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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About tmatt

Terry Mattingly directs the Washington Journalism Center at the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities. He writes a weekly column for the Universal Syndicate.

  • http://hereisthechurch.wordpress.com Allie

    So glad you covered this. I read the initial article posted by the Washington Post. It seemed well covered, but my knowledge of Orthodox Judaism is very superficial at best, and so your commentary (and undoubtedly the commentary of other commenters here) will help me to better understand some of the deeper meaning present.

  • Miriam

    Has anyone mentioned what kind of Chasidim this family is? I have been curious to know, but haven’t seen it mentioned.

  • Miriam

    Oh, I’ve just read that his father’s name is Nachman, which seems to answer my question. In my experience the Breslov Chasidim are quite insular and live very joy-filled and trusting lives, and it may have never occurred to the little boy that it might be dangerous to tell a stranger that he was lost (whereas, say, a Lubavitch Chasidic child might have encountered people from all walks of life and know all about “stranger danger”). I’d be interesting to see more of the story from this angle. The press doesn’t seem to understand that not all Chasidic groups are alike.

  • http://www.tmatt.net tmatt

    Miriam:

    In keeping with comment No. 1, please tell us more about why this information is journalistically important.

    Also, your reaction to the funeral language?

  • Miriam

    I just think it’s odd that a 9 year old boy wouldn’t know better than to approach a stranger if he was lost (rather than looking for, say, a policeman), let alone to get in a stranger’s car voluntarily (which security footage shows him doing). The protective, safe environment of certain Chasidic sects could explain that. I haven’t known a lot of Breslovers (I grew up close to several Lubavitch families, but am not and never have been Chasidic myself), but the one or two Breslov families I have known were very prone to singing, dancing, and surrounding themselves with joy, and not at all given to discussing the darker side of life. So it would be interesting to see an exploration of how Lieby’s family and religious subculture might have contributed to his apparently trusting nature. It’d be interesting to read about.

    I appreciate that the NYT handled the theodicy by quoting the father and school principal, instead of paraphrasing or speculating. Better to let religious people speak for themselves. I suspect, though, that in the coming days there will be more analysis of the religious community’s reaction to such a tragedy – this initial reporting has focused more on facts than on opinions.

    I did notice that the NYT story you link to has actually been revised. The initial story had some pretty unexpected errors – such as stating that a box was passed around for “Tzekada, or charity”, which has now been corrected to tzedakah, and a couple other errors I can’t recall now. I’d expect that kind of error from a local paper in a city where Judaism is exotic, but not the NYT, where the city has the largest Jewish population in the US and surely there are more than a few Jews on the NYT staff.

  • Deacon John M. Bresnahan

    Miriam–I would be willing to bet any Jews on the Times staff would be, just like virtually any Catholics they hire, of an extremely liberal religious persuasion. And, I have been told by some Jewish friends that extremely liberal Jews like their “ultra-Orthodox” brethren about as much as strongly liberal Catholics like traditionalist or orthodox Catholics–not much. In fact, in many religions, there is a great deal of ignorance about co-religionists across the liberal-traditionalist divide. Consequently,having a staff that includes a few self-identifying as simply Jewish (or Catholic) isn’t necessarily going to improve the accuracy of religious news coverage.
    Also, you have hit upon a real problem that parents have in bringing up their children to be safe in what can be a dangerous world. It should get more media coverage than it does. The problem is: how do you help your child to be properly wary in life without making him terrified or paranoid about life in general??
    It is not easy striking a proper balance that helps keep a child safe while also not destroying his joy of life–a joy that should be part of every child’s fondest memories of youth.

  • Mike

    I admit that I have not been following this story closely. Being down here in Texas I’m far removed geographically as well as culturally from the tragic events in that community. From my standpoint, however, I’d like to know how the crime rate compares in this community versus other areas of New York. My outside hunch would be that, like the story indicated, it is a relatively safe neighborhood. I think it’s fascinating that they have their own volunteer patrol. So the context that I’m looking at is it seems that this faith-based community has a history of being relatively non-violent and safe, and that the murder of this young boy stands out as almost a cultural and religious affront, beyond the horrible story that it already is.

  • Timothy Clontz

    Thank you for the story. Yes, theodicy is such a difficult subject. If a child is saved, we might say, “God is good,” in gratitude. If a child is lost… is God still good? For deeply religious people the answer will still be an anguished yes that is beyond anyone’s comprehension — even that of the parents themselves. And I think that’s the only point you could have added: some things are IMPOSSIBLE to explain in a news article because they are impossible for ANYONE to understand in any context. When the parents said that “God wanted it” they could never understand how or why. They would never be able to explain it to each other, let alone a reporter. And the ONLY way to report that “wrong” is to TRY to explain it in a way that makes sense.

  • Blewitbig

    Miriam – With respect, being named Nachman doesn’t in the slightest indicate that he is a Breslover chasid…just like Menachem doesn;t mean Lubavitch…Yoel doesn’t mean Satmar, etc.

  • http://www.tmatt.net tmatt

    Journalism folks. Information or opinions about news issues.

  • Ira Rifkin

    The family in this tragedy is not Breslov Hasidim – who are considered wild and wacky by most other Hasidim – but Bobover, a group discribed by Wikipedia thusly:

    Bobov, (or Bobover Hasidism) (?????? ?????) is a Hasidic group within Haredi Judaism originating in Bobowa, Galicia in Southern Poland and now headquartered in the neighborhood of Borough Park in Brooklyn, New York. Bobov has branches in the Williamsburg section of Brooklyn; Monsey, New York; Miami; Montreal; Toronto; Antwerp and London. In Israel, Bobov has large branches in Jerusalem, Bnei Brak, Ashdod, Betar Illit and an enclave Kiryath Bobov in Bat Yam.

  • Ira Rifkin

    The question marks in my post above stand in for the Hebrew spelling of the Bobover Hasidim that did not carry over to this site. Sorry.

  • bob

    Judaism teaches that the ways of God are unfathomable. He is infinitely wiser and more merciful than any mortal.

    What these people were saying at the funeral is that although the pain is horrible, and we can’t understand, God knows best. They also truly believe that the boy’s pure soul is with God and experiencing reward eternally. Again, we can’t grasp the meaning given the limitation of our 5 senses. However these beliefs have been handed down generation to generation , in an unbroken chain for over 3000 years.

    The fact that God gives and takes life, does not change the fact that a murderer must get justice. He must be punished. That is another great paradox of theology. God knows all, yet we have free will. Faith it tough. If it weren’t there would be no reward for those who have it.

    The article is wonderful. for anyone interested in researching Jewish beliefs check aish.com

  • Karen

    The Times followed up with a good article on the ritual mourning, sitting shiva and included some telling observations such as a sign that requested people not tell the parents how he died or to offer theories. http://www.nytimes.com/2011/07/16/nyregion/ritual-mourning-for-slain-brooklyn-8-year-old.html?src=un&feedurl=http%3A%2F%2Fjson8.nytimes.com%2Fpages%2Fnyregion%2Findex.jsonp

    I often work with the Bobov, in fact first heard about the boy from a Bobov friend before it hit the news. There are two traits that I have not seen covered in the news which may have had bearing on the incident: there is a strong prohibition against lashon hara or gossip which can cause people to overlook aberrant behavior in those who otherwise conform to the fold. This can prevent children from hearing discussion and developing a sixth sense about people to avoid. And more importantly, children have a fairly uncritical acceptance of the authority of adults based upon religious precepts. My own sons walked home from school in Brooklyn when much younger than Leiby, but they had been schooled in how to talk to strangers (not to avoid talking which could be more dangerous.) While there is much to admire in the innocence of Hassidic children, it may not arm them for problems from within the community.

  • Tia O’Meara

    May young Leiby rest in peace. All our prayer are with his family and the community in which he lived.
    One question – Why were there no women or children at the funeral?

  • Bob R.

    Why is great care needed in reporting a simple belief in God? Dude believes everything is as an omnipotent God wills.

  • Blewitbig

    Tia (#15) – Women were there, but in this community, men and women don’t mingle. The children were with the women. In general, the men are in the street escorting the casket; women and children line the sidewalks.