A tale of two rabbis

A tale of two rabbis

Confirmation bias — also called confirmatory bias or myside bias — is a tendency for people to favor information that confirms their preconceptions or hypotheses regardless of whether the information is true.

The headlines regarding the behavior of two Orthodox rabbis bring to mind the importance of the confirmation bias idea, which comes from the fields of psychology and cognitive science. As the definition explains, you are likely more aware of one of the rabbi’s actions as opposed to the other, due to your preconceived ideas about Orthodox Judaism.

The first rabbi is Yehezkel Lifshitz, and, as The Wall Street Journal reported on Oct. 20, he was instrumental in the rescue of hundreds of trapped hikers, many, but certainly not all, Israelis: “When … Lifshitz, the rabbi at a Jewish community center in [Kathmandu], answered the phone on the afternoon of Oct. 14, he got an urgent message that helped set in motion an extraordinary, improvised rescue effort.”

The Nepali army has candidly admitted that official rescue efforts were hampered by a lack of equipment, poor coordination and especially a want of reliable information about the number and whereabouts of the trekkers. “That was where the fast Israeli mobilization paid off,” the Journal reported. Crucial to that mobilization was the Kathmandu Chabad House, which Israeli hikers have used regularly for almost 15 years. On Oct. 14, according to the report, it “served as a war room of sorts,” with Lifshitz relaying email and Facebook messages between rescue personnel and parents in Israel and updating a Google spreadsheet tracking the whereabouts of more than 400 Israelis.

In the end, 518 people, including 304 foreign hikers, were rescued, with as many as 250 of those Israelis. Of the 43 who tragically died in the snow, four were from Israel. It is the worst trekking disaster in Nepal’s history, but it could have been much worse. Nepali officials, Israeli officials who were alerted through the embassy in Kathmandu and the efforts of Rabbi Lifshitz at Chabad House all ended up saving hundreds of lives.

And yet, Lifshitz wasn’t the Orthodox rabbi most in the news this week. Instead there have been hundreds of thousands of words about Rabbi Barry Freundel of Congregation Kesher Israel in Washington, D.C.’s Georgetown neighborhood.

Freundel was arrested for allegedly setting up a video camera in the women’s changing room at the mikvah. He was charged with six counts of voyeurism, a misdemeanor, and pleaded not guilty.

The story is sickening, and if it turns out to be true, it is a dagger in the heart of every person who ever had any contact with Freundel. (I include myself in this category, as I was once a regular davener at Kesher Israel and an admirer of Freundel’s position on women in Orthodoxy.) It is not surprising that there are news and opinion stories about the Freundel affair, but the scale and the tone illustrate the problem with confirmation bias.  

First, we might ask why a story about one rabbi at a Washington, D.C. synagogue is even in a paper like The New York Times to begin with. Why is it national news? Why have there been dozens of stories in Ha’aretz and the Times of Israel? And why especially are there so many commentaries and blog posts that question the validity of Orthodoxy and Orthodox practice because of the accusations against this one rabbi?

The answer, unfortunately, is that Freundel’s arrest confirms the prejudices and previous held hypotheses of the writers, namely that there is something wrong with Orthodoxy and Orthodox practice. If Freundel is in fact a voyeur, he has failed to uphold the standards of morality that he represented by his job and lifestyle, and that, it seems, is worth writing about. We’ve seen headlines about how Freundel’s actions call into question the position of all women in Orthodoxy and other stories alleging that Freundel’s misdeeds illustrate how women will never be equal in the eyes of Orthodox men. But if Freundel’s alleged actions can serve as a confirmation of the failure of Orthodoxy, aren’t the actions of Rabbi Lifshitz a confirmation of the fulfillment of Orthodoxy’s promise?

He is the one who put aside every other activity and concern to focus wholeheartedly on the rescue of hundreds of people, Jewish and gentile. If Freundel’s sins are supposedly an indication of Orthodoxy’s rot, then Lifshitz’s dedication to the sanctity of human life surely serves as proof of Orthodoxy’s fulfillment.

Abby W. Schachter of Regent Square is a regular contributor to the Pittsburgh Tribune Review. Follow her on Twitter @abbyschachter.