December 16, 2018

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