You never know how readers will react to a column. That is one of the interesting things about writing. Sometimes I think: This column is really going to provoke significant discussion and passion… And what happens? Not a peep. Not one angry letter to the editor, not even a compliment. No reaction. Not one person on the street says anything. It is as if the column wasn’t written.
On other occasions, I think: This article certainly isn’t one of my best. It is devorim peshutim. I am not saying any chiddush, so I won’t get much response… And what happens? The responses just don’t stop coming. If there is one thing I can say I have learned in the more than two decades of writing publicly, it is that readers never fail to confound me.
Two weeks ago was one of those times. In the aftermath of the horribly tragic Surfside building collapse, I wrote an article wondering why so many of us are reading the news like apikorsim, attributing everything to cause and effect. “The building had cracks in it” and other such statements conveniently left Hashem out of the picture without trying to discern what message Hashem was sending us. Yes, He was clearly sending us a message.
Misunderstanding the Message
As soon as the article was published, I started getting phone calls as well as man-on-the-street comments, most of them positive. “Finally, someone is writing this.” “Thanks for sharing a Torah perspective.” I did, however, get several negative comments and a number of people actually took the time to write letters to the editor. The letters, however, surprised me. Why? Because although the criticism was not aimed at me, but at the paper, I felt that the fundamental point being made was a mistake. The gist of the letters was: “Yes, we are glad that you are telling us not to read apikorsus, so why are you printing it?”
Let me quote one letter:
Dear Rabbi Birnbaum,
The article on pgs. 146 and 147 about the condo wreckage was from the New York Times. On pages 144 and 145 from The Washington Post. On pages 142 and 143 from the AP.
You tell us not to read apikorsus.
Why do you write for a paper that prints apikorsus?
Of course, I deeply appreciate anyone who takes the time to write a letter to the Yated about an article that I have written, but I am afraid that the letter writer and others who have made the same point are making an unfortunate error. I asked people not to read the news “like apikorsim.” This means that they should try to go beyond the dry facts of “cause and effect” – the general focus of news coverage – and rather try to see if Hashem is sending us a message. What these letter writers seem to be advocating is that we should not report on news in the way that news is traditionally reported.
It would seem from the above comments that our headline should have read something like this: “Hashem Shows His Might as He Throws Down Twelve-Story Florida Building.”
Or perhaps, “Anxiety Among Ehrliche Yidden as They Try to Discern Divine Message from Surfside.”
This question and debate touch on the important topic of trying to hashkafically understand what “frum journalism” is and what the purpose of frum newspapers is.
The Mission of Frum Journalism
I will try to bring the words of gedolei Yisroel defining what frum journalism is, but first let me say what frum journalism isn’t. Reading a frum newspaper is not akin to reading a mussar sefer and it shouldn’t be. It is also not akin to reading a devar Torah, although certainly a frum newspaper offers articles containing mussar and divrei Torah.
When the Hebrew Yated was established, its editors went to the Steipler Gaon seeking guidance and to ask questions. When they told the Steipler that they planned on having an extensive section featuring divrei Torah, mussar and hashkafah, the Steipler replied, “Ah blatt darf zein a blatt – A newspaper must be a newspaper.” People are buying and reading a newspaper because they want to get their news from a kosher source. They want to know what is happening in the world. Certainly, the Steipler didn’t mean to preclude giving hashkafic commentary on the news. Certainly, he didn’t mean to say that on Erev Shabbos they shouldn’t have some divrei Torah, but the overarching mission of a frum newspaper is to provide the news in a clean way, without immorality or outright apikorsus.
Rabbi Pinchos Lipschutz, the esteemed editor and publisher of this newspaper, related to me that he personally heard the same message on multiple occasions from Rav Elazar Menachem Man Shach.
To understand the shlichus of frum journalism, let us go back in time and learn a bit about the mission of frum journalism by analyzing frum journalism in the modern era.
For over 200 years, there have been frum publications covering news of one kind or another, but the modern era of news publications similar to ours began after World War I.
Perhaps the greatest trailblazer in advocating for Jewish newspapers in the modern era was the Gerer Rebbe, Rav Avrohom Mordechai Alter, known as the Imrei Emes. One of the greatest masmidim of his generation who utilized every second for learning Torah, he came to the conclusion that frum newspapers were so vital that he found nothing more important than appealing to his chassidim before tekias shofar on Rosh Hashanah in his bais medrash in Ger, asking for their help in supporting the launch of a frum newspaper. Why?
He felt that this could be a hatzolah for the generation, especially the youth, to counter the adverse influences of papers published by anti-Torah forces that were being widely disseminated among the frum public.
Sadly, with the advent of the Industrial Revolution that brought with it much cheaper printing costs, the Maskilim and their ilk were quick to realize the amazing potential to lead others astray through the power of the printed word. They understood how anything in print was considered absolutely holy in the Jewish mind. Within several decades, they began to publish material that appealed to the masses, with the underlying message being to cast off the yoke of Torah and mitzvos and to instead embrace the new “updated Jewish values” that they espoused.
Some of the material contained outright attacks on Hashem and His Torah, while some were much more subtle. The common denominator was that all the material that the Maskilim printed had a colossal impact on Jewry of that time and succeeded in cooling and often extinguishing the spiritual fire from among entire chunks of Torah observant Jewry, luring them away from centuries of pure, untainted Torah observance and yiras Shomayim.
As the Maskilim made inroads into Torah observant communities it soon became clear that the youth were under tremendous threat. They thirsted for knowledge and for reading material. Unfortunately, the only materials available were filled with both overt and covert poison for the spirit – anti-Torah venom and contempt for authentic Yiddishkeit.
This new danger that jeopardized the entire kiyum of Klal Yisroel had to be countered by new tactics. It had to be met head-on on the turf of the Maskilim themselves. Only through the power of the written word would the Torah observant community be able to counter the venom published by the Maskilim.
Stemming the Tide
This revolutionary step of publishing periodicals and newspapers that would not only contain Torah and mesorah but would unapologetically take on the forces of evil and do battle with them was the only approach that visionary Torah giants of that time saw as the life preserver, the key to saving a generation and future generations.
In one letter, the Imrei Emes wrote, “I would walk on foot from here (Ger) until Petersburg (to get a government permit to publish a newspaper) if I thought it was possible to publish a newspaper in the spirit of the Torah.”
The Imrei Emes understood that the only way Jews would stop reading anti-Torah newspapers was if they had a high caliber newspaper in their place. In a letter to his son-in-law, Rav Yitzchok Meir Levin, the Imrei Emes wrote, “I am amazed that you would assume that people would throw out The Moment (a secular newspaper) if The Yid (the frum paper) is not up to standard. I think that in this case, even invoking a cheirem will not succeed.”
The Imrei Emes understood that fiery words of issur prohibiting the reading of secular newspapers alone would not succeed. He understood that only when a proper substitute was provided, only when a newspaper with world news written al taharas kodesh was established, would they succeed in swaying the younger generation away from secular newspapers.
What Should Be Contained in a Frum Publication?
But what should be contained in a frum newspaper?
It is clear from a number of letters on the subject written by the Imrei Emes and other gedolim that, first and foremost, it must be a source for clean news. In a seminal letter dated 1917 (Osef Michtavim 71), the Imrei Emes writes, “I have spent a long time toiling and laboring to found a newspaper written in the spirit of Yiddishkeit free from words of heresy and nivul peh.”
Also, it is important to understand that not everything in a newspaper is kosher and has the stamp of gedolei Yisroel. The Imrei Emes writes, “Nobody should think that by my endorsement of the paper, I therefore agree with the political stands regarding various countries that the publisher prints. I do not get involved in these issues, and the opinions expressed are those of the publisher. My main purpose is that there should be no nivul peh and heresy contained therein.”
It is thus clear that the ultimate purpose of frum journalism is to ensure that anti-Torah messages or messages from the Maskilim who only want to “adjust” the ideas of the frum community should not infiltrate.
The Difference Between News Coverage and Hashkafic Editorials
Now, reporting on a building collapse and using reports from the wire services or even the New York Times and the Washington Post, as long as they are straight news coverage, not commentary, is, to this writer’s mind, not the apikorsus and the immorality that the great gedolim of the past warned against. In all actuality, that is probably what they meant when they said, “Ah blatt darf zein a blatt.” If reporting every story from the vantage point of hashkafah was our mission, then those who are not interested in a mussar shmuess or a shiur on Hashgocha Protis every time they read about the news would just automatically subscribe to “The Moment” or the New York Times…
The point of my article was that, as frum Jews, we should stop reading the news like apikorsim and distilling it like apikorsim. As frum Yidden, we have an obligation to look at the news and think about the message Hashem is sending us. That is something that every G-d-fearing Jew should be doing on their own when they read even the “hard news” coverage of the AP or the Washington Post. In addition, the frum newspaper’s editorial sections should certainly convey the Torah viewpoint on how to view news events.
Our newspapers, however, must still remain newspapers, as the name implies, giving our readers news free of immorality and actual apikorsus.
That said, it is very important that newspapers and magazines do not become vehicles for “Masikilishe” thoughts to infiltrate into our community. Publications with agendas on how to “update” the frum community, or that choose to interview and idolize figures who are not role models for our youth, are, to say the least, in some way going in the footsteps of “The Moment” newspaper of old and other more benign Maskil-oriented publications.
It is tragic that the entire premise upon which frum journalism was established has been turned on its head, and now, the very instrument that was established to save multitudes from ideas that cool them off from Hashem and His Torah are now being used at times to do just that – cool people off from Hashem and emunas chachomim.
We should become discerning consumers when patronizing frum media. Twice a day we recite the Shema, wherein we say, “Lo sasuru acharei levavechem v’acharei eineichem – Do not stray after your heart and after your eyes.” Chazal teach us that your heart refers to heresy and your eyes refer to immorality. While most of our publications do maintain an “acharei eineichem standard,” many do not have a uniform “acharei levavechem standard.” We are sent all kinds of messages that border on Haskalah and also include the elevation of unbridled, conspicuous consumption and hedonism.
Yes, our papers should be a “blatt,” but let us simultaneously do our best to realize that Haskalah and efforts to “civilize” us, “backward” thinking Torah Jews, who are “nebach” mired in the “past” and in “outdated” ways of thinking, are alive and well.