abuse. The decision of The New York Jewish Week to publish the story, and to reject the halachic interpretation that regarded public exposure as a last resort to be exercised only when all else has failed, not only stopped the abuse, it single-handedly placed the issue of sexual abuse in school and youth group settings squarely into the communal conversation, leading to far-reaching systemic change in how the community thinks and acts.

The task of meshing journalism and Jewish law is anything but simple.

“Theoretically, one should not want to try people in the newspaper,” said Rabbi Yosef Blau, who sat on the special commission that investigated the Lanner case. “But in a practical sense, in the present time, the newspapers have proven to be a very effective tool … in forcing the community to confront the issues, rather than to stay in denial.”

Unfortunately, events over the past decade have demonstrated the unimpeachable truth of Blau’s words time and time again. Over the past 30 years, the Jewish Journal has published numerous stories that exposed the untoward acts of rabbis, leaders and institutions — stories that caused shame and grief at the time, but which, like the Lanner story, resulted in positive change, or at least greater awareness.

But it is clearly insufficient to tell Jewish journalists that, like Pinchas of old, their work requires them to violate halachic norms in the moment, and to then hope that the significance of their reporting ultimately secures them a pardon. And, in truth, none of us should accept the conclusion that halachah has no means of prescriptively affirming the value of a profession that we intuitively understand to be vital to maintaining the ethical fortitude of our community.

More recently, scholars such as Rabbi Aryeh Klapper, the dean of the Center for Modern Torah Leadership, have been endeavoring to articulate a more workable and cogent way to speak about the relationship between halachah and journalism. Klapper demonstrates that halachah maintains different expectations for individuals on the one hand, and public systems that support the communal welfare on the other. Individuals are expected to make a precise cost-benefit analysis in every single instance in which their actions will cause harm to another person, and are typically required to err on the side of inaction. But systems or institutions that the community counts on to preserve the common good are granted more leeway. They are required to have and to enforce a code of ethics anchored in halachic imperatives and values, but the individuals working within that system are free — indeed are required — to pursue the communal interest as their highest priority.

Klapper includes responsible, ethical journalism as falling solidly within the category of systems that the community needs and desires, so that the community’s interests are served. As long as the journalistic organ has a proper code of ethics, its writers and reporters can and must do their work. Klapper’s conceptual breakthrough is premised on the idea that while journalism may not have existed when classical halachah was formulated, this does not at all mean that it cannot be understood and appreciated in halachic categories, and practiced by people who are Jewish journalists in the finest sense of both words.

None of this is to say that there aren’t legitimate dilemmas and potential pitfalls aplenty. The temptation to abuse the power of the pen is ever-present and no less irresistible than any other pleasurable vice. And this is precisely why it is so important that we have meaningful and workable halachic frameworks for journalism, and never create the impression that the twain shall never meet.

Rabbi Yosef Kanefsky is senior rabbi at B’nai David Judea, an Orthodox congregation in Los Angeles. He contributes to the blog Morethodoxy at jewishjournal.com.

Appreciating the Tension: Parashat Bo (Exodus 10:1-13:16)


Nature abhors a vacuum. And so do biblical stories.

If we take a minute to read the story of the Exodus not from our point of view — that of the liberated

victims — but from the objective view of an outside mediator, we will likely find ourselves asking the following questions: Did it really have to end this way? Did the story really have to climax in violence? Wasn’t Pharaoh slowly but steadily coming around to Moshe’s position? Wasn’t a negotiated settlement still plausible?

The biblical narrative certainly seems to suggest so. Remember where the parties began: In response to Moshe’s request for a three-day religious furlough for the people, Pharaoh responds, “Who is God that I should hear his voice?! I do not know God!” But by the time the frogs are wreaking havoc in Egypt, Pharaoh petitions Moshe, “Pray to God so that He may remove the frogs, and I will send the nation out, and they may worship God.” Pharaoh now acknowledges the power of God, and recognizes Israel as a nation deserving at least a modicum of dignity. When the frogs actually disappear, Pharaoh’s offer disappears with it. Pharaoh’s pride and ego run deep after all. Yet an objective mediator would note the progress in the recalcitrant party’s position — progress that could be built upon.

And very shortly thereafter, major positive changes on the ground indeed begin to occur. Ibn Ezra, basing himself on a talmudic teaching, writes that following the fourth plague, Pharaoh actually began to ease the burden of slavery. Even more dramatic is the comment of the 19th century sage Netziv, who notices that Pharaoh refers to Israel as “Israel,” rather than “the nation,” following the plague of hail, signaling a paradigm shift with far-reaching implications. In Netziv’s words, “after the plague of hail Pharaoh lifted the bondage altogether [!]. He only refused to send them out, intending rather to treat them with honor [in Egypt]” (Netziv’s commentary to 9:35). Pharaoh was far along a trajectory heading unmistakably toward the ultimate release of Israel — all without a single drop of Egyptian blood being shed.

As we move into the ninth and 10th plagues, Pharaoh, already having lifted the bondage, comes closer to fully granting the three-day religious furlough in the desert, which is all that Moshe had ever explicitly asked for. “Go and worship God. Only leave your flock here. You may take your children as well.”

How much distance is there now between the two positions? A mediator would think that this is the moment for God and Israel to recognize how far things have come, and even to accept — for now — the offer being made. And then, after returning from three days in the desert, at least giving moral suasion (backed up by an obviously big stick) a shot, and perhaps securing the ultimate goal of complete freedom without ever needing to actually kill any Egyptians at all.

In fact, this is the kind of approach that would align much more closely with the commands that God Himself would later issue to us, and the talmudic legal tradition that would derive from them. We are instructed in great detail concerning the rejection of vengeance taking, the value of compromise, the conduct of warfare so as to inflict minimal damage on noncombatants. We are even commanded to “not abhor the Egyptian, for we were strangers in his land.” The violent climax of the Exodus story stands in stark contrast with our normative legal tradition, and to read the story in a vacuum, without simultaneously consulting our legal tradition, would result in a severe disfigurement of Torah. The inherent tension must be a vital part of our learning.

Clearly, God had a wider agenda in Egypt. Beyond securing Israel’s freedom — a goal that might eventually have been attained even without the slaying of Egypt’s firstborn — God was out to establish, once and for all, that no man, no matter how powerful, is a god. That no people, no matter how weak, should be abused. That no voice, no matter how commanding, ought be heeded when it opposes the voice of God. This was a unique historical moment, requiring, in God’s judgment, a unique, spectacular and forceful manifestation of power. And the firstborn of Egypt were caught in the crosshairs.

Yet, the tension between the story and the law is thick. The vital questions as to how to balance basic legal values and unique historical needs, how to negotiate the tension between normative interpersonal laws and the pressing urgency of a particular moment, are timeless questions, and they must occupy a central place in our learning and thinking.

Biblical stories abhor a vacuum.

Yosef Kanefsky is senior rabbi at B’nai David-Judea (bnaidavid.com), a Modern Orthodox congregation in the Pico-Robertson neighborhood.

Work of Your Hands


When every last acacia-wood board had been fashioned, every last curtain woven and every single vessel of gold or copper produced, Moshe stood in awe of the people’s accomplishment. “And Moshe saw all the work, and, behold, they had done it! As the Lord had commanded, even so had they done it” (Exodus 39:43). After so many months of effort, the components of the Tabernacle were now complete. It was time for celebration.

Or was it? The people all actually knew in their hearts that in an essential way, the Tabernacle was still very far from being complete. Thus far, they had merely completed the items that would form the shell of a Tabernacle. The essence of it, the component that would render their project a success, was not only still absent, but was outside of their ability to produce. The skeptics and the scoffers among the people were still confident in their opinion. For weeks they had been challenging their fellow Israelites saying, “Do you seriously think that the Divine Presence will rest on the work of [Moshe] the son of Amram?” (Exodus Rabba 52:2). Whether or not the Divine Presence would indeed manifest upon and within the objects they had fashioned was still an open question. It was also the only question that really mattered.

To fully appreciate how high the stakes were, it’s necessary to realize that the scoffers were not merely challenging Moshe’s particular abilities as a spiritual architect. They were challenging the very premise of the entire religious endeavor, namely that human beings can produce works that matter to God. They were ultimately ridiculing the whole notion that the institutions we build, the deeds we perform or the families we raise can serve as toeholds for the Divine Presence in this world. Anything created by human hands, the scoffers believed, was too fleeting, too momentary, just plain too small to capture the interest of God. And any human belief to the contrary was the product of the most grandiose of self-delusions.

Firm in his faith, Moshe now blessed the people. According to the Midrash, he said to them, “May it be God’s will that He rest His presence on the works of your hands. May the grace of God be upon us, and may He establish the work of our hands.”

Moshe engaged his critics’ argument directly. Soon, when the component pieces of the Tabernacle would be put together and the Tablets of the Law would lie in the ark in the Holy of Holies, the dispute would be settled. Soon, the cloud of God’s glory would descend, and His voice would be heard. Meanwhile though, Moshe prayed, and the nation waited and hoped.

Against the backdrop of the skepticism that attended that building of the Tabernacle, we can appreciate in a new light God’s command that we build it. “They shall make for me a holy place, and I will dwell in their midst” was not merely a directive to that one particular generation that was journeying through the Sinai Desert. It was God’s fundamental and timeless assertion that things like this are indeed possible. That despite the vastness that separates God and humankind, the works of mortals can serve as a fitting throne for the presence of God. And not only that, but it is God himself who desires to be thus enthroned. “And they shall know that I am the Lord their God who took them out of Egypt so that I might dwell among them.” As Nachmanidies comments on this verse, the dwelling of the Divine Presence among Israel is not only the response to our need; it is the response to God’s need, as well.

Our Sages held up the building of the Tabernacle as the paradigm for all human labor. It is the metaphor that we are to bring to all of our creative endeavors, and most specifically, to the places where we do our work. Each time we make a workplace decision to value integrity over the bottom line, we build a tabernacle for God. Whenever, through our work, we extend the kind of love we wish for ourselves to a client, or an employee, or a co-worker, we cause God’s presence to become manifest. When in the course of our work we grant the benefit of the doubt, vanquish anger and strive to speak the whole truth, we satisfy God’s need to dwell among His creations.

Moshe’s prayer was, as we know, soon answered. And the Children of Israel learned a lesson for the ages. It is of course not coincidental that our very first prayer of the workweek — the one we recite even before Havdalah — is the very same: “May the grace of God be upon us, and may He establish the work of our hands.” May our workplace be a dwelling place for God. l

Yosef Kanefsky is senior rabbi at B’nai David-Judea (bnaidavid.com), a Modern Orthodox congregation in the Pico-Robertson neighborhood.

Rabbis’ Ethics Initiative Evokes Cheers, Criticism


Rabbis’ Ethics Initiative Evokes Cheers, Criticism

 

Errol Fine, owner of Pat’s Restaurant and Catering, places the fair treatment of his employees high on his list of business priorities. In fact, he hopes soon to put a sign in the window of his popular Pico Boulevard establishment telling his customers as much.

Pat’s could become one of the first local businesses to sign onto a new initiative calling for ethical labor practices in Jewish workplaces in Los Angeles. Launched early this month, Peulat Sachir (“the worker’s wage”) is the brainchild of a group of local Modern Orthodox rabbis hoping to renew Jewish commitment to upholding labor laws in the wake of several national scandals during the past year.

“This initiative will make our community holier and more ethical, and will raise the level of commitment to labor laws and to Jewish law,” said Rabbi Yosef Kanefsky of B’nai David-Judea Congregation. “It’s about putting the importance of complying with labor law on the radar of this religious community.”

Rabbis and attorneys involved in the movement are asking business owners to sign a statement pledging to treat employees according to state and federal labor laws. The “covenant” document, offered at no cost, focuses on six areas: minimum wage, overtime payment, workers compensation insurance, meal and rest periods, family and personal leave, and anti-discrimination policy.

Employers wishing to take part will agree to open their books to trained volunteers who will verify compliance with the laws in question. Business owners also will agree to undergo biannual site checks and attend seminars on employer obligations and employee rights.

In exchange, leaders of the initiative will encourage patronage of businesses involved and give them priority when choosing vendors for synagogue events.

Establishments with the Peulat Sachir pledge in their windows might also gain a competitive edge among consumers who care about labor issues, said Los Angeles labor attorney Craig Ackermann — the same way stores that promote a green image attract environmentally conscious shoppers.

The rabbis spearheading the movement — who also include Rabbi Daniel Korobkin of Kehillat Yavneh, Rabbi Elazar Muskin of Young Israel of Century City and Rabbi Steven Weil of Beth Jacob — are first targeting businesses in the Pico-Robertson area that they believe are already in compliance.

“For them, it will be a no-brainer,” Kanefsky said. “All they will be doing is receiving public acclamation for doing what they have always done. Businesses will have everything to gain and nothing to lose.”

A Jewish Issue?

But Peulat Sachir organizers are preparing for a wave of criticism nonetheless. Much of the debate over the initiative revolves around one question: Is labor ethics a Jewish issue?

Fine, the owner of Pat’s Restaurant and Catering, thinks it is.

“Rabbis should get involved in more than kashrut,” he said. “I think [the initiative] is important — the community would know that the businesses they support are cognizant of correct business practices.”

But businesses are mandated to uphold labor laws anyway, said Gagy Shagalow, owner of Munchies on Pico Boulevard. An initiative led by religious leaders would have no added benefit to the community, he said.

“This is up to the law — it’s not up to the rabbanim to get involved in legal issues,” Shagalow said. “Either you follow the law or you don’t. The state takes care of businesses that don’t follow the law. It’s not a Jewish issue.”

Muskin and the other rabbis involved disagree. They say Judaism should not be confined to the synagogue, and point out that traditional Jewish law extends to marketplace regulation.

Choshen Mishpat, a text that outlines business ethics, is a heavily studied section of halachah (Jewish law), Muskin said. Members of the Jewish community are required to obey the “laws of the land” (Choshen Mishpat, 369:11), and the Torah commands employers to pay workers promptly and accurately because their lives depend on it (Deuteronomy 24:15).

“We have an obligation, as Jews, to be a light unto the nations and to set an example of ethical and moral behavior in all walks of life,” Korobkin said. “We’re supposed to be as observant in our offices and our homes as we are in our synagogues. For an observant Jew, his observance should be manifest in the way that he runs his business — not just in whether or not he wears a kippah or eats kosher food.”

Restoring Communal Values

The initiative was conceived in October in response to allegations of routine worker mistreatment at the country’s largest kosher meatpacking plant last spring, and has taken on new significance since Wall Street money manager Bernard Madoff’s December arrest on charges of running a $50 billion investment fraud.

News of rampant labor violations at the AgriProcessors slaughterhouse in Postville, Iowa — including more than 9,000 child labor charges and workers’ claims of long hours, shorted pay and sexual harassment — shook the community in the wake of a federal immigration raid on the plant last May. Former manager Sholom Rubashkin was arrested Oct. 30, 2008, on allegations of knowingly hiring undocumented workers and covering up their illegal status with false identification.

“There were a number of stories in the news where Jews were portrayed in a bad light that I felt we, as a community, needed to address,” Korobkin said.

As kosher consumers reeled, the rabbis sought to counter the bad press with an educational initiative to bring ethical standards back to the forefront of community consciousness.

Bringing on labor lawyers and lay business leaders to flesh out the plan, the group first pursued the idea of certifying that local businesses were in compliance with labor laws through a seal of approval. But a seal might imply that they were providing rabbinic supervision over businesses, the group felt, which they lacked the resources to do. Also, if the initiative grew beyond the Jewish community, the rabbis didn’t want restaurant patrons to confuse a certificate of kosher business practices with one of kosher food.

Settling on a covenant-style agreement instead, the rabbis decided they would ask employers to sign a voluntary statement of intent to uphold labor laws, which the group would back through spot checks of participating businesses.

The nonprofit Bema’aglei Tzedek launched a similar measure in Israel in 2004 that recognizes restaurants pledging to treat its cooks and servers by ethical labor standards. That program has now grown to more than 300 restaurants.

In Los Angeles, the rabbis felt starting small and locally would be an effective way to bring the lessons of AgriProcessors home.

“This would be something that people would literally see on a daily basis, and they would have to make choices on a daily basis,” Kanefsky said. “It’s very real and very immediate; it’s not in Iowa — it’s on Pico Boulevard.”

Not a Witch Hunt

Businesses that apply for the covenant and are found to be in violation of labor laws, however, won’t be penalized, the rabbis say.

“We are not here to condemn, or to single out, or to expose any businesses that are not in compliance,” Korobkin said. “We are just here to heap praise and promotion on businesses that are.”

Peulat Sachir representatives will be bound by a confidentiality clause in which they agree not to publicize what they find on-site, said Ackermann, the labor lawyer who helped craft the initiative. “[Employers] might be concerned about, ‘Are you going to hand this over to the labor commissioner?’ That’s not going to happen,” he said.

In some cases, he added, business owners might simply be unaware of certain labor laws — such as that workers in California are entitled to a 30-minute meal break on shifts longer than five hours, or that employees on the clock for more than eight hours must be paid 1 1/2 times their regular rate in overtime.

At businesses found to be lagging, owners might have to spend a bit more to shore up old policies. Employers who feel they can’t afford to make changes in the current economic climate won’t be forced to sign on, Korobkin said. “Any business that feels that it’s not economically feasible to sign onto the covenant won’t be pressured to do so.”

Still, Ackermann said, “labor laws are not voluntary to begin with” and businesses that disregard them leave themselves open to government investigation and penalties.

The initiative does not address the issue of undocumented workers, which Ackermann said is “too complicated, too controversial” for such a small group. But the wage and break laws outlined in the covenant apply to documented and undocumented workers alike.

Another concern is that businesses might see the initiative as an “unnecessary headache” that might be too intrusive or time-consuming. Site testers will visit each business twice a year to check a random sampling of employee records — a process that might take, at most, an hour or two, Ackermann said. The site testers will be labor lawyers and trained volunteers, similar to the mashgiachs who monitor the kosher status of restaurants.

Any business with employees is eligible for the covenant, including synagogues, schools, restaurants, supermarkets, medical practices and dry cleaners.

The ultimate goal is not to regulate businesses, Korobkin said, but rather to boost the profile of labor laws on the Jewish communal agenda: “Our whole objective is to raise awareness in the community that these things are important to Jews.”

For more information, call Rabbi Yosef Kanefsky at (310) 276-9269, or e-mail