Thursday, December 30, 2004

Awesome New Orthodox Blog

I'm blown away by the quality of the rabbis recruited to blog on, including: Emmanuel Feldman, Jonathan Rosenblum, Yaakov Yosef Reinman, and Yitzchok Adlerstein.

These are men I've been reading for years.

Let good blogging drive out bad blogging (of which I've contributed more than my share).

Baltimore Jewish Times article here on the new blog.

The founder of the blog is rabbi Yaakov Menken of He's tied in with the Ner Israel crowd and is a staunch supporter (or, "not totally clueless" to give another perspective) of rabbis Eliezer Eisgrau, Matis Weinberg, and Mordecai Tendler.

Rabbi Menken writes about the Eisgrau case here:

Right now, there is a web site carrying extremely serious allegations about a member of our community, allegations which, if believed, would result in the immediate termination of that individual’s employment – or great damage to the company that employs him. The “evidence” against this person comes entirely from a blog (and another web page created by the blogger), which also contains a series of allegations against various rabbis and others who are “protecting” this individual.

Anyone who knows any of these people knows that the allegations are ludicrous. If the allegations had a hint of truth to them, then (given their nature) the rabbis in question would be first to tell him he must leave his job. The allegations were discredited long ago – but certain people don’t care. They would rather besmirch the innocent based upon “testimony” which changes substantially each time the story is re-told.

I posted in reply:

Dear rabbi Menken,

Congratulations on your new site and on the stellar credentials of your contributors.

There is no beautiful teaching that can not be abused. Judaism's laws and teachings about forbidden speech, about lashon hara, are not a shield from independent scrutiny, nor a club to beat away all inconvenient facts. The prophet Nathan had no problem saying to King David, thou art the man.

Judaism is a constellation of values and practices. You can't seize one interpretation of Jewish law (the Chafetz Chaim's teachings on lashon hara) and claim it trumps all other values.

For instance, when there is a life at stake, that value trumps all of Jewish law but for three laws.

The record of the Orthodox community in Baltimore regarding rabbinic abuse is not stellar. Some disinterested reporting (so long as it is accurate) may be a good thing for your community.

The links rabbi Menken refers to are here and here.

The evidence against Eisgrau was serious enough (coming from Eisgrau's daughter and others) that it initiated a lengthy police investigation. The detective who conducted the investigation has told people that he believed the charges had credibility but he encountered a stonewall of no cooperation from the Baltimore Orthodox community, and so was not able to do his job.

A couple of persons in Baltimore who investigated the charges independently were hounded and harassed by the Baltimore Orthodox establishment and cowered into silence (not because they believe Eisgrau is innocent).

One interesting thing I've encountered in the reactions of Orthodox rabbis to The Awareness Center and reporting on sex abuse is that many of them cheer on reporting on certain colleagues (such as Mordecai Gafni) but abhor it on other colleagues. And frequently it does not seem to be a matter of misreporting facts that bothers them. Rather they want scrutiny on fellow rabbis they view as a danger and little scrutiny on rabbis they view as good.

As Gary Rosenblatt laid bare in his reporting on rabbi Baruch Lanner, the Orthodox Union protected a child abuser for about three decades.

Certainly there is a dramatic difference in the facts on the ground in the Lanner, Gafni and Eisgrau cases. Lanner was convicted of crimes and imprisoned. Gafni confessed to statutory rape. As for Eisgrau, the case is more murky. Accusations were made by several persons, a detective investigated, but no charges were filed. Nobody wants to come forward by name to say that they were harmed by rabbi Eisgrau who retains the trust of Baltimore's Orthodox establishment.

Rabbi Menken on his new blog makes one of those cheap shots that immediately alerts me that somebody is not thinking but rather looking to make a cheap shot and score rhetorical points at the expense of truth and merit.
He writes: "...about the motivations of self-appointed watchdogs."
I reply:

Aside from appointments by God, whose appointing should we respect? Who appointed you to start this website? Whoever it is, does that, in and of itself, make your website and your writing more valuable? If The Los Angeles Times appoints a reporter to do a story, does that, in and of itself, make it superior to a story chosen by a freelancer? When Dan Rather and CBS News appointed itself to run a false story about George Bush and his medical records and military service, was that false story, because it was appointed by a corporate news entity, make it superior to the accurate stories by bloggers who appointed themselves to the story? Of course not.
If the great rabbis of our generation appointed you to set-up this website, it does not make any of your posts necessarily more important, more true, more in line with Torah values, than the rantings of somebody in California. A blog, an article, a book, a speech, a painting, have to stand on their own merit, and not on the merit of who appoints them.

Regarding Rabbi Menken's comment: "I would prefer (strongly) that we not discuss individuals."
Thankfully this attitude widespread in the Orthodox world and other circles does not permeate Judaism's sacred texts. From the Bible to the Talmud, Judaism's sacred texts are filled with discussions and descriptions of the intimate (and often bad) behavior of individuals. Jewish sacred text has no compunction about holding Jewish leaders accountable for not only their public decisions, but their private lives (certainly to the extent that their private behavior affects the public).
My fervent wish is that respectable Jewish weeklies were as lively as the Torah and numerous Talmudic discussions.
Shmarya tried to post to the new site:

If Rosenblatt had not broken the Lanner story, Lanner would still be abusing children. Further, Lanner had a history of abuse that went back almost 30 years, the OU had heard many complaints about him over that time period, but the OU did NOTHING until The Jewish Week published its story.

Rosenblatt held that story for a long time before publishing it. During that time, Lanner abused more children.

Perhaps Rosenblatt has decided that waiting for rabbis to police their own ranks is no longer justified. Indeed, the rather long comment you deleted contains Halakhic support for making that decision.

Perhaps you could address those Halakhic points. After all, they are right on topic.

I was not offended that Shmarya's post has yet to appear on the Cross-Currents site nor that one of my own was deleted for violating its protocols. Cross-currents is the home of various Orthodox rabbis and they have every right -- moral, Jewish and personal -- to moderate the comments. I (and Judaism) have no problem with certain forms of censorship, if one wants to call this that.

Rabbi Menken writes: "Luke - You want to criticize ideas? Public statements? Fine. But to publicize the wrongdoing of an individual without Torah sanction violates an explicit Torah prohibition. It’s not the Chofetz Chaim’s interpretation, it’s black-and-white. That’s being a self-appointed watchdog – arrogating for one’s self that which only a communal entity (in the Torah world, a Bais Din) can do. Anyone can critize an idea – even mine. But there are rules about impugning individuals. And thus that thread is closed."

There are rules but all rules have to be applied in a context and weighed against other rules and other values. Plenty of Bais Dins have been wrong (think about the number that protected rabbi Baruch Lanner and humiliated those who brought truthful and important allegations against him) and plenty of individuals have been right (think of those pushing to bring Baruch Lanner to justice). In the end, you can't take refuge in one Jewish law as interpreted by certain rabbis as an excuse to stand by while the blood of your neighbor is shed. In the end, you have to do what is right (which should be informed by sacred text which has stood the test of time, by community, by your conscience), even if your particular Bais Din does not approve. Only God is all good and all knowing, not a group of rabbis.

The Chafetz Chaim and his peers (the Orthodox rabbis who ran Europe's observant communities) condemned thousands of Jews to death by telling them to stay in Europe (in the approximately 50 years before the Holocaust). Observant Jews stayed (while more secular Jews left for America) and they were slaughtered by the Nazis.

The Orthodox rabbinic establishment was overwhelmingly opposed to the creation of the modern state of Israel. Without it, thousands more Jews, observant and otherwise, would have died in the past 50 years and probably another six million Jews would have ceased identifying as Jews.

Orthodox rabbinic establishments are fallible and they can not be allowed to be the sole determinant of right and wrong. Orthodox Jews can not skip the agonies of moral choice by seeking refuge in the rulings of particular rabbis (even though such rabbis should be consulted).