Thursday, May 5, 2011

Ami Receives Feedback and Responds

Previously, I discussed the appalling article in Ami magazine entitled "The Imposters Among Us." Many others (including some of the people "quoted" in the article) joined in the chorus of condemnation for this hateful, divisive, and wildly inaccurate piece of writing. In fact I didn't hear of anyone who had a good thing to say about it. Here is one letter that someone sent in (he forwarded it to me with permission to post it):

Dear Editor,

I would first like to thank you for your superb magazine. Since the first issue, I have bought and read through every article (and I mean EVERY article, in all three sections!), and I can truly say that I have never so continuously enjoyed a Jewish publication.

But... I was deeply dismayed reading the article “The Imposters among Us,” by Mr. Rafael Borges. My dismay was not for the reasons you might think – that I was shocked that this phenomenon exists, rather, I was disturbed by the shallow portrayal of our so-called “Orthoprax” brethren, and the writer’s admittedly biased opinions and worldview that prevent him from giving the readers the full scope of the issue.

The writing style that Mr. Borges employed is self-serving, trying to convince the readers of his own piousness and faith-superiority. If the whole article was not clear enough, the last two paragraphs of the article highlight that Mr. Borges was definitely not the right candidate to write this article. To quote: “When I visited Aaron in his house, the conversation gradually came to an uncomfortable halt. After all, I did not have much in common with one who has lost his last vestige of spirituality and G-dliness.” This paragraph says more than I need to say; a person tries to write a cover story on a segment of klal yisroel whose rank-joining numbers has unfortunately exploded lately, but he is not able to have a straight, open conversation, to really understand what goes on in their minds, so we should truly be able to tackle this growing problem.

The writer obviously does not have the journalistic skills to be able to have conversations with people who have other worldviews than his own, therefore, what remains in order to “diagnose” the problem, is to label these so-called Orthoprax Jews as sufferers from “a sickness,” and are therefore “treacherous frauds” and “Infiltrators.” In order to give the readers a clear picture of the case, and to do a real service to our community, Ami should have appointed a writer who is unprejudiced, and has the distinct talent of engaging in discussion and really trying to understand those who stray from the norm. As a community, we will never be able to combat this problem if we will continue sweeping everything under the rug, without acknowledging that certain behavior-patterns of our community may be direct initiators of the prevailing problems.

As a chasidisher yungerman from a rebbishe family living in chasidic Boro Park, I have had the opportunity to speak many times to friends of mine who unfortunately became Orthoprax. I can tell you that at least in the case of the people I know, they are highly intelligent, with absolutely no history of illness, and have all really worked hard to find a way to synthesize what they perceive as sensible convictions - with Judaism. they have read the wide gamut of kiruv-books, they have spoken to countless so-called kiruv experts, who one by one disappointed them with “proofs” that were shown numerous times as blatantly false (such as Torah Codes, autistic facilitated communication, scientific facts that Chazal “knew” before everyone, etc. etc.).

As an individual who understands the orthopraxy mindset but who is nevertheless deeply faithful and religious, I can assure you that if we would have been more tolerant to different legitimate Jewish perspectives, we would have been able to keep most of these Orthoprax Jews in our ranks. The ridicule of everything “different”; the mockery of every stream in Judaism that is not “ours”; the condemnation of everything that promiscuous-thinking “askonim” disapprove of, have driven away countless of our finest yungeleit. I can attest that the ugly power-battles among rebbes, the use of Torah to undermine rivals (such as the eiruv controversy and the current controversy regarding wheat from Arizona for matzos), mindboggling hypocrisy among rabbonim, official denial of anything and everything negative about our community, have done so much harm to the faith of our fellow Jews that it defies statistical analysis.

Dear Ami, in the short period of time that you have been providing us with a magazine of such high caliber, you have courageously tackled many issues. Please… please do not let this problem go by without providing the readers with substantial thoughts to ponder that may potentially contribute to some positive outcomes.

Sincerely yours,
Brooklyn, NY

Well, the next issue of Ami is now out. It did not print this letter, nor any other letter critical of the article. Instead, there is an editorial in which we find the following:
Ironically, people who have abandoned the Jewish heritage are offended when they are told that their un-observant lifestyle is considered indefensible by the religious community. The letters we have been receiving at Ami corroborate this. We just read in the Haggadah: "The wicked one, what does he say? 'What is this service to you?!' He says to you,' but not to him! By thus excluding himself from the community he has denied that which is fundamental. You, therefore, should blunt his teeth and say to him: `it is because of this that G-d did for me when I left Egypt'; 'for me'—but not for him! Had he been there, he would not have been redeemed!" The wicked son has already excluded himself from the eternal Jewish calling. Why are his teeth blunted when we repeat to him that he is indeed excluded from Jewish history and destiny? Evidently, the wicked son enjoys declaring that he is not part of the Jewish nation; but he is terribly hurt when someone dares to confirm it. But there is more here. Those who have tried to cast away their Jewish identity want to believe that they are still somehow members in good standing of the redeemed and chosen nation. What they fail to understand is that being chosen means acting chosen. Service and redemption are indivisible.

Now, I don't know if this editorial is addressing the letters regarding the Orthopraxy article. But if it is, then it is extremely bizarre; the whole point is that these people are not abandoning either the community or mitzvah observance!

The other item of interest in the new issue is the following bizarre note:

Correction: Due to a technical error in the editing process, a piece of text was accidentally placed in a quote in the article “The Impostors Among Us” attributed to Isaac Schonfeld. The sentence which read, "They dress in veiser zocken [white socks] and are passionate about disputes between chassidic rebbes, but they are nothing more than self-centered phonies," should have correctly read, "They dress in veiser zocken [white socks] and are passionate about disputes between chassidic rebbes, but they do not believe." We apologize for the error.

A "technical error in the editing process"?! What, someone accidentally pressed the wrong button, which automatically created the text "they are nothing more than self-centered phonies"?! Ami should face up to the fact that this editor is not only full of ignorant and inappropriate hate, but also entirely lacks professionalism.


  1. "Ami should have appointed a writer who is unprejudiced..."
    "Ami should face up to the fact that this editor is not only full of ignorant and inappropriate hate, but also entirely lacks professionalism."

    I truly doubt it is a problem with the particular author or editor.

  2. Rabbi Adlerstein wrote on the Ami article in Cross-Currents and gives a view of the article that doesn't have all the Orthoprax dealt with in the article being people who struggle to be religious. His analysis is sober and caring.

  3. Natan Sharansky was delighted to read in Pravda about the treacherous Israeli bandit raid on Unganda.

    In fact I didn't hear of anyone who had a good thing to say about it

    I have something good to say about the article.

    In reading the article, I internally edited out the "party line" that was written into the article and just marveled at the stark facts that were being reported from a chareidi magazine.

    Here we have an article reporting on serious students of Torah, even an (obviously anonymous) posek at the top of the chareidi hierarchy, that are honestly wrestling with the basic tenets of belief. How could that be? Isn't everything infallibly clear to those who sincerely seek it?

    To quote RNS opponent Rabbi Simcha Coffer, Anyone who possesses a real "sense of Divine providence’, anyone who possesses a real "appreciation of the nature and role of the Torah", would not be so easily swayed by the vacuous claims of the academics, secularists and materialists.

    How is it possible that these FFB Torah scholars never acquired said "sense" and "appreciation"? Or do we assume that they had it, but they forfeited it when they gave in to their base instincts and started surfing the net, and then just lost their infallible emunah to the treacherous bloggers?

    The bottom line is that this article is spilling the beans on a significant issue from an insider's venue. I don't suppose this point is lost on many readers. The readers that DON'T grasp this are beyond help!

    I sincerely wonder if the all or some of the subjects of this article were manufactured by the author. Its not that I doubt that some leading charedi Rabbi's discretely doubt the literal truth of all of Genesis or the infallibility of chazal etc., such as the posek portrayed in the article. But I do doubt that the author could have gained the confidence of one of them!

    Maybe the author invented the characters of the story as an acceptable way to broach the topic to the readership?

  4. This is from the pre-Pesach issue of Ami, with one response to the Impostors Among Us article:

    Dear Editor,

    First I would like to wish you hatzlacha on your magazine. Our family really enjoys the interesting articles, and most impressive is the professionalism of their presentation. However, I must take issue with your cover story. The magazine's intent in raising a serious issue should be to provide ways to solve the problem. The last thing we need is someone who has doubts in emuna to read your article and think to himself, "I'm not the only one," and rationalize his conduct and thoughts by saying that he too belongs to the new camp of orthopraxy. Kefira is not a sickness. Any questions in emuna and hashgacha already went through Avrohom Avinu's mind. He ignored them. So should we. There are no new questions. It's plain, old rishus. The apikores has no questions: he has tirutzim. I believe that this article should not have been written and certainly not as a cover story.

    Chag kasher v'samech,

    Moshe Eisenstein

    Rafael Borges responds:

    The concern that you raise was foremost in my mind and in the mind of my editors as we considered this article. An appropriate rabbinic authority was consulted before this article was approved for printing.

    The article was approved due to the clear manner in which we expressed the truth about these kofrim, making clear that they are outside of the Jewish world, isolated, and that they have betrayed the Ribono Shel Olam, the Torah, and the Jewish people. We did not describe divrei kefira. Every yeshiva graduate knows that there have been kofrim masquerading as religious Jews throughout our history, including the recent past, when some yeshivas had many students who were apikorsim. We will soon be mentioning the rasha, the wicked son sitting at our table, at the seder, and that he is a kofer b'ikar. You may believe that your children are not cognizant of this, but they are ore aware of the idea of kefira, which runs through our holy books, than you think.

    As to your comment that kefira is an age-old rishus, you are right. But reading works of kefira opens someone to becoming a kofer, and the article was intended to inform the public that even filtered internet contains words of kefira that have actually influenced yeshiva bochurim, even those who were learning with a bren. New presentations of kefira are being disseminated in the modern day which mislead people, whether they are really new or not.

    This problem is affecting both youth and married members of our community, and if no one will speak about it, it will continue unchecked. Great rabbanim have approved the various emuna programs in our schools specifically because of the strong challenges that our children are facing in the modern age. Hiding our heads only makes us more vulnerable.

  5. "Great rabbanim have approved the various emuna programs in our schools specifically because of the strong challenges that our children are facing in the modern age."

    I don't agree with the AMI article nor with this response. Regarding this point however, it's interesting to note that R. Salomon and R. Belsky's haskomos on the Project Chazon website, written in 2000, make reference to outside challenges as a reason for necessitating Project Chazon's programs(also R. S. Kamenetsky's 2003 haskomah to Mysterious Creatures makes reference to this phenomenon).

  6. They don't get it.

    They may never get it.

    A comment on the unpublished letter:

    "they have read the wide gamut of kiruv-books, they have spoken to countless so-called kiruv experts, who one by one disappointed them with “proofs” that were shown numerous times as blatantly false"

    I suspect that one reason I am a believing and observant Jew today is that I didn't read any kiruv books, never spoke to a kiruv "expert", and was early on introduced to the Rambam's axioms with the honest appraisal that they were axiomatic, not provable.

    What had happened to me instead was that an Orthodox rabbi happened to visit the Reform synagogue I was attending to appear at a forum with a Reform rabbi and a Conservative rabbi, and I was sufficiently impressed by the Orthodox rabbi's honesty and gentleness that I decided to try his (modern orthodox) synagogue.

    The first Orthodox shiur I ever attended -- by that rabbi -- was about what you do when erev Pesach falls on Shabat. The high level of knowledge of the congregation and the honesty of the rabbi in dealing with a complex issue impressed me that this might be the kind of serious religious community I had been looking for all my life. No sugar-coating, no proofs that one can drive trucks through, no apologetics, no bashing of the heterodox, just plain old religious honesty.

    Regarding Rabbi Borges reply to Rabbi Eisenstein:

    "reading works of kefira opens someone to becoming a kofer"

    Rabbinic Judaism has nothing to fear from challenges -- as long as we are intellectually honest. "We don't have an answer" is sometimes the most honest answer to a difficult question. As a scientist, I know that there is a lot I don't know about the universe, a lot that awaits further study. It is no slam on Torah to say that not even the greatest living talmid chacham has all the answers to spiritual questions. Otherwise, why would we need to bother with Talmud Torah?

  7. C.S. brings up a painful issue - Honesty in the frum community. I always wondered how people who are not allowed to question when they are in high school and Yeshiva, suddenly become the ones that answer, or who write articles when they are in Kollel, or Kollel aged. The answer to me is simple. You cannot change the mind of someone who is the product of 20 years of conditioning, and 2 hours of thinking. That is why dialogue with Kiruv individuals or Rosh Yeshivas is so difficult. If shochad can blind einei chachamim, I only wonder what the horror of realizing that your whole upbringing was a lie, and having to tell this to your wife and kids can do? I have noticed this when asking questions regarding evolution to Yeshivish Rabbonim. They were all convinced it could not be true, but when I asked for basic definitions of evolution, natural selection, genetic drift, and so on, I was met with blank stares.

  8. Charlie, I think the difference is that you entered a different kind of Orthodox world, and necessarily the approaches are different when someone is not only trying to persuade someone to perform mitzvos and become involved in an Orthodox community, but also dress in black clothes, eschew secular education, undo important aspects of your world view (do you think you can really hold your politics in a yeshivish or chassidish society) etc.

  9. so-called kiruv experts, who one by one disappointed them with “proofs” that were shown numerous times as blatantly false (such as Torah Codes, autistic facilitated communication, scientific facts that Chazal “knew” before everyone, etc. etc.).

    This confused me. I have no idea what facilitated communication has to do with anything. Is there some kiruv argument related to it that I haven't heard before?

    A "technical error in the editing process"?! What, someone accidentally pressed the wrong button, which automatically created the text "they are nothing more than self-centered phonies"?! Ami should face up to the fact that this editor is not only full of ignorant and inappropriate hate, but also entirely lacks professionalism.

    I've seen fairly professional newspapers accidentally combine parts of quotes from two different people into one. That sort of mistake isn't that uncommon. There's a lot of evidence of unprofessionalism here but this doesn't seem very strong.

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  11. OK. Understand that Ami is really just the Agudah, the same way "Am Echad" was always just the Agudah. And the official Agudah position is to dismiss or ignore all criticism, on the pretense that its critcs are either ignorant or bitter. Thus, its silly to expect Ami to acknowledge publicly that its train wreck of an article was a mistake.

    This "official denial of everything", as the letter writer styles it, is a huge problem within agudah-style orthodoxy, and undoubtedly has led many in that camp to orthopraxy. The denial is made necessary by their preaching (de facto, if not de jure) the infallibility of their rabbis. Examples are superfluos, I can cite dozens.

    As in politics, the proper response is not to point out the hypocrisy or stupidity of the other side, but rather to focus on the merits of your own side.

  12. Sorry, DF. If you think Ami is the Agudah, you obviously haven't ever read it. They've attacked the Agudah vigorously several times. Avi Shafran writes for them, but they're much more like Satmar than the Agudah.

  13. Mishpacha just got banned by R' Kanievsky Ami has commercial considerations to worry about

  14. To me it’s quite apparent that neither the author of the AMI article nor the author of this “letter to the editor” actually understands what orthopraxy is all about.

    First, the term itself does not define a monolithic group. The beliefs (or rather lack of beliefs), the gamut of practices and the motivations for the practices differ, sometimes substantially, from person to person. Many are as frum as they come, it’s just that they simply do not believe.

    Second, the fact is that in this day and age, it is impossible to mandate beliefs, especially beliefs that have much argument or even evidence against them.
    Labeling somebody a “evil person” because his education or intellect prevents him from “believing” falsehoods is itself evil.

    To these writers, ortho-practitioners may seem like a threat to traditional Judaism, but what is the real threat is that these traditionalists do not realize that much of what they are forcing (or trying o force) people to belief, is proving to be simply not “emes”.

  15. Borges said that reading kefira opens a person to becoming a kofer. Whether you personally accept that or not, I believe that that is a traditional view of Rishonim and Acharonim, and is the taam of the mitzvah not to listen to a false prophet, at least according to the Sefer Hachinuch.

  16. Mishpacha just got banned

    Really? Maybe I'll pick up a copy.

    reading kefira opens a person to becoming a kofer

    My understanding is that the prohibition is relevant for areas of apostasy that do not have any credibility in one's mind. This makes sense. If it's not broken, then why explore it?

    But for philosophical issues that are credible in one's head, then it is mandatory to work it out and come to peace.

    I would be grateful if someone could confirm or deny this with a credible source.

  17. The article was so Stalinesque and blatantly one-sided that I found myself thinking that it just had to be a parody of some sort.

  18. Yoel B. - what were the sevral instances in which they vigorously attacked Aguda?

  19. They have a column about the Satmar Rebbe, in which the Agudah rabbis have been attacked several times. There was at least one lengthy letter that they published bitterly condemning them for attacking the "gedolim." I don't remember exactly when.

  20. Based on a letter I wrote and the response I got, I can confirm your hunch that there was heavy editorialization to make the "orthoprax" into "bad guys", in order to protect themselves from criticism for covering such a topic.


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