Fit to Print| January 4, 2022
I’m not suggesting this story is the beginning and end of any discussion about frum journalism
During these weeks, this column is marking a decade in print. For me, passing this mark certainly triggers various memories and reflections, and some serious contemplation as well, about my personal role, and about frum media in general.
In the early 1900s, as Rav Eliezer Gordon, the rav of Telz, surveyed the communal landscape of Eastern Europe, he was deeply concerned by the spiritual damage being done by secular Jewish publications. Newspapers run by maskilim were rife with features and opinion columns that were influencing their readers to turn away from Torah beliefs and values.
Rav Leizer decided it was necessary to launch a competing newspaper that would advance the Torah worldview and take on those who in their writings sought to besmirch and distort it. Realizing such an undertaking would require a significant financial investment, he traveled to Minsk to meet with a number of wealthy balabatim there. He knew them to be insightful people, who were also descendants of the Vilna Gaon and Rabi Akiva Eiger, and he was hopeful of getting a receptive hearing for his idea.
Upon meeting with Rav Gordon, they agreed to throw their support behind a new publication, conditional on receiving the backing of Rav Chaim Soloveitchik for the project. They told Rav Gordon that Reb Chaim was about to marry off his son in a town near Minsk, and instead of making the journey to Brisk, he could attend the chasunah and speak with Reb Chaim there.
Reb Leizer indeed attended the wedding, where he and Reb Chaim spoke in learning and discussed various other topics. When the subject of the proposed newspaper came up, Reb Chaim said he agreed with the concept in principle, but that it wasn’t feasible in practice. “Such a newspaper,” Reb Chaim explained, “would have to be under the direct supervision of either the Lodzer Rav, Rav Elya Chaim Meisel, or me. But neither of us has the time or the energy needed to review every detail of the newspaper before publication.” And with that, the idea was laid to rest.
The implications of this story (which Rav Meir Soloveitchik, who escaped from Brisk with his family to Eretz Yisrael, once reported that he heard from a resident of Brisk who was among the group that met with Rav Gordon), are quite sobering. For Reb Chaim, it seems, the task of producing journalism imbued with authentic Jewish values was no easy matter, requiring no less than the hands-on oversight of one of the gedolei hador. There was surely no dearth of accomplished talmidei chachamim who could review each issue of the newspaper, yet this would not do.
But there’s an even more arresting implication that emerges from this story. It’s apparent that the responsibility for what could go wrong in such a venture and the gravity of the stakes involved — the possibility of readers absorbing ideas and values that were not fully consonant with those of gedolei Torah — justified not proceeding with it at all.
We could well imagine someone hearing Reb Chaim’s psak and asking the obvious question: Isn’t a newspaper operated under Torah-observant auspices, even under less-than-optimal supervision, a far preferable choice for a frum readership than the highly objectionable alternative of publications produced by maskilim? Or in a similar vein, isn’t it worthwhile for a restaurant to open under frum management, even if it employs “self-supervision,” when the only other eatery in town advertises itself as kosher but is known to purvey food that’s anything but?
I don’t know the answer to that question. And I’m not suggesting that this story is the beginning and end of any discussion about frum journalism. But reviewing it gave me a great deal to think about, especially as I embark on the next decade navigating a media environment that would make the maskilim editors of Rav Gordon’s day blush.
Originally featured in Mishpacha, Issue 893. Eytan Kobre may be contacted directly at firstname.lastname@example.org
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