October 20, 2010
Man in the middle
The rabbi was screaming to the writer on the other end of the line: “How dare you put the Reform and Conservatives in the same sentence as the Orthodox?
Are you suggesting they are all equal? What are you talking about?”
This is the paragraph the rabbi was referring to:
“In my job I could spend time with a Reform Jew working tirelessly on providing food and shelter for the homeless, talk to a Conservative feminist Judaic scholar and then observe an Orthodox Jew doing mitzvah work, from visiting the sick to teaching Torah. But the sad reality is that, given the divisions in the Jewish community, few of us have the opportunity to see the totality of Jewish life represented by these people. And sadder still, these people themselves may never meet. They each do their own good and important work, ignorant or suspicious of — even hostile toward — The Others.”
The screaming rabbi did not comment on the rest of the article, which began like this: “As we prepare to observe Tisha B’Av, the saddest day of the Jewish year, it might be helpful to reflect on how we Jews, fractious and divided, can become less so — and learn from each other.
“Our rabbis taught that one of the reasons the Holy Temple was destroyed — the tragedy we mark ... through fasting and reciting Lamentations — was that the Jews of the time treated each other with seenat cheenam, or causeless hatred.”
The screaming rabbi also did not comment on a later section of the article, which quoted a leading light of the Orthodox world:
“Rabbi Yitzchok Kook, the chief rabbi of Palestine in the 1920s, instructed that the antidote to seenat cheenam is ahavat cheenam, or causeless love. Such a solution may sound as naive as it is charming, but the truth is that we Jews have so much to learn from each other.”
When the writer told me about this incident, he wasn’t upset at all. He was simply recalling his astonishment. You see, the writer was beginning a new gig in a major Jewish newspaper, so he figured he’d better start off with a sweet and harmless column — something that would keep him out of trouble. Something even a super right-wing Orthodox rabbi could not kvetch about.
Little did he realize he was now in New York City.
The man had just moved from Baltimore and his name was Gary Rosenblatt, editor-in-chief of New York’s Jewish Week. The year was 1993. The editorial in question, “Turning Hatred Into Love,” came up in our conversation last week, when I visited Rosenblatt in the Jewish Week offices next to Times Square.
It came up because I was badgering Rosenblatt, who wears a kippah and is modern Orthodox, to tell me how one survives being an editor-in-chief of a major Jewish newspaper that’s read by virtually every important Jew in town — and does so for 17 years and counting.
“It’s hard to say,” he said at first, a little uncomfortable.
Then he gave me the cliché answer that I hate to hear, because I hear it all the time: He gets it from all sides. On the left, the Reform might accuse him of doing only stories about men with yarmulkes, and on the right, well, the Jewish Press once devoted an entire issue to criticizing the Jewish Week.
Still, that was too easy an answer. You can be a bully and get it from all sides. There’s something else about Rosenblatt. I’m not sure what it is. Barring the usual snipers, he’s almost universally liked and respected. His columns are incisive and balanced without being snarky. He takes on all the big issues. When I met him, he was a little anxious, because he had just weighed in on the highly sensitive story of another Jewish paper on the East Coast that had published a same-sex union announcement, and then regretted its decision after an outcry from its Orthodox readers (“I think I might have been too wishy-washy,” he admitted to me. “This is a tough one.”)
If passionate centrism is indeed why Rosenblatt is so liked and respected, there must be something behind that passionate centrism. What is it? It’s true that he has benefited from an education and background that has enabled him to sample the full spectrum of Orthodoxy; and that as an editor of a paper with many constituencies, he must be as inclusive as possible.
It’s also true that he genuinely loves Judaism, Jews and Israel.
But maybe the simplest answer is that he just tries to live the message expressed in the last paragraph of his 1993 column, a column every Jewish paper in America ought to publish once a year:
“Whether or not we can fulfill Rav Kook’s command of causeless love, we must be committed to disagreeing with each other without hating each other. There are too few of us, and we have too much in common. Once we lose respect and tolerance for a fellow Jew, we have sinned against him — and against ourselves.”