When it comes to strengthening his relationship with New York City’s diverse and fractious Jewish community, Mayor Bill DeBlasio, who has held that office for a little over five months, can’t seem to catch a break.
In January, he spoke what he probably thought of as routine words of praise for AIPAC, the famously effective pro-Israel lobbying power house — words that could easily have been spoken by any New York City mayor of the last four decades. Yet for those words of support DeBlasio was criticized in an open letter from 58 left-leaning Jews who claimed that “AIPAC speaks for Israel’s hard-line government and its right-wing supporters, and for them alone.” Shortly afterwards, DeBlasio sought a quiet way out of the corner into which his predecessor’s well-intentioned but ill-advised effort to regulate a particular circumcision procedure had painted the city’s health department. The Forward embarrassed him by demanding information concerning the health department’s efforts to enforce the controversial regulation in an effort to prevent him from allowing it to die of neglect.
The rhetorical excess of the mayor’s critics on these issues pales beside the firestorm of criticism arising out of his appearance at the annual fundraising dinner of Agudath Israel of America, the principal organization representing the interests of the chareidi community. No one, as far as I can tell, has objected to anything the mayor said in his speech at that dinner. He has been taken to task, rather, for failing to repudiate the incendiary remarks made by Rabbi Yaakov Perlow, the organization’s president, in his address at the dinner, which immediately preceded the mayor’s.
What was it about Rabbi Perlow’s speech that has occasioned this controversy? Michael Powell, who writes the regular “Gotham” column for the New York Times, is an experienced journalist with no detectable experience reporting on matters involving religion. Powell devoted two columns (May 29 and May 31) to Rabbi Perlow’s speech and the mayor’s failure to respond to it. He reported that Rabbi Perlow “assailed Conservative and Reform Judaism as ‘oblivious’ and said they had fallen into a pit of intermarriage and assimilation.’” The Forward quoted Rabbi Perlow as warning that “the Torah must be guarded from the secular forces that seek to corrupt its values” and who “completely subvert and destroy the eternal values of our people.”
Regardless of what you think of Rabbi Perlow’s remarks – more on that below – the criticism of Mayor DeBlasio for failing to repudiate them on the spot is patently unfair. Public officials in a city as diverse as New York give speeches all the time to all sorts of groups, including many that intensely dislike each other. Such public appearances are not only a time-tested way of obtaining electoral support from a diverse collection of constituencies, but also a way to reassure such constituencies that their needs will be given a respectful hearing at City Hall. Such appearances play an important role in the democratic governance of a vibrant modern metropolis.
Sometimes politicians misuse the opportunities that such appearances provide by telling each group what it wants to hear even if it contradicts what the same public official has told a different constituency at another event. It’s fair to hold a politician to account for engaging in such deceit, but no one has accused Mayor DeBlasio of acting in so dishonest a manner, whether in his speech at the Agudath Israel dinner or in any other dealings with the chareidi community. Rather, his critics are seeking to hold him responsible for a speech made by someone else who happened to precede him at the dinner.
To hold a public official responsible for what is said by another speaker at the same event, even though that speech is unrelated to and not mentioned in his own speech, makes no sense – particularly where, as here, the controversial statement is religious in nature, not a matter on which we would normally expect our public officials to take a stand. Do we really want to discourage public officials from addressing their diverse constituencies unless they first vet the speeches of everyone else speaking at the same event?
A clip of Rabbi Perlow’s speech is easily accessible on Youtube, and many – myself included — will no doubt find parts of it offensive. Rabbi Perlow was directing his remarks at his own core constituency and was using the incendiary rhetoric that has unfortunately become a staple of that constituency’s public discourse in recent years. He apparently gave little if any thought as to how his words might be received by anyone outside the Orthodox community. It probably never occurred to him that anyone outside Orthodoxy would hear what he was saying. Indeed, Rabbi Perlow’s speech contained such a quantity of Hebrew or Yiddish phrases that it would be difficult for anyone not steeped in the ideological framework of contemporary Orthodoxy to understand what he was talking about. Our non-Jewish mayor, even if he had been listening to Rabbi Perlow’s speech with rapt attention, would have had difficulty understanding it. It is clear from the two columns he devoted to the subject that Powell, the non-Jewish New York Times reporter, had such difficulty as well.
In this respect, a comparison of the Times and Forward reports of Rabbi Perlow’s speech may be useful. It appears that although neither reporter was sympathetic to Rabbi Perlow, the Forward’s reporter, Josh-Nathan Kazis, understood Rabbi Perlow’s main point, and that Michael Powell, the Times reporter, did not. The focus of Rabbi Perlow’s remarks was not his condemnation of Conservative and Reform Judaism, which has unfortunately become boilerplate in much of the chareidi world and would barely have been noticed by those for whose ears Rabbi Perlow’s remarks were intended. Rabbi Perlow’s primary target, was a religious approach championed by some on Orthodox Judaism’s left wing that has become known as “Open Orthodoxy”, an approach most often identified with Yeshivat Chovevei Torah, the rabbinical school founded by Rabbi Avi Weiss. The primary purpose of Rabbi Perlow’s speech was to persuade his audience, that Open Orthodoxy was just as “heretical” .as the non-Orthodox movements.
From the perspective of those who are seeking to remain loyal to halakhic Judaism without feeling compelled to reject the modern world in its entirety, understanding the true focus of Rabbi Perlow’s speech makes it more offensive, not less, but that’s beside the point. In his speech at the Agudath Israel dinner, Rabbi Perlow was speaking from a particular religious perspective. He was seeking to persuade others who purportedly share that perspective (at least in part) to accept his conclusion that a particular religious phenomenon is incompatible with that perspective. These are not issues on which politicians should be expected to take sides.
Even if Powell, the Times reporter, had been correct in his understanding of Rabbi Perlow’s speech, it’s unclear why he thought the mayor should have inserted himself into the middle of a religious controversy involving someone else’s religion. Then again, Powell may well have been too busy pursuing his own agenda to pay much attention to the agendas of those on whose actions he was ostensibly reporting. In both of his columns on this subject, he mentioned Agudath Israel’s somewhat equivocal position on reporting child abuse to the civil authorities. At one point in his second column on the Agudath Israel dinner, he referred to the mayor’s presence at the dinner as “intriguing” given the organization’s position on that issue, even though that subject had nothing to do with either Rabbi Perlow’s speech or the mayor’s – or, as far as I can tell, with anything said by anyone else in the course of the dinner. Powell apparently believes that if he finds an organization’s position on any issue unacceptable, public officials should not speak at any function of that organization, however unrelated the subject matter. Since he takes that position, I find it “intriguing” that Powell thinks himself qualified to lecture the rest of us on the virtues of tolerance.
But however reprehensible Powell and his ilk may be, Agudath Israel is not blameless in this incident. In the course of the last couple of decades, the chareidi community that the organization has represented has come into its own politically. With growing numbers, high voter turnout and an electorate that tends toward bloc voting, that community has attracted the attention of politicians of both parties. That Mayor DeBlasio himself came to speak at the dinner was a coup for the organization, and a sign of the chareidi community’s growing political influence.
There is nothing wrong with that process. Like numerous other constituencies of varying types and sizes throughout the country, New York’s chareidim have particular needs and interests, and they seek to use whatever political influence they can muster, quite properly, to fulfill those needs and protect those interests. That’s how American democracy works.
But along with growing influence comes increased responsibility to use that influence wisely. The more influential a particular community becomes, the more media scrutiny is likely to follow. Had Mayor DeBlasio not been a featured speaker at the Agudath Israel dinner, the mainstream press would have been unlikely to cover the event, and no one would have noticed Rabbi Perlow’s rant.
Agudath Israel’s growing influence, which the mayor’s presence at its annual dinner underscored, inevitably brings with it increased scrutiny from the media. That scrutiny should induce a commensurate increase in caution as to both the tone and the substance of the organization’s pronouncements. If Agudath Israel’s leaders really believed that a speech like Rabbi Perlow’s harangue against the dangers of Open Orthodoxy was an essential component of their annual dinner, then at least they should have scheduled that speech for after the mayor had left, since the mainstream media was likely to leave with him.
All right, I’ll admit to an ulterior motive here. I’d like to believe that if chareidi leaders become more cautious about the tone of their rhetoric when they realize that the mainstream media may be paying attention, that caution may lead them to tone down their rhetoric under other circumstances as well. The kind of incendiary language that constituted the bulk of Rabbi Perlow’s remarks, after all, is not only offensive, it’s also ineffective at best, and often counterproductive. Surely the cause of Torah – even the chareidi interpretation of Torah — would be better served by a more temperate tone.
But even if caution about comments likely to be heard by the general public through the mainstream media does not have a spillover effect on the chareidi community’s internal discourse, it would be a worthwhile step in its own right. Such caution would be advisable even from the narrow perspective of Agudath Israel’s organizational self-interest. If you want public officials to speak at your events, after all, it would be helpful if they could feel confident that they won’t be embarrassed for doing so.
But there is also a broader interest to be served. Even those of us who reject the chareidi self-image as the sole locus of Jewish religious authenticity must concede that the chareidi community constitutes a significant – and very visible – segment of those who seek to lead lives devoted to Torah and mitzvot. The harsh rhetoric that too often dominates public discourse in the chareidi world doesn’t only dishonor those who use it or encourage it. It dishonors Torah as well. In the words of Avtalyon, one of the teachers of the great sages Hillel and Shammai: “Sages, be careful in what you say.” (Avot 1:11).