AS AN opinion journalist for a major daily newspaper, I work in an environment that is wholly secular and almost entirely non-Jewish: For more than 20 years, I have written a twice-weekly column on the Op-Ed page of The Boston Globe. By and large, I have carte blanche to choose my own topics and express my own opinions, and am not expected to follow a "party line" or endorse a viewpoint I don't share.
Like most people, I comprise multiple identities. I'm a husband and father. I'm a free-market conservative. I'm a college and law school graduate. I'm the son of a Holocaust survivor.
And I'm a Torah-believing, shomer Shabbos Orthodox Jew.
Mishpacha's editors ask whether "the role of a frum journalist differ[s] from that of a secular one." I have a foot in both camps. As a columnist for a secular paper, I am held to the same professional standards as any other writer on the staff. Similarly, my choice of column topics and the manner in which I express my views are expected to be suitable for a general newspaper audience. While I often address issues of deep salience in the world of halachah and Torah-focused Yiddishkeit — crime and punishment, Israel and the Middle East, education, philanthropy, family life — the points I make, the language I use, and the sources of authority I cite are meant to engage a secular readership.
Over the years, for example, I have written numerous columns on hot-button questions of public policy, such as abortion on demand or same-sex marriage. My take on these and many other issues is obviously influenced by my Jewish hashkafah. Nevertheless, "because halachah says so" is not an argument I would make to a secular readership. That doesn't belong on the Op-Ed page of a metropolitan newspaper.
On the other hand, as a frum journalist I believe strongly that the Torah's wisdom and values are worth sharing with a wider, non-Jewish audience. Many of my colleagues steer completely clear of anything having to do with religion. But I have often used Torah-based texts and teachings in order to make arguments in the secular context of the opinion pages.
For instance, in a column on the world refugee crisis, I drew on language from the Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur machzor — "mi yanu'ach umi yanu'a" in the litany of fates included in Unesaneh Tokef — to emphasize how urgently we should regard the flow of displaced people. When the Southern Baptist Convention encouraged its followers to pray that Jews accept the Christian savior, I wrote a column quoting Psalm 145 (Ashrei) in order to explain the Jewish view that no one needs an intermediary to win G-d's forgiveness and help: "Karov Hashem lechol kor'av, lechol asher yikra'uhu be'emes." For years I wrote an annual column in the form of a letter to my oldest child, in which I stressed the importance of menschlichkeit, often invoking well-known midrashim to drive the point home.
And then there was the time a Republican lobbyist who also happened to be an Orthodox Jew was convicted of serious corruption charges. It was a heavily-covered scandal, with much discussion of the lobbyist's religion. I wrote a column about the gravity of chillul Hashem and the Jewish view of business ethics; among other things, I pointed out that the Talmud (Shabbos 31a) has taught for nearly two millennia that the first question one is asked in the world to come is: "Did you conduct your business affairs in good faith?"
After that particular column appeared, I received a letter from a friend of the crooked lobbyist, who berated me for engaging in lashon hara and publicly defaming a frum Jew with many mitzvos to his credit.
On that occasion and on others, I have thought hard about whether and when my obligations as a journalist to comment meaningfully on public affairs conflict with my obligations as a Jew not to engage in lashon hara. There is no question that far too much of contemporary media is a swamp of gossip, insult, and hotza'as shem ra. But not all lashon hara is halachically forbidden — where there is a legitimate toeles, such as deterring the community from a harmful action, lashon hara is not only permitted, but perhaps even required.
I have tried in my own writing to adhere to that distinction, being careful not to decry or condemn another person unless doing so is justified by a genuine public toeles. Frankly, the temptation is ever-present, especially as traditional media have been amplified by the Internet with its myriad avenues for bad-mouthing and mocking others. I wish I could claim that I've never made the wrong choice; I'm sure there have been times when I have fallen short. Of all the challenges a career in the modern secular news media poses to a frum Jew, I think upholding shemiras halashon is the most acute.
Then again, some halachic challenges have their advantages, too.
I am not the world's fastest writer, and editors have frequently, impatiently, had to remind me that my deadline had passed, and that they needed me to file my column now. But many years ago the Boston Globe's op-ed page editor discovered that I seemed to have no trouble making my deadline on Fridays — to be specific, Fridays during the winter. At other times, I might treat deadlines as more like suggestions than directives. But on those short Fridays, my commitment to getting my copy in on time seemed inviolable. Often, I even filed early. To my editor, the annual change in my work habits was a wonder to behold. It was almost as if I were answering to a Higher Authority.
Which, of course, I was.
(Jeff Jacoby is a columnist for The Boston Globe).
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