February 21, 2008
Did we need blood?
A fascinating debate has broken out among certain members of the community regarding the appropriateness of publicizing people's personal e-mails. A week ago, this paper went public with some incendiary e-mails from a rabbi who was trying to discourage women -- who were considered non-Jewish according to the Orthodox tradition -- from crashing his singles parties and dating Jewish men.
Since then, a few people have come to me and asked: Where do we draw the line? What if there are e-mails from other rabbis or leaders of the community that expose hypocritical, inappropriate or hurtful behavior? Are all those e-mails now fair game? Is a hurtful e-mail against a fellow Jew any less newsworthy than a hurtful e-mail against a non-Jew?
And what should people do with hurtful e-mails? Forward them to newspapers and blogs to expose the writers -- or deal with their personal grievances in more private ways?
As fate would have it, all these questions were twirling in my mind when I found myself riveted to the teachings of a Conservative woman rabbi at the LimmudLA conference last weekend in Costa Mesa.
Rabbi Miriam Hamrell, who runs a congregation called Ahavat Torah inside the Village Lutheran Church in Brentwood, is not the schmoozy type. She has a gentle, loving face, but her expression tells you she's not easily impressed. Through her Israeli accent, her words come out with sweetness and serenity. It's clear that she takes words very seriously.
At the LimmudLA conference, she was giving a class on her lifelong passion: Mussar. The Mussar movement is one of those little-known undercurrents initiated in the Orthodox world that gets little attention. Founded by the 19th century Lithuanian Talmudic giant Rabbi Israel Salanter, Mussar is a Torah-based system of internalizing the central values of religious, moralistic and ethical teachings into one's personal life. In other words, it's a guide on how to perfect our characters and deal with each other.
The class I attended was on "Embarrassments and Insults." After a brief introduction and history of the Mussar movement, Hamrell laid out some definitions, and then, slowly and quietly, began to make us uncomfortable. Eventually, she moved in for the kill and said something that made a few of us squirm.
Public humiliation is like murder, she said.
The rabbi delved into numerous Torah sources, but one quote stood out for me: "One who shames his fellow in public, is as if he shed blood" (Talmud Berahot 58b).
Hamrell was relentless but serene, as if to say: Don't kill the messenger, this is your Torah. In addition to Torah law, she quoted several biblical stories to reinforce the notion that few things in the Torah are seen in a worse light than public humiliation.
Her talk was disturbing, but I wanted to know about the embarassing e-mails: Was the act of publishing them akin to shedding blood? Wasn't there a Torah exemption for reporters seeking to inform readers?
I caught up with the rabbi on the last day of the conference and asked her point blank: Where do the Torah obligations of a Jew end and the obligations of a reporter begin?
"Your obligations as a Jew never end," she said. "Your professions can come and go, but your Torah and your Judaism will never go."
I felt like one of those young lads in the snowy mountains of Tibet inhaling the wise words of a great Zen master.
Still, I needed more clarity, so I got more specific: I told her the story of the e-mails and asked her what she would have done if she had received them. She said she was highly sympathetic to the women whose feelings were hurt, but instead of publicizing the e-mails and humiliating the rabbi in front of the whole world, she would have arranged individual meetings of apology and understanding between the women and the rabbi. As she explained it, fanning the flames of passion and turning them into swords of destruction is not the Jewish way.
In essence, what she said was: Hurting someone one-on-one might be a punch in the gut, but public humiliation is destruction.
It's clear that reporters have the power to destroy, and that they must use this power with excruciating care. More often than not, the decisions are not difficult: Exposing criminals and child molesters ought to be done to protect the community, shame or no shame.
But publicly humiliating an individual because of hurtful e-mails he wrote as personal correspondence? That's more tricky.
I've known the rabbi ("Schwartzie") for 20 years, and I've never met anyone who has done more to rescue lost Jews and keep them in the Jewish family. I saw him almost cry once when he read an editorial encouraging Jewish women (who had trouble finding a Jewish mate) to date non-Jews, with the hope that they might one day convert.
Look at it this way: Would I scream, swear, offend, insult and go bananas if I felt it would protect my children from an intruder? Of course I would, which is precisely the problem with my friend Schwartzie: He treats Jews like they're his children. When he sees non-Jews crash his parties, he's so afraid that he might "lose" one of his children that he can get absurdly protective -- to the point that in a few instances over 38 years, he has lost his cool and said inappropriate, hurtful and even bizarre things to keep "intruders" at bay.
Was that wrong? Absolutely. Did the rabbi see his mistake and feel contrition? He told me that he did, and that he apologized to the women mentioned in the article, and I believe him. Was it worth publishing his e-mails verbatim, publicly humiliating him and "shedding his blood"? You make that call.
The only call I'm making is to my friend Schwartzie, to let him know that I won't pile on, I won't kick him while he's down and I won't abandon him anytime soon.
That's also the Jewish way.
David Suissa, an advertising executive, is founder of OLAM magazine and Meals4Israel.com. He can be reached at email@example.com.