Blood, tears and theodicy in Brooklyn

One of the most important lessons that journalists learn as they gain experience is that accuracy is not a matter of knowing more and more things about more and more subjects. The first thing that reporters must know how much they don't know. Humility then leads to the kinds of questions that produce accurate, insightful stories. I am not, of course, arguing against reporters studying to learn more about the stunningly complex world of religion -- of course not. In my experience, it is the reporters who attempt to learn more about religion who grasp the degree to which there is more to learn. I feel the same way, of course, about subjects such as science, the arts, sports, etc.

Learn more and you will ask better questions, for the simple reason that you have an increasing awareness of how much you don't know -- compared to those who live inside world's defined by the major faiths and myriad lesser known faiths.

A case in point: I once read about 5,000 pages of Mormon materials (children's educational materials offered the best insights) while preparing to interview two of the faith's top leaders. It helped me ask better, more specific questions. It also showed me how little I knew, even after taking graduate courses on new religious movements in American history. I needed pew-level knowledge, you see.

I bring this up because of the coverage that is unfolding right now about the brutal murder and funeral of 8-year-old Leiby Kletzky in Brooklyn. A reader wrote in to praise the basic Associated Press coverage of this hellish tragedy and I agree with that judgment. At the same time, this is a story in which the religious culture that is being covered is so unique, symbolic and content-rich that it must -- ironically -- have been easy for the reporters to realize that they had to be careful, clear and specific.

Read this part of the AP report and you can just hear the reporters and editors asking question after question to make sure they got things right. It's crucial, for example, that the suspect who has implicated himself in the murder -- Levi Aron -- is an Orthodox Jew, but not part of the Hasidic community.

The Hasidim are ultra-Orthodox Jews who live in somewhat insular neighborhoods. The streets are policed by a group of volunteers known as the Shomrim patrol. Many of the mothers who gathered outside the Kletzky family home Wednesday said the streets are normally safe enough for a child to walk home alone.

Adel Erps, like other neighbors, expressed shock the suspect was Jewish. “He’s a sick person obviously, but it hurts so much more,” she said.

Aron’s family was Orthodox but not Hasidic, and he lives about a dozen blocks away from the Kletzky family. When detectives arrived at his attic apartment around 2:40 a.m., they asked him where the boy was, and he nodded toward the kitchen. ...

Detectives saw blood on the freezer door and opened it to discover the feet inside, wrapped in plastic bags, according to the law enforcement official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because the investigation is still going on. A cutting board and three bloody carving knives were in the refrigerator, and a plastic garbage bag with bloody towels was found nearby. Aron told police where to find the rest of the body. ...

Later on, there is more background -- in part to help explain the visuals in photographs and video reports.

Hasidic Jews abide by strict religious rules that require men to wear plain, dark clothing that includes a long coat and a fedora-type hat. Men often have long beards. Most of the 165,000 members in the New York City the area live in Brooklyn and belong to three sects. Hasidism traces its roots to 18th-century Eastern Europe.

“This is a no-crime area,” said state Assemblyman Dov Hikind, whose district includes the neighborhood. He said the boy was the only son of the Kletzky family. The parents have four daughters, and the husband works as a driver for a private car service.

“Everybody is absolutely horrified,” he said. “Everyone is in total shock, beyond belief, beyond comprehension ... to suddenly disappear and then the details ... and the fact someone in the extended community ... it’s awful.”

As you would expect, the New York Times is all over this story and has reporters on staff who know they are dealing with a culture that is both local and foreign at the same time.

I was, in particular, struck by their somewhat risky decision -- in my humble opinion -- to put some of the blunt theological language of the funeral into print without any kind of context and/or clarification from other Hasidic believers and outside experts. I say this because I have Hasidic friends and I know how careful they are in expressing their beliefs.

Yet in the passion of this kind of scene, blunt words are often used that may make sense to the believers present, but not the reporters.

Let me stress that I think that it was good to go after this content. It is normal for strong religious messages to be present in funerals, as I wrote just yesterday. The issue, for me, is the degree to which outsiders can grasp the following without a bit more assistance (which is hard work, I know). Doctrine is tricky business.

The service began shortly before 10 p.m., and was marked by a speech from the boy’s father, whose voice shook as he stood before the crowd and addressed his dead son, saying in Yiddish that he was lucky to have had him, if only for nine years.

“Thank God we had him,” he said, according to a translator. And then, overcome by emotion, he went silent. A moment later the principal of Leiby’s school spoke.

“He got lost, he got lost,” he said, according to the translator. “There’s nothing to say, he got lost. God wanted it.”

Several rabbis also spoke in Yiddish through intermittent tears, repeatedly breaking down. They extolled the boy’s good qualities, and reminded the community to be careful, urging the adults to protect their children. At one point the rabbi of the synagogue that Leiby attended recalled the boy’s devotion to his studies.

“He was such a good learner,” the rabbi said, according to a translation. “He used to pray all day. It was a pleasure to have him in the class. We’re not the boss. Everything is as God wanted it.”

Yes, bad things happen to good people. The world is broken. Once again, reporters -- as in stories about twisters and tsunamis -- face the "theodicy" question.

This was a close call on a terrible, awesome, stunning story. I would be interested in hearing the views of Jewish readers on how the Times handled the theodicy content (please click here) in the funeral remarks. I am not saying that I would have done any better. I am saying that great, great care was needed in handling those remarks.

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