By: Yitzchak Fried  | 

Political Journalism in the Orthodox World

In the last edition of this paper, former Editor-in-Chief Yechiel Schwab reflected on the role of journalism in society. His article “Newspapers: Defenders of Conversation and Great Writing”, insightfully points out that not all journalism is meant to be political. At its core, journalism, like all writing, is a means of communication. Its great achievement lies in the fostering of clear, open, conversation – whether or not that results in, or even anticipates, political action.

He’s right in part. Like he says: “Most articles don’t aspire to cause change, but simply serve to provide information. Long-form articles, interviews, discussions about art, even editorials and most news pieces, usually serve to convey truth and information to the reader.” Journalism is about truth and information, and being informed is not always about being political. We enjoy conversation about art and films and museums as much as about issues of social policy. If journalism is fundamentally a means of public conversation, it is valuable because it nurtures those conversations that make us enriched and informed.

Even Thomas Paine – a fiery political journalist if there ever was one – agrees that news isn’t only about politics. In his time, Paine bemoaned that contemporary papers were “almost wholly devoted to news and commerce” and “afford but a scanty residence to the Muses.” He imagined papers as a way to keep society cultured, creative, and, yes, entertained. The ideal American paper would have something for everyone – sections on artistic and scientific developments, as well as on the drab news and politics. Paine “consider[ed] a magazine as a kind of bee-hive…Its division into cells, gives every bee a province of its own; and though they all produce honey, yet perhaps they differ in their taste for flowers... Thus, we are not all philosophers, all artists, nor all poets” (“The Magazine in America”).

But to my mind, beyond clear communication, there is an equally basic function of journalism that is, fundamentally, political. An informed public is a dangerous public; it is a public that is empowered to judge its reality and make decisions about whether or not to change it. After all, even Paine’s article about the enriching function of the press was a call for Americans to write better newspapers.

It is perhaps a sign of our society’s political lethargy that we place “being informed” about social issues in the same category as cultural enrichment. The reason why freedom of the press is constitutionally protected in America is not only to ensure that we can read up on the arts and sciences. It is protected because the press is fundamental to political discourse; it is part and parcel of the machinery of democracy. Supreme Court Justice Stephen Breyer put it well in the Tanner Lectures of 2011: “the [First] Amendment…seek[s] to facilitate a conversation among ordinary citizens that will encourage their informed participation in the electoral process.” The First Amendment, according to Breyer, “encourage[s] the exchange of information and ideas necessary for citizens themselves to shape that public opinion which is the final source of government in a democratic state.” An uninformed population cannot act and cannot self-govern; and so, “the Amendment helps to maintain a form of government open to all citizens without exception.” In short, being informed is about being political. It’s not only investigative reporting that serves a political function; all journalism is meant to raise communal awareness and enable communal action.

So much for the function of journalism in American society. But zooming in on our narrower community - the Orthodox world - I think that Schwab’s praise of depoliticized journalism stems from a real tension between political journalism and our communal decision-making process. The Commentator is a means to inform its readership of issues of relevance to our community. But not all of those issues are ones that, within the apparatus of our society, are given to the members of the community to decide. Schwab’s idea of apolitical journalism seems particularly appropriate to our discussions of religious practice. These discussions embody a strange situation – a communal discussion of an issue in which the community is a putative spectator.

“An informed public is a dangerous public; it is a public that is empowered to judge its reality and make decisions about whether or not to change it.”

For example, in April 2014, The Commentator published “When Rabbi Lamm Allowed Women to Wear Tefillin and Form Minyanim”. That article discussed the opinions of several rabbis regarding the propriety of women’s wearing tefillin; the rabbis quoted including YU’s own authorities, Rabbi Schacter and Rabbi Twersky. What is remarkable, however, is that the issue at hand was not one that, within our community, falls under the rubric of communal action. On matters of Jewish law and practice, the laity looks to its rabbinic authorities – which is why the quoted names cited on both sides of the women-and-tefillin debate were the article’s most salient nuggets.

It is interesting to consider what purpose such articles serve. As a form of communal discussion, they seem something like the grumbling that takes place in the back of shuls. They are interesting, and often passionate and serious, but never political.

This is a peculiarity of the press in our society. But it is a natural consequence of how Orthodoxy makes its decisions. Rabbis are not elected officials and religious law is not based on communal decision making. True, the humanitarian implications of religious law often peak communal interest. But however empowered such discussions make the community feel, they don’t change the fact that normative practice is not in the hands of the laity. Ultimately, the discussion raised by such articles seems little more than speculative debate about the legitimacy of how those who can decide, have decided. Perhaps we are right then, in the case of social issues relating to religious law, to treat “being informed” as a form of moral-cultural enrichment. There seems to be little role for the community, here. Indeed, it is understandable if rabbis see discussions of religious social policy as an encroachment of the laity into an arena in which they have no business.

I do not mean to suggest that there is necessarily an antagonism between rabbis’ decision making and the laity. That depends on the community’s internal attitude toward authority – and the extent to which that internal attitude diverges from the practice of authority in Orthodox society. Down this line of thinking, I believe we can find a more serious function of our “apolitical” communal discussions of religious law and social policy.

Not every authority figure is antagonistic. Authority rooted in knowledge and experience can provide those who accept it with the guidance they need to meet their own goals. Eric Fromm, in his book Escape from Freedom, calls this type of authority “rational authority”. Such authority is a means to an ends. Its archetype is the platonic relationship between a student and teacher: the student wants to gain knowledge, and the teacher helps him to gain it. For the teacher’s part, there is nothing absolute about his authority over the student. On the contrary, the teacher works to dissolve his authority, by helping the student become an authority himself and so closing the gap between himself and his pupil. Of course, learning will mean that the student must give up some his own agency in order to follow the instructions that his or her teacher recommends. But this abdication of agency is done by the student in the name of his choice to pursue knowledge.

The Orthodox community’s submission to rabbinic authority functions in much the same way. So long as the community chooses to structure itself according to religious law, it abdicates its agency on particular social issues in the name of meeting this choice. But, the process can only continue so long as the community continues to believe that rabbinic authority embodies the values it seeks in religious, communal, and individual life. One who feels that his or her leadership is not meeting those needs will find a different community.
I think that herein lies the function of our “apolitical” journalism; it is a communal (or inter-communal) discussion of values – which, yes, for the devout, include religious integrity and respect for tradition. But for all of its deference and sideline reporting, such journalism raises an implicit question: which line of rabbinic leadership best meets the values we believe and which the community should embody? Rabbis may preach, but the laity, the community in flesh and blood, judges the preaching according to its internal values.

It stands to reason then, that even the Orthodox community utilizes the press for politics. It’s not so much the technicalities of religious social policy that we debate (although, as the passionate back and forth over partnership minyanim in 2014 demonstrated, we occasionally do that as well – see “Women in Tefillin and Partnership Minyanim” and the response, “The Halakhic Status of Partnership Minyanim” in the February and March editions of this paper). Our communal debates on religious social policy are rather about the question of a community’s continued commitment to a particular religious authority. At least, that’s what writhes under their surface.

Our journalism is political, even when we discuss matters of religious practice. It’s merely a question of to what extent we admit that fact to ourselves.