Guess Who Came to Dinner?

Did a Frothing Press Help Serve the Truth?

According to those in the know, Mayor Bill de Blasio was to have delivered his greetings and departed with his press entourage before the Novominsker Rebbe, Rav Yaakov Perlow, rose to address the assembled at Agudath Israel’s 92nd annual dinner. Instead, the mayor was running late, Rav Perlow’s speech was moved up, and both hizzoner and his press ended up with front row seats. And in a departure from his norm at the annual dinner, the Novominsker chose to address an urgent Inyana D’Yuma instead of delivering more general remarks.

To judge from the coverage that resulted, one could be forgiven for thinking that Rav Perlow had ascended the podium and called for open warfare.

The press reached into its bag of stereotypes and pulled out a familiar caricature of “angry” charedim, though the antipodal video is available for all to see. The Forward said that Rav Perlow’s “fiery” speech “stunned” the dinner, and quoted an anonymous “Jewish leader” as claiming the comments of the Rosh Agudath Israel were “divisive,” along with other adjectives which would besmirch the Rebbe’s kavod to even repeat. [What sort of “leader” is willing to offer only an anonymous critique of Rav Perlow’s statement was, of course, not outlined by The Forward.] The NY Daily News reported that the Rebbe “blasted” non-Orthodox Judaism. The video posted online was captioned: “Agudath Israel’s Rabbi Perlow Rails against Danger of Reform, Open Orthodoxy Movements.”

Many distorted the comments still further, as if Rav Perlow had spoken not about digressions from normative Judaism, but about the Jews who have been led astray. Rabbi Joseph Potasnik, executive director of the New York Board of Rabbis, called Rav Perlow’s remarks “disparaging comments about our people.” Michael Powell of the NY Times claimed that the Rebbe “offered a shower of condemnation for Reform and Conservative Jews” (and, still worse, suggested that Mayor de Blasio should have opined on a Jewish religious matter). Emily Hauser, blogging in – once again – The Forward, said that he “slandered virtually every Jew on the planet.” And there are more in this vein.

In actuality, the listeners were so visibly “stunned” that they kept eating, drinking and listening as if nothing extraordinary had been said – because it hadn’t. The press corps was most exercised by his offhand dismissal of the non-Orthodox movements, but Rav Perlow himself was much more concerned with Open Orthodoxy, which is now ordaining rabbis and sending them to take posts in Orthodox congregations. This makes the foreign ideas and untenable innovations coming from its school and leading alumni much more dangerous to the integrity of Torah Judaism.

With regards to the heterodox movements, the Rebbe commented that they “have no future, they almost have no present, and… will be relegated by the Ribono Shel Olam [Master of the World] to the dustbin of Jewish history.” They were yesterday’s challenge. The leaders of these groups have no bone to pick with Rav Perlow, but with the Pew Report and other surveys showing that “Jews of No Religion” and intermarried families are engendered by abandoning the path of Halacha.

The distortion of the Rebbe’s observation about ideological movements into an attack upon their members is no accident. Most who describe themselves as “Reform” or “Conservative” are at most peripherally affiliated with those movements – they attend synagogue biannually, and give no special credence to the words of their clergy. Unless deceived into taking the Novominsker’s statement as a personal insult, they could instead ponder its accuracy.

When the dust settles, that could yet happen – and the press will have made it possible. These articles made both Rav Perlow’s clear condemnation of “Open Orthodoxy” and his dismissal of heterodoxy a far more public matter than they would have been otherwise. Both Modern Orthodox and non-Orthodox have heard that somewhere in New York can be found a Jewish leader who stands for truth and standards.

The [grey] lady doth protest too much, methinks. It would not be the first time that the media’s overwrought reaction to the statements of a Gadol turned out to serve a positive end.

This article first appeared in Ami Magazine.

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