Between A Rock And A Hard Place

Between A Rock And A Hard Place

By R' Yoel Schonfeld

Rabbi Herschel Welcher, rav of Congregation Ahavas Yisroel and chairman of Kashrus for the Vaad Harabonim of Queens, was once asked if the rabbanim in the neighborhood who are members of the Vaad get paid for their efforts. He responded that not only do we not get paid, but the dime that it costs for the aspirin to calm our headaches is out of pocket.

I’ve been asked numerous times if I get paid for serving as Rabbinic Advisor for the Queens Jewish Link. I guess I could respond the same way as Rabbi Welcher, except that I require more aspirin.

I was a big supporter of the QJL from its inception. I strongly felt that the time had come for the Queens Jewish community to have its own quality paper based on Torah principles. I was therefore flattered to be asked to serve as Rabbinic Advisor and accepted the appointment with enthusiasm. Naturally, with the title came challenges.

The most immediate challenge was to decide whether the QJL would publish pictures of women. Lately, it has become the policy of chareidi-type publications not to feature any pictures of women for reasons of tz’nius, modesty. The fact is, although it is often denied, that over the years it was common practice to publish modest pictures of women. The Jewish Observer, the now defunct monthly journal of Agudath Israel, certainly did publish pictures of women. Despite assertions to the contrary, the Observer, as is evidenced by the accompanying pictures, routinely did publish such pictures. To deny it is to deny historical fact.

Today it has evolved to the point where frum publications will not even carry cartoons or drawings of women. As a result, in their family settings depicted in children’s books, it is all men who bake challos for Shabbos, it is a pair of gloves that lights candles, and fathers only that take their children to the doctor. I kid you not. To me this is highly offensive and even makes a mockery of our Torah way of life – not to mention that I do not believe it is a healthy way to bring up our children.

I try not to micromanage my position and try to be as open-minded as I can about the contents of articles, provided they are not egregiously offensive and conform to Torah norms.

Of course, the other extreme is to allow a Torah-based publication to carry inappropriate or even suggestive pictures of women in articles or ads. It is not easy to strike the right balance. On occasion we missed the mark.

Take for example last week’s front-page picture of Ivanka Trump-Kushner. I was not happy with it – not that I was asked. True, she was dressed modestly, but her striking face did not have to be front and center on the newspaper. I would not have had a problem had it been embedded elsewhere in the paper. There is a reason why David HaMelech said, “Kol k’vudah bas melech pnimah – the glory of a royal daughter is not in the public arena (T’hilim 45:14).”

A few years ago a writer described a certain parade that should not have been mentioned in the paper. There was an uproar about it; these mistakes have been kept to a minimum. But mistakes nonetheless occur. I try not to micromanage my position and I try to be as open-minded as I can about the contents of articles, provided they are not egregiously offensive and conform to Torah norms, even if controversial.

For example, a columnist a while back wrote about the need to visit Har HaBayis. While the majority of poskim forbid Jews from visiting the Temple Mount today, there is a legitimate group that does allow it. I had no problem with the article being run, provided it was clear that this was not the majority opinion.

I am not often shown articles in advance, unless the publisher feels it may be controversial. This week I was shown an article that, while not terribly wrong in its position, nonetheless I felt it had a nasty tone and could also be offensive in an unhelpful way to the First Family. It will not be published. On the other hand, last week an article was written in which Ivanka Trump was compared to Queen Esther. I understand that some people were upset about that. I too was not so happy. Poor comparison, in my opinion. But I would not say this was out of bounds.

If you feel that you disagree with some of the contents in the paper, the best thing to do is: Write a Letter to the Editor. I did that when I objected to something my good friend Warren Hecht wrote. And he responded with a very kind and thoughtful response. The publisher is rightfully upset that people complain but they give no feedback. If your letter is not shrill or disrespectful, it will almost certainly be published. Go for it!

In conclusion, I can’t say that I am always comfortable with what the paper publishes. I have received calls to save my reputation and step away, but at this point I think I would be shirking my responsibility. The QJL makes every effort to be within Torah bounds. But within the spirit of the Torah, which does not shy away from criticism of its greatest leaders, we need to show some understanding for our human frailties. Work with us! Save me an aspirin.

Rabbi Yoel Schonfeld is the Rabbi of the Young Israel of Kew Gardens Hills, former President of the Vaad Harabonim of Queens, and the Rabbinic Consultant for the Queens Jewish Link.

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