Last week, I posted a letter that I wrote to Ami magazine in response to an article by Rabbi Avi Shafran. I introduced the letter by noting that there is not the slightest chance of their printing it.
Well, I was pleasantly surprised to discover that they actually printed it! Not only that, but I even made the front cover, which stated "Slifkin vs. Shafran on Blogistan"!
Before quoting and discussing Rabbi Shafran's response, here again is my letter:
To the Editor:
R. Chaim Dovid Zwiebel, Executive Vice-President of Agudath Israel of America, was recently interviewed in Mishpachah magazine. He explicitly acknowledged two obvious truths: (1) that abuse and molestation issues have not been taken seriously in the charedi community, and (2) that this has begun to change as a result of pressure created by blogs. In light of that, how could Rabbi Avi Shafran, in his latest column, deny any positive value to blogs that contain criticism of the charedi community, and equate them all with Korach?
I was further taken aback to see Rabbi Shafran derisively describe the world of blogs as "blogistan." The suffix "-stan" is usually used to describe an entity that has taken on attributes of restrictive, dictatorial theocracies that are common in the Moslem world. Is it not ironic that Rabbi Shafran, who insists on the unqualified, unimpeachable authority of Daas Torah and the suppression of any public criticism, uses the term "-stan" to describe those who seek precisely the opposite?
Rabbi Natan Slifkin
Ramat Bet Shemesh
And here is Rabbi Shafran's response:
Whether or not the Jewish world would have been any slower to understand the scope and tragedy of abuse had the subject been raised, and the need to confront it promoted, in a responsible, honorable way is a question whose answer neither the letter writer nor I can possibly know.
One is, however, required to acknowledge good things and what brought them about, even if those vehicles are unworthy in other ways. Examples of hakaras hatov to inanimate things, and even to malevolent people, abound in the Torah, as the baalei mussar point out. I think I can say with surety that Rabbi Zwiebel's comments were in that vein, and can safely assert that he does not consider Blogistan a proper place for any thoughtful Jew.
As to that place, I clearly wrote that I was not referring to all blogs but to those who, in their crassness, cynicism, negativity, and disdain for talmidei chachamim and gedolim, emulate Korach. As to my neologism, the suffix "stan" has been used creatively by many to recall the lawlessness, malice, and violence in certain countries whose names end in that syllable. As such, it is most properly adapted for reference to the world of pernicious blogs.
It is telling that now, with the issue of abuse squarely in the focus of the Jewish world (indeed, of the larger world as well, on front pages and in lead newscast stories), the inhabitants of Blogistan continue to lob their indiscriminate bombs and to shoot wildly at those they imagine to be their enemies, with the same unbridled and unhidden contempt as always. That really says all one needs to know about the true motivations of those militants. It is not the welfare of the Jewish people that they seek, but rather, for whatever personal reasons they may feel they have, to attack and undermine true Jewish authority. That was the point of my essay, and its veracity is self-evident.
I would first like to say that I was extremely impressed with Rabbi Shafran's respectful way of treating me in his response. He opposes everything that I represent, and he had the upper hand here (in terms of getting the final word). He could have easily taken the opportunity to put me down in all kinds of ways, and to directly criticize my own blog, but he didn't. That was another pleasant and impressive surprise.
I would also like to stress that I most certainly agree that there is plenty to criticize about the blogosphere. There are blogs that are way too quick on the draw to judge unfavorably. There are blogs that level accusations without basis. There is also a tendency towards negativity which, even if it serves a useful purpose, is unhealthy. Indeed, my own blog certainly suffers from the latter (although, at least in my case, a large portion of the blame can certainly be attributed towards the Gedolim that Rabbi Shafran defends). And there is an inbuilt problem with the very nature of blogging, in terms of the rapid pace, and the loss of responsibility and respectability that accompanies anonymity. My dispute with Rabbi Shafran should certain not be read to mean that I think that there is nothing to criticize about the blogosphere.
Now let us turn to the substance of his arguments.
1. "Whether or not the Jewish world would have been any slower to understand the scope and tragedy of abuse had the subject been raised, and the need to confront it promoted, in a responsible, honorable way is a question whose answer neither the letter writer nor I can possibly know." Surely he can't be serious. But even if he is, and even if he were to be correct, it's irrelevant. The point is that it's due to blogs that the issue was taken seriously, and appreciation should therefore be shown.
2. "One is, however, required to acknowledge good things and what brought them about, even if those vehicles are unworthy in other ways... I think I can say with surety that Rabbi Zwiebel's comments were in that vein..." Exactly. So if Rabbi Zwiebel could do that in a few short paragraphs, why couldn't Rabbi Shafran do that even once in a full-length article on the topic? Even in this response, there is zero hakaras hatov! That was the main point of my letter.
3. "As to that place, I clearly wrote that I was not referring to all blogs but to those who, in their crassness, cynicism, negativity, and disdain for talmidei chachamim and gedolim, emulate Korach." Wrong. As Rabbi Kahn pointed out in his letter (which was unfortunately not printed), "While he accepts that there are some responsible bloggers, the examples he enumerates (those "who seek to share community news or ideas... [or] explore concepts in Jewish thought and law... [or] focus on Jewish history and society") demonstrate by omission that those who attempt to expose anything negative in Chareidi society are comparable to the villains in Parashat Korach." Rabbi Shafran, is it possible for a blog to point out genuine problems with Charedi society and its leadership, without you accusing it of emulating Korach?
4. "As to my neologism, the suffix "stan" has been used creatively by many to recall the lawlessness, malice, and violence in certain countries whose names end in that syllable. As such, it is most properly adapted for reference to the world of pernicious blogs." I think that Rabbi Shafran is correct in that the suffix does not necessarily mean what I thought it meant, and he is entitled to use it with this connotation. However, let us examine whether, with this connotation, it is indeed appropriate for him, of all people, to use it in reference to the blogosphere.
"Lawlessness, malice, and violence"? With regard to lawlessness, the critique of the blogosphere towards the charedi system of authority and society is exactly that! Abuse is handled illegally and inappropriately (if at all) rather than through the legal system. Rabbinic pronouncements are arranged via all sorts of shady (sometimes criminal) askanim and with complete lack of protocol rather than via any halachic and professional procedures. And he is accusing the blogosphere of lawlessness?!
With regard to violence, I assume that he means verbal violence (as far as I know, the only physical violence relating to charedi rabbinic authority is on the part of charedim, in Ramat Bet Shemesh, New Square, Ponovezh, and last week in the offices of Yated Ne'eman in Bnei Brak). Now, there's certainly plenty of unfortunate verbal violence in the blogosphere. However, I think that it is evenly matched by the verbal violence issued by the Gedolim and those who act in their name, whether in letters, speeches, or books calling for the execution of rationalists. I would further add that such verbal violence is much worse when issued by people in positions of authority rather than when issued by some random blogger.
And with regard to malice - the malice in Rabbi Shafran's own article certainly matches anything coming from the blogosphere.
5. "It is telling that now, with the issue of abuse squarely in the focus of the Jewish world (indeed, of the larger world as well, on front pages and in lead newscast stories), the inhabitants of Blogistan continue..." Surely Rabbi Shafran is joking. Does he really expect people to accept that now, all of a sudden, the Gedolim are adequately taking care of matters? Agudah still insists that people with suspicions of abuse must not go to the authorities without asking a rabbi! The Gedolim still have not apologized for decades of covering things up! There are still "Gedolim" who are publicly known to have enabled abusers for decades that continue to receive honor!
6. "That really says all one needs to know about the true motivations of those militants." It's amazing that Rabbi Shafran considers it impossible to know whether the blogosphere effected the strongest change regarding abuse, but he is 100% sure regarding people's personal motivations. Rabbi Shafran should take a lesson from Rabbi Zwiebel, who said that he's not going to judge, and who pointed out that "I do believe that among them there are people who are deeply pained about certain issues and feel that this is the way they can express their pain."
7. "It is not the welfare of the Jewish people that they seek, but rather, for whatever personal reasons they may feel they have, to attack and undermine true Jewish authority. That was the point of my essay, and its veracity is self-evident." The personal reasons of bloggers are unknowable and irrelevant. Rabbi Shafran's essay compared all those who critique Charedi society to Korach's entirely villainous act that was punished by death. Whereas the truth is that, despite shortcomings, the blogs are addressing real problems with charedi rabbinic authority and effecting real improvement, as admitted by none other than the Executive Vice-President of Agudah. Rabbi Shafran should be expressing some of the hakaras hatov that he quotes the baalei mussar on, and should be engaging in some introspection regarding the flaws of the system that he defends as "true Jewish authority," rather than issuing malevolent condemnations.