Sunday, April 19, 2009

When Words Go Forth

This post was fulminating over Pesach. I was not sure it was ever going to see the light of day. But I finally decided that it should be posted, perhaps not for the reasons I originally had. It concerns the Streits company and the vaadim of Queens and The Five Towns. Much has been said on this subject already and The Rebbetzin's Husband put out a posting last night as well. Feelings are running high. Why add to the bonfire? Not being a Rav I'll keep away from any halachic issues regarding the kashrut of the Streits product as well as any other halachic issues that may have been raised. Being an English teacher, I'll restrict myself to those parts of the issue that fall within my experiential purview.

We live in the information age. As such, words have particular import in and on our lives. We also live in an electronic age. Information, and the words used to supply that information, is no longer a slowly transmitted item. Nor is that information limited to the local venues where it originally comes forth from. We can and do access information from across the globe, and we do so instantly. For the most part, our lingua franca is English, regardless of where we may be residing. I don't believe that anyone can argue the factuality of the statements above. And it is precisely English--how it is transcribed, how it is sent out, how it is understood--that is at the crux of this problem.

A statement was made by the vaadim of Queens and The Five Towns that they would not be allowing Streits matzah to be sold for Pesach in the stores under their supervision for this past Pesach. An article in The Jewish Star reported on this decision. All material that was direct quotes from those involved in these two vaadim was placed in quotation marks, giving proper attribution to those who said the words published. In the heated discussion that has followed publication of the article not one person quoted in the article has protested that their words were incorrectly reported; in fact, such a protest has not been made anywhere. Absent any protestations that someone was not correctly quoted, we can assume that what was said has been accurately transmitted. We can do so because we are also quite aware that when words have been inaccurately quoted in a publication, the person/people being quoted have quickly and vociferously protested that they were not correctly quoted. Retractions and explanations come quickly on the tail of false information. So, the words of the article stand as written.

I'm quite aware that a firm command of the English language is not a requirement for getting smicha--neither is a course in the principles of Aristotle's Rhetoric. Perhaps they should be. It's my personal opinion that no rabbanim should be making pronouncements of any kind unless and until they work through the import of the English words they are using on the readers/hearers of those words. Rabbanim in particular should be aware that it's not what they MEANT to say that will be judged but what they actually said. I've drilled into my students thousands of times that it is not the writer who must be first considered when penning words but the reader: How will the reader see what is being said?

One key point in writing is to anticipate the questions that the reader will have. If a pronouncement is made, the first question that will arise in the readers' minds will be "WHY?" It is not enough to say "We will no longer be doing X"; it is equally as necessary to say why X will no longer be done. And the supportive reasons for why X will not be done must themselves be clear and unequivocal. And these reasons must be framed in a positive mode rather than a negative one: you don't recount the reasons which aren't being used to support your statement, but you are required to recount the reasons which are being used to support your statement.

In brief, Aristotle put forth three artistic methods for rhetoric and argumentation: ethos, pathos and logos. Ethos deals with the ethical standing of the speaker and of those he refers to. Pathos is an appeal to the emotions of the reader/listener. Logos is the use of reasoning and facts to support a statement. Effective written and spoken pieces will use all three judiciously.

The problem, as I see it, is that the statements made by those quoted in the article are awfully heavy on the ethos, both pro and con, are awfully heavy on the pathos, and fail to give any logos.

The answer to "Why are you not allowing in Streits for this Pesach?" should have been a logos statement, positively stated: "These are the reasons we are not allowing Streits for Pesach: X, Y and Z." This was not done. What was given as an answer to this question? "R' Soloveichik doesn't swim in the kashrus world. We just don't know." Yes indeed, a statement to gladden the heart and expand the mind. Lots of ethos and lots of pathos. Logos? In what world?

Further, as the old saying goes, timing is everything. The article came out four weeks before Pesach. By the time the article came out stores across the country had already made their orders from the various purveyors of Pesach products, including the Streits company. In our neighborhood three of the five major supermarket chains already had their Pesach food products out for sale before Purim. Many people had already begun their shopping for Pesach non-perishables before the article came out. The producers of Passover products use last year's sales and this year's orders as a guide to how much of their Passover products to produce. I would imagine that the Streits company is no different in this respect. Because of the timing of the statement by the vaadim it was not only a spectre of halachic malfeasance that was raised by their statement, but the statement had a very real economic impact as well.

In short, the statements made by the vaadim were not based on clearly stated facts. There was no attempt to clearly give the reasons for the actions of the vaadim. There was a whole lot of emotion being presented. There was a lot of ethical innuendo. There was disagreement among members of the vaadim as to the correct choice of action. What there was not was information of any use to the readers of the article.

Frankly, the choice of wording in some of the statements was execrable. From an English and rhetorical and argumentational point of view, the quoted material in the article deserved an "F" grade. Actually, it deserved worse than that. I have a grade that is "Returned--please see me." This is for material that goes beyond failing. It is for work that does not fall anywhere within the guidelines for an assignment. It is for work that needs to be completely rethought, rewritten, reedited. Were some of the comments that abounded on the blogosphere in reference to this article over the top? Yup. But much as it may gall me to say so, the quoted material in the article invited this kind of commentary by itself being "over the top." You reap what you sow.

Perhaps I'm being overly optimistic, but it would be nice to believe that those involved in making the statements reported in the article have learned something from the ensuing brouhaha: beware when you send forth words--someone just might point out that "The Emperor is naked."


Anonymous said...

Excellent article. You made me look up a new vocabulary word today - execrable. I can't wait to use it in a sentence.

Larry said...

Not really familiar with the who is who in NY but do these 2 vaads carry some kind of importance outside of their own area? Otherwise why would people not from these areas care that much? I did read the paper article and have to agree that the statements and answers were really badly made and answered.

Anonymous said...

I went away and did not shop for Pesach in the supermarkets and so did not notice if Streits stuff was there, but my daughter's Rabbi (not from the 5 Towns but definitely in the know about Kashrut issues) gave her Streits candies as a gift before Pesach.

Aryeh said...

Honestly? I wasn't going to read this. So much of what was written about this before Pesach was very upsetting. The loshon hora and motzi shem ra was out of control. But I read this and I think you got the right idea. It's what was said and how it was said and what was not said that was a problem, not who said it or about who.

Ya'akob ibn Avi Mori said...


I had not heard of this until just now , in fact I was remarking to someone over Yom tov that I had not seen any Streitz Matzoh this year, I did a little research to be informed before I commented. I must sadly say that I am not in the least bit suprised. In a pervious life my family owned a store under the supervision the more prominent of the two Vaads in question. I recall one day the mashgiach came in and said, Mr. Adler, you must change the brand of lox that you are carrying! My father never one to simply agree to a statement with no support asked for a reason, " Was the agency involved in supervising the lox not supervising anymore?" " Nope, was the agency ( a very prominent national one, think hebrew letters) not reliable? and if so why? did something happen? " No" well why do I need to switch?"
They had no answer, my father called the agency directly, everything was in order, he called the fish company, no problems there except for the curious visit that a member of another agency had paid to them in the hopes of gaining their business, curiously enough the vaad's new recommended fish was under that same new agency!
I always found it funny that it really was a case of people lying , cheating and stealing, not to mention defaming Kosher Jews, to make a buck,
the " Kosher world" is far from Kosher
Rav Moshe Soloveitchik, is an individual on such a level of Knowledge and understanding that I feel it is an insult to even have to give my haskama to him. The vaad should be proud that they have done yet another hatchet job, this time it was someone who all would agree is a giant of Torah and reveals them to be imps.

I long for the day when Torah is allowed to be Torah and thieves are not allowed to masquerade as authorities.

Scraps said...

I hadn't heard about this until after Pesach, but I mentioned the matter to my rav today (who happens to be somewhat involved in the kashrut world) and he said that he was so bothered by it that he made a point of buying Streit's products this year.

Rae said...

Our local vaad had no problems with Streits. But in reading the article one thing stood out that bothered me a lot. Someone made the comment that there were concerns and questions about Streits going back to 2001. It's 2009. In all this time the two vaads couldn't figure out how to check out their concerns? They were invited to go see the factory and didn't do so. What were they waiting for? Moshiach? Why right now a few weeks before this Pesach did they take the step to ban the products? That question they never answered. You're right that it makes readers wonder what is really going on between the vaads and Streits or between the vaads and some other entity.