- God, Jews and the Media: Religion and Israel’s Media by Yoel Cohan
At a time marked by growing interest in scholarly research on religion and media, God, Jews and the Media is a timely entry in the Routledge Jewish Studies Series. In it, Yoel Cohen, a member of the faculty in the School of Communication at the Ariel University Center of Samaria, Israel, explores the interrelationships among Judaism, the media, and Jewish identity. Although the book includes rather perfunctory chapters on Jewish religious publication in the United States and on Judaism and the Holy Land as news in Western secular mass media, the heart of the book consists of Cohen’s examination of religion news in Israeli secular and religious media.
As a grounding for that examination, chapter 2, “The Jewish Theory of Communication,” provides an overview of tensions within religious law and between that law and media content and practice: warnings against gossip and sexual improprieties; speech disrespectful of privacy and of [End Page 137] Jewish authority versus the importance of accountability; the sanctity of the Sabbath, the role of the rabbi, and the meaning of communal worship services and of the minyan versus the 24/7 nature of newsgathering and e-commerce; and the adoption from conservative Protestantism of virtual worship services and rabbinical media ministries. Chapters 8 through 10, “www.techno-Judaism,” “Kosher Advertising,” and “The Marketing of the Rabbi,” explore some of those tensions more fully.
But unlike these issue-oriented chapters that make their case by examining examples of media content and practices that pose a potential threat to Judaism and of rabbinical teachings that have implications for media performance, especially from within the ultra-Orthodox strain of Judaism, Cohen’s examination of secular mass media and religious media in chapters 3 through 7 draws heavily on his own extensive audience research and content analyses of religion news. That is both a strength and a weakness.
In these chapters, segments describing content and practices that have proven problematic, shed some insight into the interrelationships among Judaism and the media, but they are buried in the midst of others in which Cohen provides information on individual media, their religion content, and their audiences. So dense are those segments with facts and with the author’s data, all presented in the text rather than in more easily understood tables, that the chapters seem more like a series of loosely connected encyclopedia entries than the kind of coherent analysis one would expect from a single-authored book. Equally problematic are assertions and conclusions that sometimes outstrip the evidence. However, the picture that emerges is of parallel media systems, each one informed by Judaism, but each with a very different understanding of the faith and of the proper relationship between it and Israel as a nation.
Almost 10 percent of all Israelis are ultra-Orthodox, or Haredi, who believe strict adherence to the law in all its minute detail is of paramount importance. Therefore, they attend only to Haredi media, where a rabbi acting as censor submits the news to a “mikva,” or ritual bath, washing out anything deemed unkosher (79). As a result, all religion news and commentary is from and about the Haredim. Other Jews, usually labeled simply as Israelis, are shown not to be observing religious laws.
In contrast to the Haredi media’s devotion to religious law, the secular mass media follow Western political and press philosophy. In speaking to and to some extent for the nearly half of all Israelis classified as secular Jews, they support the separation of church and state as necessary if Israel is to be both a modern parliamentary democracy and a welcoming homeland [End Page 138] for all Jews. However, most religion news is actually political news; most of that focuses on Haredi influence on the courts and in regulatory agencies and the Knesset. Although the secular media employ religion reporters, even the modern Orthodox, who sometimes join with the ultra-Orthodox within a coalition government, get relatively little attention. Without media of their own...