Sanctification

Published December 19, 2003, issue of December 19, 2003.
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In Chapter 19 of the biblical book of Leviticus, in the Torah portion known as Kedoshim (“Ye shall be holy”), the Israelites received a string of commandments that define what we like to think of as the ethics of public discourse. Beginning in Verse 15, we are commanded, first, to “respect not the poor nor favor the rich,” but to judge our neighbors in righteousness; next, not to “go up and down as a tale-bearer among the people,” nor to “stand idly by the blood” of our neighbor; and then, as though contradicting the last command, to “rebuke thy neighbor and not bear sin because of him.” Following in the very next verse is the sublime commandment that covers all the rest: “Love thy neighbor as thyself.”

The verses capture perfectly the conundrum facing journalists, especially those who seek to report on Jewish community life. We are forbidden to go around bearing tales, yet we must rebuke our neighbors and not bear their sins. How do we do that? By sticking to the truth, by reporting what matters — and by making sure that we do what we do out of love.

We at the Forward are constantly juggling those conflicting concerns. As a newspaper that covers the life of the Jewish community, we report stories that make some people uncomfortable. Not infrequently, we’re warned that by airing our community’s dirty laundry in public we’re giving comfort to our enemies. It’s a caution we take seriously. We don’t want to go around as a tale-bearer. But we’re no less serious about our duty to rebuke. Keeping the truth under wraps for fear of fueling antisemitism means allowing ignorance and corruption to thrive in the darkness. Our job is to throw open the windows and let in the sunlight.

Surprisingly, the most intense reactions we’ve encountered in recent months have been to our translations from Hebrew. Last August we raised a furor by translating an essay by a former Knesset speaker, Avraham Burg, arguing that Israel faced disaster if it did not separate from the Palestinians. It was a commonplace view in Israel, but almost unknown among Israel’s supporters here, and many were furious at us for making it available. A few weeks after that, we translated an essay by Natan Sharansky, Israel’s minister for Diaspora affairs, reporting gloomily on the anti-Israel mood he’d found during a tour of American campuses. That caused a furor among pro-Israel activists who felt their work was undervalued and misunderstood.

This week we caused a furor even before publication by reporting on a Hebrew-language book published in New Jersey by an Orthodox rabbi who considers Jews a superior race. He represents a tiny minority, yet his book was being sold openly on the streets of Brooklyn, with the blessings of rabbinic leaders — until we found out about it. Once we started reporting, we were warned that our publishing the story would fuel antisemitism. Leave it alone, we were told. But that would have meant standing idly by.

There was a time, decades ago, when American Jews had a robust daily press in Yiddish where they could air their internal disputes without fear of the neighbors catching on. In those days, the English-language Jewish press existed mainly to defend the Jews’ good name, at a time when few others would do so.

Things have changed. Yiddish is no longer a unifying Jewish language. If we can’t talk to one another in English, we can’t talk to one another at all. At the same time, we’re no longer so alone in the world that we must depend on communal weeklies to defend us. Nor are we defenseless when our enemies attack. We can afford the truth. What we can’t afford is to cover it up.

This week we celebrate Chanukah, recalling the Maccabees’ sanctification of the Temple in Jerusalem. Today we have no more temple. Now the holiness is all around us, and we are all its guardians.






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