De Blasio and the Sages
Editorial of The New York Sun | May 30, 2014
Editorials defending Mayor de Blasio are not our usual line, but it’s hard to recall a moment quite like the New York Times’ tirade against His Honor for appearing this week at the annual banquet of the Agudath Israel. The Agudah is the largest grass roots organization of fervently religious Jews. It has been holding an annual dinner for 92 years. It packs the Hilton’s ballroom with men in black garb and gray beards. They raise money for Jewish schools. Distinguished guests — judges, mayors, senators — are thrilled to attend.
The Times wants to change that. It sprang on Mr. de Blasio with a column by Michael Powell, who was irked that the mayor failed to quarrel with the keynote speaker, Rabbi Yaakov Perlow, who is known as the Novominsker Rebbe. Rabbi Perlow is also the head of the Council of Torah Sages. More distinguished than him one doesn’t get. The Novominsker Rebbe used his address this year to denounce a movement called “open orthodoxy,” which is led by Rabbi Avi Weiss of Riverdale. He seeks to open the orthodox rabbinate to women, a challenge to the Torah Sages, who oppose any effort to alter Judaism and still call it Judaism.
Mr. Powell also reported that the Rebbe gave a “shower of condemnation for Reform and Conservative Jews.” That was an error, columnist Rabbi Avi Shafran, bard of the Agudah, wrote to the Times after Mr. Powell’s column was issued. Rabbi Perlow did not attack other Jews. He was disputing unorthodox ideas. Not people. The rabbi was also quoted by Mr. Powell as saying the Reform and Conservative movements were among those who “subvert and destroy the eternal values of our people” and have “fallen into an abyss of intermarriage and assimilation” and would be “relegated to the dustbins of Jewish history.”
The discovery that Rabbi Perlow holds such views may have shocked the Times, but it did not shock the first person we called after the Times published Mr. Powell’s column. That was Rabbi Eric Yoffie, who recently retired as the leader of liberal Judaism’s largest body, the Union of American Hebrew Congregations. He’s one of America’s most cheerful (and smartest) religious leaders. “Ridiculous” is the word that he used to describe what he took to be Mr. Powell’s suggestion that “de Blasio should have gotten up and addressed the Conservative and Reform business.”
Rabbi Yoffie was animated on the point. “On church state grounds, I wouldn’t want him to get involved in that in any way,” he said. The Reform leader shares some of the criticism of the Agudah that Mr. Powell folded into his column on the banquet. Both he and the Timesman scorn the Agudah’s executive director, Rabbi Dovid Zwiebel, for insisting on the right of Agudah members to consult their rabbis before reporting suspicions of sexual abuse. This paper sees any effort to regulate when one may consult a rabbi as a prima facie violation of the First Amendment.
The Reform leader, like Mr. Powell, also agrees with Mayor Bloomberg’s effort to regulate the way ritual circumcision is practiced in the most Orthodox communities. This involves restrictions requiring written acknowledgment of the risks, if any, of oral suction of the circumcision wound. But even Rabbi Yoffie felt it would be “kind of silly” for the mayor to use the banquet to chide the Agudah on this point. This is particularly so, we would add, given that during the campaign Mr. de Blasio was among several candidates hanging back from an endorsement of the mayoral mohelal meddling.
It’s not our purpose here to sort out the religious debate. We’re no more qualified to do so than Mayor de Blasio is. It is our purpose to remark on the new intolerance, which the Times now extends to a mayor who delivers gracious, friendly, and appreciative remarks to a community of Torah Jewry. In our view Mr. de Blasio was way ahead of his critics. Not surprising, since it turns out that he used to represent in the City Council the district that includes Boro Park. He knows the community and likes it.
It was evident this week that his affection is reciprocated; scores of Rabbis and lay members of Agudah crowded around His Honor after his remarks. Our reporter there was reminded of the banquet several years ago when there were on the dais two hundred or so rabbis, all wearing religious garb, black hats and long beards. In the middle sat the two guests, Justice Antonin Scalia and Police Commissioner Raymond Kelly. What a tribute to the capaciousness of New York City’s spirit. Why suggest we welcome every possible racial, sexual, and national minority save those who live their lives according to the laws brought down from Sinai?