Sunday, July 5, 2009

My Censored Comment at Cross Currents

There is a certain honor in being censored, if honestly earned. It is very easy to be offensive and purposefully antagonize people and then claim the status of martyr when shut down; such actions do not count as being censored. What is meaningful is when one says something rather innocuous that still manages to get under people’s skin, causing them to react. This issue enters the blogosphere usually in the form of comments, which are then taken down by the host blogger because of some offense. As the rabbis knew, you can tell a lot about a person when they are drunk, spend money or get angry. What sort of idea can so enrage a person as to cause a reaction, particularly such an extreme reaction as taking a comment down? Granted, there is a time and place for such things. For example, if anyone were to attempt to use my comment section as a sounding board for White Supremacy, I would, once I stopped finding it funny, erase those comments.

Today I take pride at such a feat, earned at the hand of Yaakov Menken of Cross Currents. Menken posted a short piece titled “Creative Mistranslation,” in which he attacked the Jerusalem Post for its article on Haredi Shabbat protesters. Menken’s objection was that the article translated signs that quoted the biblical phrase “Mot Tamot” as “must die” instead of the more common “surely die.” While, to the best of my understanding, the Post’s translation is technically accurate; I agree that they should have used the more charitable translation. As such there are valid grounds for criticizing them. I wrote a comment that went along a slightly different path:

Considering some of the extremists at work, it is not unreasonable that many of them would take the biblical “he shall surely die” as meaning that someone should kill them. This would still be a step away from actual murder. One has to go from saying “in theory it would be right for me to kill someone” to actually doing it, particularly as this would mean going up against the legal system.
As a parallel example, when I see Muslims waving signs saying “death to the enemies of Islam,” I do not assume that they mean that Allah, in his own good time, will cause them to die. Rather they are making the ideological statement that Muslims have the theological right and even the duty to carry out acts of murder against those perceived as enemies of Islam.

I got a very nice email from Menken, saying:

I have to bounce your comment, because to say there are 'extremists' in Me'ah Shearim who believe all non-Orthodox Jews should die (a la the Muslim model) simply defies the reality. It's not what reciting the posuk (verse) means, and not what they intended. These are people who regularly have non-Orthodox Jews, people they've never met before, as guests in their homes for Shabbos meals.
Yaakov Menken

Yes Menken has every right to take my comment down; we live in a free country. In my defense, it should be noted that I do not accuse any Haredim of actually engaging in violence. I specifically noted that what I was talking about was “step away from actual murder.” I also did not compare Haredim to terrorists. I compared relatively peaceful Haredi protesters saying potentially dangerous things with relatively peaceful Muslim protesters saying potentially dangerous things. The issue at hand is not some vague “Muslim” model of kill all irreligious people. What is at stake is what, if any, practical role does the fact that the Torah has the death penalty listed for people who break Shabbos play in our world today, particularly in how we deal with Jews who do not keep Shabbos?

I do not know what those protesters, waving the signs, believe or what sort of conversations they are having behind closed doors. The moment you bring in words like “surely die” into play, it raises certain questions. If someone commits a sin carrying the threat that God will cause that person to die, does it mean that the person deserves to die or that it is a good thing that the person dies? If we assume the affirmative than are we allowed to play some sort of role in bringing this about or in allowing it to happen? Is it alright if someone saw a Shabbos desecrator injured in a car crash and left them to bleed to death on the pavement? If you were in a sealed room with a leading promoter of Shabbos desecration, someone who sins and causes others to sin, and you knew that no one would ever find out, could you put a bullet in that person’s head?

These are not simple issues and intelligent people will likely come down on different sides of this issue. (It should be noted that the Torah portion this coming week in Israel, gives me some pretty solid grounds to pull that trigger.) I hope that the Haredim with those signs are having this conversation. If they are not then they are just throwing around empty words. I have utter contempt for people who simply throw around open ended words without considering what they might mean and without having the moral spine to pay the full consequences for those words. I also fear such words, viewing them as ricocheting bullets. It was not that long ago when the National Religious community was burnt by throwing around a term like “Rodef,” someone whose continued existence is a physical threat to others. One of their own took this word to its literal conclusion and murdered a Prime Minister.

I think Menken’s rather peculiar argument at the end is telling. He argues that because many of the people at the protest gladly bring irreligious Jews into their homes for Shabbos, no one at the protest could have intended physical harm to irreligious Jews. Menken repeats this argument in the comments section when responding to someone else, saying:”I don’t need to do a survey, since I know how many of these protesters open their homes on Shabbos to guests they’ve never met, with or without the ability to even speak the same language.”Clearly Menken believes that this is some sort of trump cad argument and it essentially amounts to: “How dare anyone believe that Haredim are capable of violence, even when they clearly do engage in violence. Haredim invite people into their homes so they must all be kind and decent people.” To state the obvious, there can be people who invite irreligious Jews over for Shabbos and fanatics, who believe in violence, at the same rally and even standing side by side. Furthermore, there is no contradiction in the same person believing, in theory, that Jews who break the Shabbos should be killed and the willingness, in practice, to host an individual non Shabbos observing Jew in one’s home. Considering that Muslims have a reputation for hospitality, that they would never harm, even their enemy, while that person is their guest, this defense is ironic.

I am not arguing that Haredim are violent people; I know too many, who are some of the most wonderful people in the world. Some of these people are even relatives of mine. I am not even arguing that anyone at the protest is guilty of violence. What I am suggesting is that, just as “peaceful” “moderate” Muslims cannot play innocent when they throw around words like “death to the enemies of Islam,” we should not play innocent with such words as “surely die.” Words do mean things and, like bombs, they can explode and kill. We should respect ourselves enough not to hide behind petty apologetics.

The fact that Menken found what I said so troubling as to cause him to erase my comment (and then accuse me of saying things that I did not say) says something about him and what sort of line he has drawn as to what is acceptable. For him, that line is anyone who fails to simply engage in Haredi apologetics and dares to attempt to raise the tough questions. It does not matter if that person moderates what they say and is clearly not out to get the Haredi community as a whole. For Menken there is no such thing, anyone who does raise questions is, by definition, out to get Haredim.


Grey said...

Let's not forget that an "innocent discussion of rodef" led to one person actually taking the matter seriously and assassinating the Prime Minister. What's said behind closed doors doesn't matter in this light. The rhetoric might actually be taken seriously enough by somebody, and it's totally blind for them to not see it. And considering how important this seems to them, I doubt they'd make the mistake of being totally blind.

Anonymous said...

While I agree with you in principle, taken to a logical conclusion would mean that we'd have to censor all the 'mos umos' pesukim from the Torah, no?

Izgad said...

I am not out to censor the Bible. I do believe that we should talk about what such verses mean. For me they mean that, in the context of a theocratic state, one would in theory have some sort of theological imperative to execute someone for the crimes of heresy and blasphemy, which are implied by the act of breaking the Sabbath. That being said I do believe that it raises some questions when someone chooses, of all the verses in the Bible, to mention those that are about killing.
For more on this issue see the post here. (

Baruch said...

I've probably had about 5 comments censored from Cross-Currents. He censored my comment on his "Tea Party" post. Here's what I said:
"I hear the analogy, but I have recently been considering the haredi world is better identified with another group which has been in the news lately complaining of media bias, while looking at issues in a similar matter with well-written arguments: the Roman Catholic Church. One finds fascinating parallels regarding clerical authority, dissension, treatment of issues in the community, heterodox denominations. The parallels are not perfect of course, but the comparing and contrasting is fascinating.