Rabbi Avi Shafran, who is prominent in ultra-Orthodox American group Agudath Israel, had an … interesting explanation (well, sort of; explanation is slightly too strong a word) for the earthquake that devastated Haiti. In the quake’s aftermath, he wrote to Jews, “We must introspect, and make changes in our behavior.” He continued:
the Jewish world today is rife with “evil speech” … Jewish media are filled with accusations and “scoops”; they compete gleefully to find the vilest examples of crimes to report, to do the most attention-grabbing job of reporting them, and to be the first to do so. The very week of the recent catastrophe in Haiti, a national Jewish newspaper published a comic strip featuring grotesque depictions of religious Jews and aimed at disparaging Jewish outreach to other Jews. And another Jewish newspaper ran an editorial placing the alleged ugly sins of an individual at the feet of Jewish rabbinic leaders, simply because the presumed sinner, before he was exposed, had arranged for several respected rabbis to deliver lectures and had encouraged people to make donations to their institutions.
The comic strip, drawn by (friend-of-The-Scroll) Eli Valley, appeared in the Forward. The editorial appeared in The Jewish Star, and it concerned “accusations and ‘scoops’” about Rabbi Leib Tropper that Tablet Magazine broke. (UPDATE: Rabbi Shafran emailed in to note, correctly, that in his article, he also said that some of this stuff comes from within the Orthodox community, too.)
Yesterday, Shafran clarified his earlier post. “I did not ‘blame’ the earthquake on anything, much less a particular piece of writing or art,” he said. “I simply cited the Jewish mandate to soul-search in the wake of disaster, and quoted a Godol of our generation who suggested that speech fueled by ill will is a particularly rampant evil in our day. I cited the cartoon and editorial as recent examples, nothing more.”
It probably is an oversimplification to describe Shafran as having argued that “evil speech” caused the quake (as Gawker did). Still, the rabbi did call upon Jews “to perceive Divine messages in humankind’s trials”—he was asserting that the “evil speech” and the quake were at least somewhat related. But it is hard to believe the Richter scale is sensitive enough to register those sorts of early warning signs.
Marc Tracy is a staff writer at The New Republic, and was previously a staff writer at Tablet. He tweets @marcatracy.