On Tuesday, July 14, Bari Weiss resigned as opinion editor and writer at the New York Times. She had been hired by James Bennet in the aftermath of President Trump’s surprise victory in the 2016 election, when the Times’ editorial board recognized that its Opinion section had become univocal, and largely unrepresentative of the wider electorate which preferred Trump to Hillary Clinton. But after three years at the paper, Weiss was effectively pushed out; as she wrote in her resignation letter, “A new consensus has emerged in the press, but perhaps especially at this paper: that truth isn’t a process of collective discovery, but an orthodoxy already known to an enlightened few whose job is to inform everyone else.” And not being sufficiently cowed by that orthodoxy, she writes, “[has] made me the subject of constant bullying by colleagues who disagree with my views. They have called me a Nazi and a racist; I have learned to brush off comments about how I’m ‘writing about the Jews again.’ Several colleagues perceived to be friendly with me were badgered by coworkers. My work and my character are openly demeaned on company-wide Slack channels where masthead editors regularly weigh in. There, some coworkers insist I need to be rooted out if this company is to be a truly ‘inclusive’ one, while others post ax emojis next to my name. Still other New York Times employees publicly smear me as a liar and a bigot on Twitter with no fear that harassing me will be met with appropriate action. They never are.” (Not surprisingly, the editor who hired Weiss in the first place, James Bennet, was forced to resign in June because he had the temerity to publish a controversial op-ed by Senator Tom Cotton of Arkansas.) Bari Weiss is apparently a heretic, and heretics have lost the right to be treated with even a modicum of respect. We don’t engage with heretics; we silence them.
Five days before Bari Weiss’s resignation, Robert Unanue, the CEO of Goya Foods, announced that his company would donate one million pounds of food and one million cans of chickpeas to help the Trump Administration’s Hispanic Prosperity Initiative. While he was at the White House, Unanue said, “We’re all truly blessed at the same time to have a leader like President Trump, who is a builder, and that’s what my grandfather did. He came to this country to build, to grow, to prosper… We pray for our leadership, our president, and we pray for our country that we will continue to prosper and to grow.” Unanue’s comments were immediately deemed unacceptable, and a boycott of Goya Foods was quickly organized. Apparently, praising President Trump is heretical, and no multi-million dollar donation can offset such a violation of the new orthodoxy.
Let me be clear: I despise President Trump. I fervently hope that Trump’s time in office comes mercifully to an end on January 20, 2021. I also believe that choosing not to buy a certain product in order to punish a company is a legitimate use of the free market. But the swiftness with which this boycott spread – all because the CEO of a company praised the President of the United States – is frightening. Unanue’s offense was nothing more than being on the wrong side of the political spectrum; that alone is enough to proclaim him a heretic whose voice must be silenced and his business destroyed.
Unfortunately, the search for heretics under every rock and the consequent attempt to destroy them has infected the Orthodox world, too. Last week, a new and perhaps redundant example surfaced on the YouTube channel of Rabbi Yaron Reuven. In one particular video (which has subsequently been made private), Reuven speaks of the law of mesit – that is, that someone who inspires another to worship idolatry must be put to death. Immediately after this statement, the video presents a clip of Rabbi Yosef Mizrachi denouncing fourteen rabbis who, he says, are heretics and must be utterly shunned. The names of the rabbis appear on the screen, and include Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, Rabbi Efrem Goldberg, Rabbi Natan Slifkin, and others. The undeniable implication of the juxtaposition of the two clips is that the fourteen rabbis on Mizrachi’s list are all in the category of mesit, and deserve nothing less than the death penalty.
When I asked Reuven about how he could even take a chance on inspiring a violent follower to act upon his statement, he denied that he was actually calling for their deaths, and proceeded to tell me that he’s “simply warning the public from [sic] listening to people who are missionaries of falsehood and heresy.” Focusing on Rabbi Sacks, I asked what makes him a heretic; Reuven sent a video in which, he claimed, Rabbi Sacks denied that the Exodus was historically true. The problem is that in the video, Rabbi Sacks says no such thing; in fact, he makes a distinction between the first chapters of Genesis, which should be read metaphorically, and the Exodus, which should be understood literally. (When I mentioned this to Reuven and asserted that misquoting Rabbi Sacks is a form of slander, he told me that “You have to get your ears checked,” and “I’m sorry for what happened to you. You should learn more Torah and BeEzrat HaShem your mind will clear up.”) He also sent me a video where Rabbi Sacks states, “The rabbis in the tenth century laid down the following principle: If a biblical narrative is incompatible with established scientific fact, it is not to be read literally.” When I asked why this is heretical, he said, “Once Sacks says that science has to prove the Torah, he implies that science is superior to the Torah. This is heretical. If you do not understand that, then you need to learn more Torah.” Of course, Rabbi Sacks never said that science has to prove the Torah; in fact, he wrote an entire book, The Great Partnership, which demonstrates just the opposite. What Rabbi Sacks actually said is that Torah and science cannot contradict, which is something very, very different – and which anyone with a modicum of education can easily understand.
The pattern Reuven utilized in our correspondence is familiar, menacing, and far too easy. He first declares that something is heretical. When confronted with facts that show that perhaps the statement is not, in fact, heretical, Reuven asserts that since heretics have lost the benefit of the doubt, we have every right to assume that it was heretical. And thus the ominous, vicious, and logically fallacious cycle continues unabated.
My interaction with Reuven, which was not limited to what I reproduced above, demonstrated that his understanding of Torah is shallow, his grasp of logic faulty, and his drive to uncover heretics largely speculative fantasy.
Like the champions of the new orthodoxy in the United States, Yaron Reuven and Yosef Mizrachi attract the shallow and simple-minded by delineating an in-group – the elect – and a heretical community which must be silenced. Rather than engaging with those with whom they disagree and demonstrating why these rabbis are mistaken, Reuven, Mizrachi, and others of their ilk simply attempt to destroy. If someone asserts something which they deem incorrect, there is no attempt to understand or refute, only to silence. And in the most recent video, Reuven even implies that they should be silenced permanently. The fact that Reuven’s dubious crusade is predicated upon misquotes and faulty logic makes his heresy hunting as mindless and ignorant as it is sinister.
I would not waste time on fools like Reuven and Mizrachi except that they have made heresy hunting an essential part of their ministry, and have literally thousands of followers who believe every word they say. I will not fall into the same trap by attempting to silence them as they do to others. I will, however, call them out on their anti-Torah stance – a stance which makes a mockery of the phrase, “Its ways are ways of pleasantness, and all of its paths are peace.” The title of rabbi does not guarantee wisdom, or kindness, or depth; in the case of Reuven and Mizrachi, it denotes the opposite.
Are there ideas which are antithetical to Torah? Unquestionably so. Is heresy a concept within Judaism? Certainly, at least according to most authoritative sources. But is heresy hunting a Jewish idea? Are we obligated to discover reasons why someone is a blasphemer, or twist his words in order to prove that he is heterodox? Definitely not. Doing so is an absolute disservice to Torah. Rather than rushing to declare that a person is treif, we should, like G-d, look for a way to see him as kosher.
Intellectual growth and religious depth are acquired through active engagement, rather than by heresy hunting. We must actively give voice to those who would be silenced because they don’t adhere to a new orthodoxy. When silencing becomes the sole acceptable response to assumed heresy, dialogue is destroyed, depth is impossible, and thinking becomes a rarity. Judaism, and American society, deserve better.