Covid-19 “Frum Media” Glossary

I will say it at the outset so that everyone knows where I stand. One of my pet peeves is irresponsible people who call themselves “frum media” and, due to a combination of sheer ignorance and a desire to bait people to click, cause irreparable damage to Hashem and His people. Most are online “news” sites and blogs, both in English and in Hebrew, but they periodically exist in print media, as well.

I am reminded of a famous Yiddish song, composed by Rav Ephraim Wachsman, wherein he warns against getting mixed up by what ostensibly looks good on the outside but is really bad and vice versa. Here is one line from the song just as an example: “Bitter iz ah krummeh sevarah un zees iz ah kezayis maror!”

There are both cardinal and secondary offenders in this area. Cardinal offenders shamelessly post anything that will bring people to their website, regardless of whether it is true or false, wrong or right. They generally also bandy about righteous-sounding terms that are usually used incorrectly and are misleading.

A few examples of such terms are “chillul Hashem,” “kiddush Hashem” and, in use of late, “eivah.” Of course, universal terms like anti-Semitism are also thrown around without thought as to how they are defining the term.

During the frenzy surrounding the COVID-19 outbreak, I have sadly been very disappointed with the breathless sensationalism in many areas of what we call “frum media” that has truly tarred the frum community with a broad brush. It is unconscionable. Again, those who run these websites have no idea who reads them, and sometimes innocently and sometimes not so innocently cause the spread of countless falsehoods or at least lack of proportion, wreaking untold damage upon the very readers they seek to attract.

I would like to give a brief definition of some of these terms to understand what they are and are not. Each deserves a separate article, but at this juncture, we will suffice with a few lines.

  1. Anti-Semitism

Anti-Semitism is a metzius, a fact of life, a halacha. Full stop. It doesn’t matter if you are a Jewish banker from Wall Street who does not keep mitzvos, a Yid who davens in a Williamsburg shtiebel, or a member of a Young Israel in New Rochelle. Anti-Semites will always find ways to hate Jews and blame Jews. They blamed Jews for the Black Death in the Middle Ages and today they blame Jews for COVID-19.

That said, there is no mitzvah to make it easy for people to hate Jews. In fact, it is a terrible aveirah. Not everyone is a white supremacist and skinhead. As Yidden living in golus among the nations, we must be super vigilant not to give others reasons to blame Jews even in a remarkably tolerant society like America.

Those who say, “They will hate us anyway,” are just plain wrong.

That is why the fact that New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio did a terrible thing by dumping all New York’s Jews in one basket with some foolish Yidden who did not adhere to social distancing rules doesn’t make going en masse to a levayah right, no matter who the niftar is. It was wrong, dangerous and an unconscionable act of hisgarus b’umos that has already had terrible ramifications and will continue to have terrible ramifications. Sadly, we have lost many great rabbonim over the past weeks and their funerals were held quietly, with social distancing laws in effect. That is what is right. Doing otherwise is wrong.

  1. Chillul Hashem and Kiddush Hashem

Ever since we were small children, we have been admonished by teachers, parents and figures of authority that when venturing beyond our own neighborhoods, we should try to make a kiddush Hashem and not cause a chillul Hashem.

Firstly, I am reminded of an incident related by Rav Dovid Kresch, menahel of Yeshivas Novominsk. He recalled: “It was during summer camp and we were about to go on a trip. I got up to give a speech to the bochurim about the imperative of making a kiddush Hashem when they go to places outside the yeshiva. When I finished, the Novominsker Rebbe rose and said, ‘I would like to disagree with the menahel! You don’t have to behave in an exemplary way because it makes a kiddush Hashem. You have to behave that way because that is the emes! That is the right thing to do! Yes, an outgrowth of that behavior will be a kiddush Hashem.’”

It is clear that the mitzvah of kiddush Hashem and the aveirah of chillul Hashem are primarily applicable to other Jews. The posuk that commands kiddush Hashem, “Venikdashti b’soch Bnei Yisroel,” is in this week’s parsha. Anyone who wants a better understanding of this mitzvah is welcome to peruse the Rishonim on that posuk.

Thus, when “frum media” tell us that someone made a chillul Hashem by leaving a wrapper in a public park and someone made a kiddush Hashem because he gave a quarter to a minority beggar on the street, they are just confusing us, making us think that kiddush Hashem or chillul Hashem means to do things that will make gentiles think you are “normal” and not do things that will make them think you are not “normal.” Certainly, as the Novominsker Rebbe said, one should never do things that are wrong. Leaving a wrapper in a public place (or anywhere besides the garbage) is wrong, but that is not how we measure chillul or kiddush Hashem with blaring headlines.

If one would follow some of our online “media,” one would think that the ultimate kiddush Hashem is Chaveirim changing a flat tire for a Hispanic or African-American woman. Don’t get me wrong. That is indeed a wonderful thing, but certainly, a yeshiva bochur walking in the street who makes a conscious decision to avert his eyes from seeing something inappropriate is engaging in kiddush sheim Shomayim. He is sanctifying Hashem’s Name by giving his retzonos over to Hashem. A person whose tongue is tingling with a juicy piece of gossip that will be a slam dunk comment in the conversation, making him/her look great, and refrains from saying it in honor of Hashem is engaging in a conscious act of kiddush Hashem, while fulfilling several positive commandments and refraining from negative commandments. (See introduction to Sefer Chofetz Chaim.) A person who refrains from wearing a flattering article of clothing because it is not completely in accordance with the halachos of tznius is engaged in kiddush Hashem. This has nothing to do with wrappers in parks or helping old ladies cross the street. I wish the terms kiddush Hashem and chillul Hashem would not be so foolishly used. It just causes confusion and is plain wrong.

  1. Eivah

Another word that has recently crept into the public lexicon is “eivah.” Eivah is a term used by Chazal to permit certain prohibitions if they will create eivah, enmity, between Jew and non-Jews. There is also a concept of darchei shalom, engaging in acts of kindness and the like because they promote peace. From here we see that it is critically important to be good neighbors and good citizens and perform actions that minimize animosity and promote peace and good relations. Many of the actions that people often mistakenly place under the rubric of kiddush Hashem and chillul Hashem belong more in the category of eivah and darchei shalom.

We cannot, however, selectively use the concept of eivah when it suits us and ignore it when it doesn’t. We don’t necessarily create eivah by one single action. Usually, it is an aggregate, a combination of many actions over time that creates eivah, attracting the unwelcome eye of the secular media. Just because we can do something by virtue of our numbers or political power does not mean that we should.

When we use our power, especially in government, in a way that conspicuously draws attention to that power, and especially when it impacts our neighbors in a very stark way, whether it is the way we drive our cars, the way we build and develop or manage our properties, the way we seem to flaunt the norms of appropriate conduct in a public place such as an airport, or a street funeral, we are showing a volatile combination of ignorance and arrogance that is lethal for our future.

In golus, we must never forget that we are guests. The fact that we live in the freest, most tolerant golus in our history does not mean we should take advantage of the freedoms afforded to us. Just because we can doesn’t mean that we should. We must always be conscious of eivah, because years of neglect can lead to much more extreme reactions in times of crisis such as a mageifah.