Erica Brown

An Open Letter To Frank Bruni

Dear Mr. Bruni,

I hope this finds you well. Thank you for your memoir, “Born Round: A Story of Food, Family and a Ferocious Appetite.” I was not born round but have been successfully making my way to that shape for years. I admire your honesty and your discipline in discussing your weight struggles. On the food and family front, Jews and Italians have a lot in common. You do pasta. We do challah. It’s all carbs.

Let me be “Frank” with you. I read your July 23 column in The Times, “The Faithful’s Failings,” comparing abuse within the Orthodox Jewish community and the Catholic Church, and I was upset. You see, while you were fighting a battle with food as an adolescent, I was actually involved in an abuse case. A group of us came forward in this very newspaper. The abuser I helped to “out” was a rabbi. He went to jail, and I learned a lot about perpetrators and protectors. It was painful to see children hurt because of irresponsible adults who turned the other way. It hurt then. It hurts now.

So you wouldn’t exactly call me complacent. But I was deeply disturbed by your piece. I instinctively protect my people and would expect the same from you when an outsider takes them to task.

Putting aside that natural defensive impulse, I didn’t appreciate the too easy way you compared what happened in the Catholic Church with isolated cases in Orthodox schools and families. The distinction between broad-based institutional cover-ups that have impacted thousands cannot be compared to scattered cases within families and several disconnected institutions. There are not “patterns of criminality” here. There are crimes.

Thomas Plante, the psychiatrist who wrote “A Perspective On Clergy Sexual Abuse,” estimated that approximately 4 percent of priests in the past half century had a sexual encounter with a minor. That’s not a problem. That’s close to an epidemic.

Mr. Bruni, I would not call ours an “aloof patriarchy.” Although we have institutional heads, we do not have a centralized office to determine policy and hush-up problems. Most Jewish leaders I know could hardly be called aloof. If anything, we have an inclination to neurotic over-involvement.

But I must acknowledge that within the ultra-Orthodox community, a strong patriarchy rather than an aloof one, does preside. And this patriarchy can go unquestioned, sadly leading — at times — to the scurrilous behaviors you’ve described. If it appears I am making a distinction between types of Orthodoxies, you’re right. I am. Increasingly, there is a universe of difference between Modern and ultra-Orthodox Jews, and journalists who pay attention will note the not-so-subtle differences.

Jews have no doctrine of infallibility. We are a highly contentious and critical lot. God called us stiff-necked quite a while ago; it has stuck for centuries. We are tough on our leaders. Too tough sometimes. Most Orthodox communities boast multiple scholars and rabbis with similar educational backgrounds to the pulpit rabbi. This creates a more even-playing field; while it may diminish the influence of a synagogue rabbi, it helps keep leaders in check. Many rabbis — even on better days — have a flock of leaders, and few followers to manage.

In the recent Yeshiva University case you cited, the plaintiffs are not going after the perpetrators. We’ve heard almost nothing about them. Yet Rabbi Norman Lamm, a protector, issued a meaningful apology expressing total accountability. I have not heard any formal apology from anyone that senior in the Church with the kind of vulnerability and anguish he expressed.

This does not mean, Mr. Bruni, that I am absolving our people of any crimes. Thank you for singling out rabbis who speak without filters and say terribly damaging things without censure. It’s plain wrong. I am simply requesting a more nuanced approach in a journalistic world that is quick to create moral equivalences.

There is another fallout from all of the abuse coverage that few journalists take seriously enough: the cost this has had for religion generally. It’s too easy to dismiss the impact and worth of religious life because of the taint of abuse associated with some of its leadership. Take away religion and you take away a language of spirituality, moral grandeur, charity, aspiration and inspiration

So please be careful, Mr. Bruni, not only with my faith but with all faiths.

When it comes to religion, it is time for a media approach with greater subtlety and objectivity. When it comes to tradition, we must practice it with greater sincerity: “without being undone by it, without being tyrannized by it, without overdoing it.” These aren’t my words. They are yours. You said them about food. I say them about faith.

Thanks for listening.

Erica Brown is the scholar-in-residence for The Jewish Federation of Greater Washington. Her column appears the first week of the month.

About the Author
Dr. Erica Brown is the Vice Provost for Values and Leadership at Yeshiva University and the director of its Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks–Herenstein Center. Her latest book is Ecclesiastes and the Search for Meaning (Maggid Books).