President's Message


It is no secret that our society feels extremely polarized. Of course, this is nothing new. When I was a kid in New Jersey, you were either a Mets fan or a Yankees fan. Never, ever both.1 That was real polarization. As a Mets fan, I was blessed to come of age during the glorious years (1965-1976) between the Yankees’ glory years. Nonetheless, some of my best friends were Yankees fans. We were able to put our ideological differences aside when talking about less important things, like family, schoolwork and soccer.

Today, society seems to be irrevocably split along social, political and religious lines. We listen to or read only news that is presented from our parochial perspective, except to ridicule the other. In 2020, the Pew Research Center reported that 45 percent of adults have stopped talking to someone about politics as a result of something the other person said.2 The polarization is reflected in the coarseness of public “discourse.” Debating has ceded to screaming.3 The ubiquity and anonymity of social media have exacerbated this destructive phenomenon.

This modality of “communication” has unfortunately infiltrated our Orthodox Jewish circles as well. In my travels, I recently came across a local weekly newspaper written by and for the Orthodox community. In addition to the local news, this paper features several opinion columns. A number of the columns, whatever the topic at hand, were strident, even angry. So far, so bad. Far worse were the letters to the editor, which expressed outrage (outrage!) at a variety of opinions expressed the previous week. Unfortunately, this newspaper is not unique. On social media and podcasts as well as in print media, certain topics (did someone mention President Trump?) are guaranteed to unleash a torrent of angry screeds.4

Do we really have to speak that way? Must we print those who do?

Let me bring this home. At the Orthodox Union, we make decisions daily that affect the community. Some of these decisions are operational (how much to charge for a particular summer program), others involve public policy (should we make a public statement or file a legal brief?), and yet others involve institutional priorities (what role, if any, should the OU play in combating antisemitism?). Each decision is weighed and debated, taking into account cost, expertise, likelihood of success, extent of communal consensus and impact on existing programs, among other factors. Often, we seek guidance from posekim and other rabbinic leaders. Still, reasonable people may disagree with virtually every decision we make. We welcome feedback and debate. What we get too often, however, is vitriol.

The problem with outrage goes beyond derech eretz or how one should speak to another human being. It evinces a lack of respect—how could anyone have been so stupid to have done or said that? Even if the obligation to judge people favorably, to be dan l’kaf zechut, does not require one to agree, it does demand that we give the other person the benefit of the doubt that they considered the issues and reached a reasonable conclusion. Again, people disagree. Respectfully. In any event, screaming is ineffective. People tune it out.

Here is an example of a recent issue that generated both thoughtful and, alas, vitriolic comment.5 In February, in response to a horrific terrorist attack in which Hallel and Yagel Yaniv, Hy”d, were murdered in the Shomron, a group of Jews rioted in the Arab town of Huwara. The OU published a statement condemning the riots. We received some outraged and outrageous responses, questioning whose side we are on. These comments were hurtful, but not impactful. We then received a quiet, thoughtful rebuke from someone who questioned our having failed to publicly condemn the original terrorist attack. We had not done so, because we presumed that everyone knows where we stand on anti-Jewish terrorism. He argued that our fair rebuke of the rioters was undercut by our failure to acknowledge the pain of the Yaniv family, their friends and Klal Yisrael. We took this comment to heart and spoke out after the following terror attack which, sadly, was only days later.

Other recent issues that elicited hate mail include: (i) our meeting with Israeli Finance Minister Betzalel Smotrich (from the left), (ii) our note of gratitude to the Biden administration for its antisemitism initiative (from the right); and (iii) the amicus brief we filed in support of the lawsuit that (successfully) challenged the New York State Department of Education’s overreaching regulations designed to force Chassidic yeshivas to introduce more secular studies into their curriculum.6

Strong feelings are not limited to the political arena. Some people feel very passionately that kosher certification should concern only food preparation and not other religious or social issues. Others feel equally passionately that the OU should withhold certification from products with offensive packaging; from restaurants to which one would be embarrassed to bring a rosh yeshivah; and from companies whose corporate values are antithetical to Torah values. Is either side objectively correct? Is either position unreasonable?

This is not about being thin-skinned, and it certainly is not intended to stifle dissent. As one of my colleagues eloquently noted: “Anyone may inquire about our statements or silence on specific issues. We do not expect blind faith, and we often gain from hearing the perspectives of others. I would hope, however, that those inquiries would not come as an attack, but rather take the form of a query, giving us the benefit of the doubt that we choose our approach to issues precisely because we are fiercely committed both to Torah values and to the well-being of our community and work hard to balance the various considerations as to how to advance those causes.”

When is outrage appropriate? Clearly when dealing with chillul Hashem and antisemitism, with falsehood, malice and the like. But even here, one should be thoughtful and strategic about one’s tone, especially but not exclusively when addressing an “internal” audience. There are Jewish organizations that have only one volume. I wonder if anyone listens.

People are influenced by their environments. We are living in an environment that favors moral indignation over collegial debate. We must try to push back against this, especially when we speak to each other. As Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur approach, perhaps we can undertake to lower the volume, to hear and to be heard.

L’shanah tovah tikateivu v’techateimu.


1. There was a persistent rumor that there were twenty-two other teams, none of which mattered whatsoever.

2. Not that things have improved. In 2023, Pew reported that two-thirds of Republicans and Democrats view members of the opposite party as more “immoral.” Yikes!

3. For over thirty years, PBS aired Firing Line, in which staunch conservative William F. Buckley debated the issues of the day primarily with liberal thinkers. It’s hard to imagine such a show having a platform, or an audience, today.

4. Rabbis Aaron Lopiansky and Yosef Elefant pointed out at an Agudah convention a couple of years ago that Torah values are determined by the Torah, not by the platforms of the Republican or Democratic parties. Woe that they felt a need to say this.

5. As tempting (and entertaining) as it would be to quote the offending emails and posts, this is a family publication.

6. The OU’s position was that while the State has an interest in its citizens having sufficient education to perform civic duties and be economically self-sufficient, the regulations went well beyond that and encroached on religious liberty.

Mitchel R. Aeder is president of the Orthodox Union.

This article was featured in the Fall 2023 issue of Jewish Action.
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