To differentiate his New York Times from its more sensational competitors, in 1896, publisher Adolph Simon Ochs adopted the slogan, “All the News That’s Fit to Print”—still displayed prominently on the paper’s masthead—insisting on a modicum of journalistic decency. (The New York Times left that reservation long ago.) Ochs’s slogan stood for the proposition that there is significance in what we choose to reduce to writing.
The Torah tells us the same thing.
After his brothers cast Yosef into a pit with the intent to kill him, Reuven pitied the young Yosef and “rescued him from their hands,” pulling him out of the pit and selling him to a band of Arab merchants traveling to Egypt (Bereishis 37:21).
The episode could have ended there, but then we are offered this glimpse into Reuven’s psyche: “Had Reuven known that G-d would write about him, ‘And he saved him from their hands,’ he would have carried [Yosef] back to his father on his shoulders” (Rus Rabba 5:6; Vayikra Rabba 34:9).
It’s not that Reuven was concerned with self-aggrandizement or in performing only when the media was watching and recording for posterity. He simply was unaware of just how monumental his actions were. Had he known that his deed was so momentous as to be worthy of publication in the Torah, he would have gone the extra mile, so to speak, and carried Yosef home on his shoulders (Eitz Yosef, Vayikra Rabba 34:9). Not every event in our forefathers’ lives was significant enough to warrant inclusion in the Torah. Some are detailed at length, while others are given only passing treatment, if that much. Thus, we are not told about the first 74 years of Avraham’s life or about Moshe’s life from 13 to 80, yet there are 15 verses dedicated to Yaakov’s striped and spotted sheep, and 21 more about Esav’s descendants. There is eternal significance to what was selected for publication.
Our written words also carry great significance. We are required to closely monitor and edit what we reduce to writing, which is the reason uncorrected seforim may be kept for 30 days—not longer (Kesubos 19b and Rosh ad loc.; see also Yam Shel Shlomo, Kesubos 2:14). Indeed, in a testament to the profound regard for the written word, some suggest that publishers would do well to fast and pray before releasing their publications (Sefer Chassidim, No. 1012). The Rambam cautions that, while one should review a speech two, three, or four times prior to delivery, one should review written materials 1,000 times prior to publication (Iggeres HaShmad). All this, because we ought to be a people not only “of the book,” but also “by the book.” What we record in writing for posterity must live up to exacting standards.
Our sages have always remained committed to maintaining such standards. During the printing of his Mishna Berura, the Chofetz Chaim personally visited the printing house each day to ensure that no smudged or otherwise defective pages were distributed for sale. After several months, the Chofetz Chaim had his son assume this task. When the Chofetz Chaim discovered that, despite his son’s diligence, one set had been sold with defective pages, he dispatched a pointed letter to his son: “What have you done to me, my son? All my life I’ve taken care to avoid anything resembling thievery but I never thought that I would err in outright robbery!” The Chofetz Chaim immediately ordered the printer to reprint the defective pages and offer publicly to provide corrected pages to anyone who received a defective copy. From then on, he hired proofreaders to inspect each page of the printed volumes, which, if unblemished, would be stamped “Proofread.” Similarly, R’ Elya Lopian’s Lev Eliyahu, published by his students, even today contains this front-page disclaimer: “Dear purchaser: This book is not proofread and I assume no responsibility—The Publisher.”
“Poverty is good for an author,” R’ Menachem Mendel of Lubavitch often quipped, “because if an author cannot afford to go to print, the work remains unpublished for extended periods of time, during which it can be edited and revised. A wealthy author, on the other hand, can afford to print works immediately, and those works are not sufficiently checked and edited.”
I feel compelled to comment upon a letter to the editor in last week’s Queens Jewish Link. I agree that the Queens Jewish Link should not interview and publish opinions about Halloween, and I don’t care much for the New York Mets (I’m a hockey fan myself). But those issues don’t bother me nearly as much as the letter to the editor about the Sassoon family tragedy—a letter so callous as to be downright offensive even to the passive reader.
The purpose of a letter to the editor should be to provide a forum for constructive debate and exchange on articles and other matters contained in the publication. But there can be no debate about the letter at issue. Its contents are not worth repeating—it was wrong as a matter of ideology, cruel as a matter of spirit, and senseless as a matter of fact.
Now, I don’t take issue (here) with the letter writer. This is still a free country, and everyone apparently is entitled to their opinion—however thoughtless and imprudent. But the Queens Jewish Link is not obligated to publish such opinions; on the contrary, the Queens Jewish Link has an obligation to refuse to publish heartless and misguided nonsense.
To be fair, newspaper publishers and editors face ample pressures: tight deadlines, varied and often competing readership backgrounds and interests, understaffing, and others. It is not difficult to understand why some publications might have trouble keeping up, which is why they make disclaimers, as the Queens Jewish Link correctly does. But, disclaimer or not, certain material should not be published. Some discretion is required.
As the Kotzker Rebbe famously opined, “Not all that is thought need be said; not all that is said need be written; not all that is written need be published; and not all that is published need be read.”
As for the letter at issue, it never should have been thought or said or written or published.
And I wish it never had been read.