Foregone Conclusions

guilty

Since Yom Kippur is coming up I suppose it’s only natural to become more introspective. One mitzvah that I’ve often struggled with is being dan l’chaf zechus (the obligation to judge someone favorably).  This is a mitzvah that seems obvious, but is a lot harder to keep in actual practice. It’s funny how we can clearly see injustice when we are the ones being judged unfavorably, but we can’t see the injustice when we are the condemning arbiter.

Thinking about this today, I came up with a useful analogy for myself.  I worked for many years as a researcher, helping to provide guidance and concrete examples for a group of writers who wrote reports on best business practices.  In my experience, there were two types of writers.

The first type of writer would come to me with a proposed hypothesis, and would ask me to do a search to see if the literature supported their conclusion.  Were there numerous articles in respected business publications touting the proposed best practice? Were there examples of companies who were engaged in the practice? Were there professional organizations devoted to the practice? Were there educational and/or certification opportunities to train people in the practice? Basically, was there any proof out there that this actually was a best business practice.  If the answer was yes, great! If the answer was no, than these types of writers were flexible about changing their hypothesis and going in a different direction. They weren’t afraid to be wrong.

The second type of writer would come to me, not so much with a proposed hypothesis, but with a foregone conclusion. They had most likely been in on a meeting with internal experts (consultants who acted as their advisors) and an innovative best practice had come up in conversation.  Perhaps it was a concept that currently had more buzz in theory than in actual practice, but the experts may have spoken about it with authority, and therefore, the writer was certain that there would be enough information about it to make it the focus of their report.  They had already plotted out the report in their mind and just needed me to fill in the blanks of their outline.  When I came up empty, they felt certain I hadn’t checked thoroughly enough, or that surely a wealth of information existed underneath some unturned magical rock. The reality was that consultants often engaged in “next practice” thinking, as they should.  They often predicted the next best thing, and sometimes they were right in the moment, sometimes they turned out to be right a year or so later, and other times they were wrong – but as executives tend to do – they always presented their theories as fact. It was up to me and the other fact finders to determine the truth.  However, even after many fruitless attempts, it was still hard for these writers to let go of their original hypothesis and accept that they needed to change their focus. Sometimes they never accepted it, taking the information they were given and twisting it into a poorly supported paper in defense of their original concept.

I have often been like that second group of writers when it comes to judging others favorably, ultimately to my own detriment, and I think there are others like me who struggle with the same thing.  Meaning, we often form theories about people and circumstances, and instead of being open to other interpretations of events, we form a (negative) hypothesis and run with it.  Even if the evidence before us can be taken more than one way, or doesn’t support our theory at all, we choose to twist our findings into whatever supports our foregone conclusion. Dan l’chaf zechus is even harder to achieve in our personal interactions, because there is a greater emotional component involved than in my work example.

I can think of a stupid situation where I got “in my feelings” (really I was the only stupid thing about the situation) and made a faulty judgement that snowballed into me judging someone unfavorably. Here were the stages of judgment –

The Snub

A family we had been privileged to share many Shabbos and Yom Tov meals with cancelled coming over to our house during Pesach because they remembered they don’t eat out over Pesach.

Did I –

Accept the cancellation graciously and take it at face value

Or

Determine that there was an underlying reason for the cancellation such as – They Don’t Trust Our Kashrut Dammit!

The Evidence

With the kernel of kashrut rejection in the back of my mind, I was sensitive to any signs that my hypothesis was correct. It didn’t take very long to confirm my theory, as we invited the family to come for a Shabbos meal after Pesach and they accepted. HOWEVER – they insisted on bringing over extra food that would have “gone to waste otherwise,” and ended up bringing over almost an entire meal.

Did I –

Appreciate the generosity of our guests and laugh over the large quantity of food we now had between my efforts and theirs

Or

Take their action as a further sign that they did not trust our kashrut and felt the need to bring their own food

Each step of the way I could have gone with either the first or second option, and I chose the second.  In fact, had I gone with the first option at the beginning, there would have been no need for a second step looking for confirming evidence against my friends.  I stubbornly stuck to my original hypothesis and saw future interactions through those lenses of judgement. Fortunately, I kept my suspicions to myself, and over a short amount of time (actually during the meal in question where all ate heartily from every dish regardless of origin) realized how foolish I had been. As I said earlier, this was a rather stupid (read small) situation, but faulty judgements about bigger and more important issues are made this way all the time.

During this time of judgement for the Jewish people, we shouldn’t be afraid to be wrong about our own conclusions against others. It’s ok to change our hypothesis after reexamining the facts, even if it means letting go of a long held theory. Just as we must strive to be flexible and favorable with our judgement towards others, may our Creator show us that same flexibility and mercy in return.

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Facebook Pulled The Rug From Under The JBlogosphere


Remember when you gave up reading Failed Messiah for Aseret Yemei Teshuva? It’s author, Shmarya Rosenberg, was but one of many town criers exposing the underbelly of the orthodox Jewish world. Rosenberg and naysayers like him have largely gone silent.

Is this because many of the societal issues that took place during the JBlogging heyday of 2000-2010 have been resolved? Has day school tuition dramatically lowered? Has the stigma surrounding mental health gone away? Has sex abuse been eliminated? Have we discovered a compassionate approach towards LGBTQ Jews? Have people stopped committing fraud and other white collar crimes? Have things simply  gotten better over the past several years?

If not, maybe the jaded bloggers who attracted hundreds of followers have all become baalei teshuvas? Maybe they turned over a new leaf and either see things in a different way or now agree with sweeping things under the communal rug? 

Maybe many of them decided to leave the community and its angst behind, going frei, so to speak?

I would argue that the miles of comments containing passionate debates and discussions on the blogs of yore have been replaced by Facebook – but Facebook threads can never hope to replace the raw honesty that happened when people were able to comment anonymously on blog posts. This is because on Facebook you can’t hide.  

Sure, there are folks who try to get away with fake Facebook profiles.  While they might last for awhile, if they get too intense or insulting towards those Orthodox Jews who love debating with frum critics, their profile will get flagged and deleted.  Long term fake profiles only work if the person behind it lays low and mainly observes.

On Facebook, you have to stand behind what you say – with your own name, and with your own face. That can inhibit discussion and critique when you are part of a world with only two or three degrees of separation between you and everyone else. The only town criers left seem to be those who are no longer part of the community, on the edge of it and don’t care who knows it, or the truly courageous among us.

Facebook not only caused the downfall of the JBlogosphere network, but also took away the anonymous platform that critics within the community used to have. These pseudonymed critics often had the valuable vantage point of a current insider’s perspective, rather than the perspective of those outside of the system or those who made their exit many years before. Shmarya Rosenberg wasn’t anonymous, so people knew how to get to him. The buzz online was that he was paid to stop blogging about the ills of Orthodoxy.

Many would say that the abolishment of the “Failed Messiahs” is a good thing. What do you think?

Hair Today, Gone Tomorrow?

Orthodox day school kids are currently undergoing a back-to-school ritual common across across all hashkafot – lice check. Nothing freaks us out more than the thought of our kids being exposed to nits and lice – and nothing helps nits and lice spread like wildfire than having a bunch of infested kids in close quarters bumping heads in crowded classrooms. Hence the regulatory hair check before being admitted to school in the fall.

Apparently, there is at least one girls’ school in Lakewood that is killing two birds with one stone when it comes to lice check. As long as they are checking hair anyway, lice check is also the perfect opportunity to enforce a mandatory hair length requirement. 

In a letter to the parent body, this school stated that in order to be admitted to this school, hair length may not exceed four inches past the collarbone, irrespective of how it is worn (loose or in a pony). One has to wonder what would happen if a girl came with hair that was too long? Would she and her mother be publicly called out and sent away, chastised and ashamed, for a haircut? 

First they went for the moms’ wigs, now they’ve gone after the daughters’ hair. That’s right, yet another new and arbitrary tznius rule is being imposed, this time directed at young girls.

Every new rule regarding tznius always has wider implications – simply because it’s an area where every school has to keep up with the Joneses. If a competing school doesn’t have this hair rule, now it will be seen as the “less frum” option. You can bet that next year a letter stating a similar requirement about hair length will go out to its own parent body. This standard will then slowly trickle down until it reaches schools that aren’t bais yaakov institutions and aren’t even made up of yeshivish families. Is this new rule merely yet another means of exclusion and exclusivity disguised as frumkeit?

Some people are saying that this is an example of the community’s enforced lack of autonomy and over- sexualization of minor girls that is causing young women to go off the derech. When girls have no means of creative expression over their appearance (nail polish, jewelry, hair styles, hair length, clothing), sometimes it causes them to act out in more serious ways. Don’t sweat the small stuff and give them some wiggle room to rebel over the insignificant things. There may come a time when hair length is the least of the worries.

Another Rosa Parkenstein 


Video credit YWN 

I saw this video clip make the rounds a few weeks ago and it popped up into my Facebook feed again this morning.  The video shows a young woman being asked very brusquely to move to the back of the bus, her refusing to do so, and the bus employee/owner (?) threatening to call the police and even make a citizen’s arrest himself if she doesn’t move to the back!

The young woman’s male companion defended her position to remain up front, or if not, offered to sit in the back with her, which the bus representative also refused.  The bus employee indicated that this wasn’t the first time the young man had protested the bus’s seating arrangements and that he would (yikes!) call the man’s parents! Only on a heimishe bus service, eh?

My understanding is that this incident took place on the Heiman Bus Company at its NY to Montreal bus route.  Apparently this is a private orthodox bus service that enforces separate seating for men in the front and women in the back.  I don’t know the intracacies of the bus service’s operations, but if it really is a private bus service, they do have the right to require gender segregated seating, just as anyone who doesn’t like it has the right not to patronize their service.

An example of a bus company that got itself into similar hot water in 2011 is the B110 bus, which runs between Williamsburg and Borough Park, and has been run by Private Transportation Corporation since 1973, under a franchise with the city of New York. The New York Times reported:

….the bus’s practices gained widespread publicity after The New York World, a Columbia Journalism School publication, reported that a female rider was told by other riders that she had to leave the front. The story was quickly picked up by bloggers and even came to the attention of Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg.

Speaking at a news conference on Wednesday, the mayor said that segregating men and women was “obviously not permitted” on public buses. “Private people: you can have a private bus,” he added. “Go rent a bus, and do what you want on it.”
Even though a private operator runs the bus, it was awarded the route through a public and competitive bidding process. Seth Solomonow, a spokesman for the Transportation Department, said the bus was supposed to be “available for public use” and could not discriminate.

Depending on whether or not the Heiman Bus service runs its routes through a public bidding process, it could face the same charge of discrimination as the B110 bus did and be forced to change its practices.  However, if it is run as a private rented bus as Mayor Bloomberg recommended, Heiman Bus does have the right to run in a segregated manner.

I have mixed feelings about what this young man and woman did, because while I admire their chutzpah in taking a stand against discrimination, my argument has always been that gender segregated seating has no place on public transportation. I believe that folks who want segregated seating should make their own private transportation arrangements that don’t infringe upon the rights of others.  If that is what the Heiman Bus service accomplishes, why protest? 

Again, there might be more to the story, as there often is, so feel free to enlighten me.

The Jewish Observer – Ahead of Its Time

I recently reread a 2015 Haaretz article by Avital Chizhik-Goldschmidt entitled, Inside the World of ultra-Orthodox Media: Haredi Journalists Tell It Like It Is that had an interesting interview with Mishpacha magazine’s news editor Binyamin Rose. In the article, Rose justified the exclusion of women’s images in his magazine by saying – 

“This is how we avoid the objectification of women,” Rose answers to me in an earlier meeting. “Our policy is that we do not alter pictures as they are. If there is a woman in a photograph, we’ll simply use another picture.”

“I can only put it like this,” he says. “Based on community standards, there are constraints for our work.”

“Mishpacha isn’t going to be the first to introduce women into the magazine. If the standards were to change, it’s a subject that can be reconsidered. But I don’t like to make predictions. Today, a significant readership would object to images of women – we won’t break ranks with them.”

The good news is that Mishpacha doesn’t have to be the first to introduce women into Orthodox magazines – there has already been a trailblazer in this arena – The Jewish Observer, an Orthodox magazine published by Agudath Israel of America from 1963-2009. Since The Jewish Observer already set this precedent, maybe it will be easier for magazines such as Mishpacha to reverse their policy about including women’s photos in their publications.  

Below are examples of photos from The Jewish Observer (keep in mind that the early years of the magazine had mostly text content and very few images in general, and due to the photo quality you have to squint to see some images).  

I love seeing these photos; even the advertisement drawings.  They bring to life what women and girls of these previous generations were like and what sorts of things they did, what they thought, what they bought, and what styles they wore. I only wish there were more images to look through. 

Just think of the vital history that’s already been lost and that continues to be lost every day since ultra Orthodox media has eliminated female images! It’s not only the images, but once you cut out the image, the magazines tend to cut out the women themselves.  

For example, in 1985 The Jewish Observer did a cover story on Selma Mayer, known as Schwester Selma.  She was the head nurse at the original Shaare Zedek Hospital on Jaffa Road in Jerusalem for nearly 50 years. For many years she was the right-hand assistant of the hospital’s founding director, Dr. Moshe Wallach. It’s hard to imagine how an ultra Orthodox paper would profile such a woman today, without using any photos.  Most current magazines probably wouldn’t run large stories on modern day heroines – precisely because of the picture problem. Hence, women are being left out of Jewish history in a major way.

Along those same lines, based on The Jewish Observer’s trend in photos, because women are left out of the general narrative, these female-free publications morph into “men’s magazines,” written from a man’s lens, even though they are marketed as family publications.  This means that women aren’t portrayed as autonomous individuals, but solely as daughters, brides, wives, and mothers.  The lack of complete coverage paints a false picture that the only roles for females in Orthodox society are as children or as whatever relationship they are to a boy/man – because women are only discussed and visually represented (in drawings or blurred photos) in these capacities. 

The evolution of these photos from 1964-2009 is quite remarkable.  The heyday decades for women’s photos seem to be from the mid 70s to the mid 90s.  The turn of the century marked the gradual erasure of women from The Jewish Observer.  If anyone knows of a major public prohibition against women’s photos from a prominent rabbi or organization from the turn of the century, please enlighten me.  Perhaps competing publications started that banned female images and The Jewish Observer felt they had to follow suit or lose revenue?  I hope you find these images as interesting as I did.

Edited to add – here is an anonymous letter to the editor from 1992 criticizing The Jewish Observer for publishing photos of females in its pages.  The anonymity speaks volumes, as this female-free policy seems to have no direct attribution to any Torah authority (if there is a direct attribution to be made, he/they don’t make it easy to find their names or quotes).


-letter hat tip Fred MacDowell on Facebook

Photo Essay of Female Images Published in The Jewish Observer 1964-2009

-compiled by Sharon Shapiro, 2017