David Deutsch emails:
Dear Rabbi ________,
I’m writing this on behalf of Luke Ford, in the hopes that you will reconsider your recent decision to ban him from shul unless he places his blog under your hechsher. While I understand how frustrating it can at times be to deal with him, there are a number of issues both personal and professional which I hope you would take in mind, and have a little rachmones on him.
First of all, by way of introduction, my name is David Deutsch, and among other things, I’m both shomer Shabbos and the Humor Editor of Heeb Magazine. Like Luke, like every frum person working in journalism, I am regularly confronted by the challenge of whether or not I am violating halacha in what I do. We want to inform or entertain, but can we do that effectively if we can’t criticize or call attention to people’s misdeeds? Some days we go to bed feeling we’re on the side of the angels, some days we go to bed wishing we hadn’t written what we’d written, but you should not presume that these decisions are always made glibly or without due consideration, or that we don’t seek ways to perform our own teshuva. We hope that people take into consideration the full spectrum of our work, and treat us no differently than they would anyone else in another profession.
This raises another issue. To be sure, there is something very personal about putting your thoughts to paper (or screen) that makes what Luke does much harder to separate from who he is. Most shuls have a word for real estate owners who charge exorbitant rents, high-powered attorneys who represent crooks and crooked corporations, or CEOs who fire hundreds of workers and ship their jobs overseas—they call them “boardmembers.” Certainly, rabbis have a right and a responsibility to be interested in the behaviors of their mispallelim, but there should be a fair standard applied equally.
This approach only goes so far, of course. At the end of the day, Luke, like anyone, can’t simply rationalize his behavior by saying “other people are doing far worse.” So the question then is what is it what he’s done that’s so objectionable? Looking at the specific incident involving The Jewish Journal blog, I can certainly understand why you were upset with him. On the face of it, one can argue that he violated the privacy of a teenage girl. But let’s be fair here—the girl in question is a nascent journalist who, one presumes, hoped to use prurient interest in her “private” life to further her career. Arguably, once she decided to blog about her life, it really stopped being private. Still, she is a teenager, and teenagers should be cut a certain amount of slack. But is Luke really the one to blame here? While it may be said that she didn’t know better, or that anonymity should still be respected even on-line, it may also be argued that if anyone was at fault here, it was the grownups at The Jewish Journal, who sought to boost their own website by exploiting the not-so private life of the girl in question, and who should have known that on-line anonymity may be desired, but it certainly can’t be promised. Let’s face it—Luke has his good points, but he’s not exactly an NSA cryptographer. In figuring out who the blogger was, he was pretty much doing what anyone who actually pays attention to writing could have done. Was it something that he had to do? No. Was it newsworthy? In the sense that the The Jewish Journal created and hoped to exploit an interest in who the blog’s author was, yes. Should Luke have done it? That’s a much tougher call, but I don’t think that the approach you’ve suggested is the best way to answer it, or to guide him in the future.
Luke—like all of us—is definitely a work in progress, and he marches to the beat of his own drummer (and I would tell you that after having tried editing him once, I would very, very strongly warn against taking over a supervisory role over his writing). But let’s look at the balance of his work. A lot of what he writes about are things that frum Yidden should be writing about. I certainly don’t always agree with him, but I think that the Orthodox world suffers from a real lack of introspection, and it is a good thing for our body politic to have people like Luke who are willing to raise questions about the establishment, whether it’s rabbinical misconduct, skewed Federation priorities and policies, or just general hypocrisy and sanctimony. We do ourselves a real disservice if we tell our own voices to “shah, shtill” and leave the field of criticism to those who don’t necessarily have the best interests of the Torah world at heart. And say what you will about Luke, he does care about Torah and mitzvos. And indeed, the very fact that you would threaten to ban him from the shul shows that you know this, since it’s a threat that would be meaningless to anyone who didn’t care.
Rabbi, I don’t know you, and Luke, to his credit, wouldn’t give me either your name or the name of the shul. I don’t know what your relationship to Luke has been, so I don’t want to make any judgments. But in thinking about this situation, I was reminded of something that happened to me years ago. I was riding my bike, and was about to run a red light, when I realized there was an elderly woman at the corner, so I stopped to let her cross. Instead of doing so however, she started berating me. “Are you going to let me cross? Are you going to stop?” and so forth. My initial reaction was anger, since, after all, I had stopped. I realized at some point, though, that she wasn’t yelling at me; she was yelling at all the bikers who didn’t stop.
What’s the connection? I just want you to consider the possibility that your approach to Luke is guided perhaps by the type of frustration we all feel to the things we can’t change. We all want a more civil discourse in the public world, and have very little influence in creating it. We are constantly bombarded by people saying and publishing things that we’d probably be better off not knowing, and can’t do a thing about it. In Luke, you have someone who you can influence. And I think it’s worth taking the time to consider that fact that, while this blog isn’t just a hobby, it’s Luke’s parnosse, he used to have a blog that brought him a much more lucrative parnosse, and he gave that up. How many of your other mispallelim would be so willing to give up lucrative clients or accounts that were morally objectionable? We know that Luke actually does care about these things, or this issue wouldn’t have arisen in the first place. The question is “What’s the best way to convert that care into action?”
When that elderly woman yelled at me, it left me annoyed, not sympathetic or even particularly understanding. Had she taken those same moments to thank me for stopping, when so few bikers do, it would have given me a chizuk to do the right thing in the future. Luke doesn’t need to be berated, he needs chizuk. I beg you to reconsider your plan for Luke. I don’t think Luke needs censorship; I think he, like all of us, could use guidance. My real fear is that you’ll end up isolating him from the community, and rather than guiding him, you’ll instead leave him rudderless. Instead of an eitheror ultimatum, perhaps you could simply take the time each month to ask him what he’s working on, and if there’s anything he’d like to discuss. Luke will still have his community, and you’ll probably be able to be a positive influence on the really important matters, while saving yourself a huge hassle in dealing with actually editing Luke, a fate I wouldn’t wish on my worst enemy, much less a strange rabbi who I believe wants the same thing that I do.
At any rate, I hope this gives you some food for thought (does that need to be consumed in the sukkah?), and that, as we recently asked from Hashem, you will find it in your heart to cancel your own stern decree. Gut yontiff,