Over time, a journalist gets used to being criticized. How, then, to respond, if at all? There’s a thin line between feeling justified for what one writes in seeking, for example, to expose wrongdoing in the community, and feeling self-righteous, or even immune from disapproval.
I am reminded of this challenge each year in reading the text from next week’s (April 30) Torah portion, Kedoshim. It teaches, first, the command to each of us: “You shall be holy, for I, the Lord your God, am holy.” (Leviticus, 19: 2)
No specific definition is given as to what it means to be holy. We assume from the structure of the wording that we are to emulate God in being both compassionate and just, as God is.
Following that general command to be holy are 14 brief instructions, including respect one’s parents, keep the Sabbath, don’t steal, swear falsely or defraud your fellow, etc., echoing the Ten Commandments.
But one particular charge represents the paradigm for the journalist: “You shall not be a gossipmonger among your people; you shall not stand aside while your fellow’s blood is shed; I am the Lord.” (Leviticus 19:16)
The two phrases suggest two different lessons — a warning and an obligation.
On the one hand, we are commanded not to spread lashon hara, or gossip, because it demeans one’s neighbor, insidiously and behind his back, in ways that he cannot counter. Throughout the ages immeasurable harm and bloodshed have come about through gossip, and the journalist knows full well the power he or she has to destroy through character assassination.
But the balance of the verse warns us not to shrink from responsibility. Knowing that one’s words are powerful and can do damage does not mean we can ignore reporting on wrongdoing, but rather that we must be particularly careful with our facts and mindful that the stakes are high. If the circumstances are important enough, we are obligated to take a stand, speak out and help correct an injustice.
The verse concludes “I am the Lord,” reminding us that if and when we can write with both accuracy and compassion, walking that thin line of advocating for a just cause without unfairly attacking innocent people, our task can take on a measure of holiness.
Easier said than done, of course, and the risk always is in that balance between speaking out and holding back, between exposing wrongdoing and spreading rumor.
There are times when we at The Jewish Week report on problems in the community that we would rather not touch, well aware that we will be marginalized in some quarters for shedding light on issues that many would prefer to keep in the shadows. We take no joy in such exposes. They are approached with caution and written in pain. But we feel obligated, professionally and ethically, to seek truth and pursue it – without wrapping ourselves in sanctimony and false piety.
This pursuit can be lonely, but we are not alone. Several books have been published in the last several years on sexual abuse in the Orthodox community – a community that tends to be insular and where a combination of embarrassment, fear of bucking the religious establishment and harming family members’ chances of a successful shidduch [marriage match] combine to make going to the police problematic, particularly when some rabbis in authority discourage it.
Groups in New York like Survivors for Justice and the Jewish Board of Advocates for Children have been formed to provide advocacy, education and support for victims of sexual abuse and their families from the Orthodox world.
One journalist who stands out in his effort to report on this delicate issue is Phil Jacobs, executive editor of the Baltimore Jewish Times. Phil and I worked closely together at the Jewish Times for more than a dozen years and have remained friends and colleagues ever since.
Now he is the subject of a powerful and moving new documentary, “Standing Silent,” that chronicles his efforts over the last four years to expose cases of sexual abuse in the Orthodox community of Baltimore. Along the way he has brought some offenders to justice, raised consciousness about the problem of abuse, and alienated himself from powerful elements of the Orthodox community, to the point that he no longer feels comfortable in synagogues where he once prayed regularly.
“My standing has changed,” he told me. And he feels that there has been “a cover-up” by local Orthodox institutions that have harbored sexual offenders and refuse to acknowledge or deal with the problem honestly.
Phil, a man of integrity with a clear sense of right and wrong, is a ba’al teshuva [returnee to the faith], and he can’t understand how religious leaders can ignore the teachings of the Torah.
“It makes no sense to me,” he says.
The film, directed by Scott Rosenfelt, whose credits as a producer include “Home Alone” and “Mystic Pizza,” offers a sensitive portrait of the connection Phil has made with several survivors of abuse whose stories he has covered – and includes his own harrowing tale of how he was molested as a youngster, a fact he kept secret for decades.
Phil says his role of reporting on abuse was not one he planned.
“I do this because I really fear that children are being molested in school or at home or in camp, and I felt that my entire life and career led me to this, like I was tapped on the shoulder and told ‘here is an opportunity to make people aware and make change.’”
He acknowledges that there are times, like several shown in the film, when he becomes more of a crusading advocate than objective journalist, but he says he always tries to present the full story, “calling the other side [for comment] and covering the trials and printing the truth.”
While he won’t take credit for it, Phil notes that there have been positive communal signs of late, a recognition of and attempts to deal with a problem whose existence used to be denied. The Baltimore Jewish community, with help from its Jewish federation, The Associated, has created the Shofar Coalition, which offers healing therapy and services for men and women who have experienced trauma and abuse.
The Orthodox make up just over 30 percent of the Baltimore Jewish community; Elaine Witman, director of the coalition, estimates that at least 60 percent of the clientele of the healing groups is Orthodox.
Still, “I get calls regularly from people telling me they’ve been molested,” Phil says.
We receive such calls in our community as well. And we, too, remain committed to not standing aside “while your fellow’s blood is shed.”