Friday, July 24, 2009

Lessons To Be Learned

By now, just about everyone in the Jewish community has heard about the events that occurred yesterday. I was going to blog about the arrests, but then thought better of it, as there were already a thousand different bloggers covering every angle of it and there really wasn't much more that I felt that I could add to the conversation. I don't know all the facts, although I tend to think that the FBI doesn't engage in two-year sting operations just to nab innocent guys off the street.

That being said, I think we can all agree that this is a major embarrassment for the Jewish community in the Tri-State area and worldwide. And, in the end, it just didn't have to be.

There are those who want to say that (at least some of the accused) did it to support Torah or tzedaka organizations. I don't know how naive these people are being -- perhaps it is true for some of the accused, perhaps it's not. But for the sake of argument, let's give them the benefit of the doubt and say that the money was primarily going towards charity or the support of Torah organizations. So what?

I think it behooves people to learn that no matter how noble the emotion, no matter how right the cause and no matter how urgent the matter, there are just some lines that one cannot cross. Consider, for example, an organization that helps people finance Yeshiva tuition for needy families. The people who are in charge of fund raising for the organization would probably move heaven and earth to help young children receive a Torah education. If they could move a huge mountain to raise funds, they would do so. But they have to know that while moving that mountain, they have to stop at the small stone that serves as a boundary marker onto their neighbor's property. Once you move that small stone, you're engaging in theft, which is wrong and cannot be tolerated for any noble purpose.*

So, by all means -- if it's your job to raise money for tzedaka or Torah institutions, make sure that you do so honestly. Do everything that you can within the law, but make sure you stay there.

And that advice doesn't apply to this situation alone. It applies anywhere and everywhere. If, for example, it's your job to make the lives of Jewish prisoners easier, by all means do so -- but don't step over the line of what is proper and right (and certainly don't obliterate the line). And on and on.

I always find it amazing that people who engage in these activities (again, going with the [perhaps naive] assumption that they had "good intentions") end up doing far more harm than good. The institutions that they sought to raise funds for will certainly end up suffering far more harm than if they didn't engage in their activities. And the life for Jewish prisoners in NYC certainly didn't become any easier after Rabbi Glantz left his job because of the bar mitzvah party held for a prisoner's son. Indeed, because people broke the law (or ethical boundaries), those people and institutions that they sought to help are going to end up suffering even more.

Of course, the big question that we have to ask ourselves is, what now? What do we, as a community, do now? We pay a lot of lip service to the idea of trying to rectify our mistakes. We learn that the Second Temple was destroyed due to the sin of baseless hatred, so we pay a lot of lip service to the idea of improving on that defect (although, how much we actually improve is certainly open to debate). We learn that the sin of the Spies was due to the sin of Lashon HaRah, and so we seek to improve ourselves in this area.

So, what do we learn from yesterday's events? What can we do to improve? What can we do to try to ensure that something like this doesn't happen again?

A friend of mine said that the likely outcome would be this:

What we'll see is a bunch of spokesmen issue statements about how bad these alleged crimes are, which will get little media coverage and will be totally ignored internally. Nothing in the community will change. We will go on with our lives and the community will move on to the next crisis.

Sadly, I fear he may be right... but it doesn't have to be.

A while ago, a young man that I know got himself into some fairly serious trouble. Things looked very bleak for him at the time and he turned to me for help and advice.

While there wasn't too much that I could do at the time to help his situation, I gave him the following common-sense advice: I told him that when things are really looking down, and when the world is falling apart, it behooves a young man such as himself to take a look at where he is, and look at the path that he took which led him to this point. He should take the opportunity to look at his deeds, his actions and his motivations and take a long, hard look at himself and see where he went wrong, and what he can do to stop going down that road. Sometimes you just have to look in the mirror, no matter how painful it is, and actively work towards fixing your problems.

I think the same applies to us as a community. I think that we need to address problems that we've long turned a blind eye to. We have to look at the behaviors that we've tolerated for the sake of personal prestige or for financial contributions and recognize that we were wrong for having tolerated them. We have to make a positive commitment that those behaviors that will no longer be tolerated in our community. We have to make sure that people know that financial misdeeds, child abuse, and a host of other problems that we have long ignored will no longer be tolerated and that those who commit them cannot be welcome in our communities.

It's a difficult thing to do. It means deviating from the path of least resistance and taking the hard path of standing up to people who are rich and/or influential. It means that our leaders have to do just that -- lead -- by example and by deed. If a rav will publicly stand up to someone who is corrupt and rich and say "no, I don't want your filthy money!" it would go a long way toward sending the message that these activities are wrong and will not be tolerated.

But someone has to stand up and be the first. A recognized leader has to step up and make that initial effort. Someone has to make that initial effort -- that opening the size of an eye of a needle. And it has to be one of the gedolim -- because someone who takes a difficult but correct stand, someone who leads and serves as a role model for others -- that, in my definition is a gadol.

I fear that my friend may be right -- that nothing will come of this and we'll just go on to the next crisis. But nonetheless, I hope and pray that we can learn from this and take the necessary steps to improve as a community.

The Wolf

* Yes, pikuach nefesh and all that -- but we're not talking about someone like Jean ValJean whose nephew was going to literally starve unless he stole.


ProfK said...

If this were something new, something recent, then what you are suggesting might be listened to and there might be some change. But it's not. What is new is that a group got caught.

This was going on 38 years ago when I got married. People in cash businesses were burying cash through tzedaka organizations that would take a percentage for turning the money over and legitimizing it outside of regular tax channels. Please don't tell me that rabbonim didn't know then that this was going on. If I, outside of that circle, knew then trust me, everyone or most everyone knew.

The fact that it has been going on for so long doesn't make it right, but it will make it harder to root out. There still seems to be a mentality brought over from Europe that cheating the government isn't cheating because they do it first.

micha berger said...

But ProfK, that doesn't explain getting involved in organ smuggling.

In any case, I tried to formulate a response. Basically, if we want a culture of integrity, each of us are going to have to invest more effort in improving our own integrity. I even try listing ideas that would help.

See How Should I Respond? over on Asparlaria.


Garnel Ironheart said...

The tragedy of this is that right now some people are spending time thinking of how to get these "rabbis" out of jail because they don't think they did anything wrong.

Anonymous said...

Wolf is right as usual, but is there such a leader? If one group's "leader" takes a stand, who else will listen?

I think that ethics, not just halacha, but concepts of right and wrong (and that its not clever or cute to nit pick to try to find justifications for questionable conduct) needs to be the part of every school curriculum and be discussed by Rabbis in Shul.
If there can be constant meetings and programs and flyers on tznuis, why not on basic ethics?

JewishGadfly said...

Wolf, sharp assessment about the need to reflect and act. But I wonder if it is really so hopeless if nothing comes out of it from the very top leadership.

Is there no room for a grass-roots change movement in Orthodox Judaism? There are wonderful community rabbis who will no doubt condemn such behavior on Shabbat. There are Orthodox social justice organizations that work against (some of) these problems. Is there no way for someone at a lower level of leadership to pool these resources together and try to effect systemic change? I too fear that top-down change from one gadol is unlikely. Can we mobilize people for change from the bottom up?

Orthonomics said...

I think the Navi had the most biting response of all.

JewishGadfly said...

Actually, I'm going to add to what I wrote before--I'm worried that top-down change might not even be possible at this point for certain segments of the population. I just put up a post on the topic.

Jeff Eyges said...

If a rav will publicly stand up to someone who is corrupt and rich and say "no, I don't want your filthy money!"

Oh, yes, that'll happen!

Re: organ trafficking - for generations, these people have been taught that gentiles don't have souls, or, at best, that they are little better than animals. This is the end result. As a friend said on another blog: "Is it not ironic that those who refuse to buy wigs containing hair from poor Indian women have no qualms in taking their kidneys?"

The only thing that will change will be that they'll make more of an effort not to get caught.

Jeff Eyges said...

DovBear has weighed in on this (

Instead of deflecting attention from criminal rabbis by attacking the newspapers, my LOR preached against the cooperating witness. He's a moser, you see, and, apparently, snitching on another Jew is the worst thing a Jew can do, especially when all the Jewish felon did was rip off the tax man. From what the rabbi said, I gather this is also worse than tricking desperate people into selling their kidneys and taking a $100,000 profit on the deal.

Our religion is over, I tell you. Over. The internal rot runs too deep. Our morality is corrupt and twisted. The idea that Jews are to be a light unto the nations is gone and forgotten. We're grubby and selfish. We've delayed justice and withheld rightuousness. We celebrate criminals and respect frauds who charm us with their hats and segulot and lips that drip with nonsense and superstition. And when the history of this once proud religion is written, I expect the epitaph to read, "But all he did was steal from a gentile."

I quite agree.

micha berger said...

Our religion will never be over. (Didn't you ever learn Haazinu?) No Torah, no universe.

"כִּי אִם-הַחֲרֵשׁ תַּחֲרִישִׁי, בָּעֵת הַזֹּאת רֶוַח וְהַצָּלָה יַעֲמוֹד לַיְּהוּדִים מִמָּקוֹם אַחֵר, וְאַתְּ וּבֵית-אָבִיךְ תֹּאבֵדוּ; וּמִי יוֹדֵע אִם-לְעֵת כָּזֹאת, הִגַּעַתְּ לַמַּלְכוּת." - Esther 4:14

For if you are silent at this time, release and success will arise for the Jews from someplace else, and you and your father's house will be lost; and who knows? perhaps it was for just a time like this that you were given a blog?


Jeff Eyges said...

No Torah, no universe.

Oh, well. Never mind,then.

micha berger said...


You missed my point. Things WILL correct themselves. Do you wish to remain one of the whiners and left out, or do you wish to move beyond identifying the problem and start solving it.


Jeff Eyges said...

I'm not frum. Hell-bound atheist here. I have no investment in Orthodoxy.

However, as I keep telling Wolf, if you guys feel it's worth preserving, it's incumbent upon you to break out of the us-against-them, wagons-in-a-circle mentality that's characterized Orthodoxy for generations, and do something about it. Speaking out against the rabbinic leadership would probably be a good place to begin.

Anonymous said...

"I have no investment in Orthodoxy."

Other than spending time on Orthodox blogs discussing topics relevant to the religious community?

Zev Stern said...

Cipher -

I am speaking out but I fear I'm a kol koreh bamidbar, a lone voice in the wilderness.

micha berger said...

The trop on that pasuq is "ק֣וֹל קוֹרֵ֔א בַּמִּדְבָּ֕ר פַּנּ֖וּ דֶּ֣רֶךְ ֑ה". in other words, "A voice calls, 'In the desert, open a path for G-d...'" This notion of a voice calling in the desert isn't the actual text.

But on topic... First, your voice is far from alone, since 2,000 people showed up to the Agudah's gathering on the subject last week. Second, who said the solution is telling them to stop? I would think the trick is to change the culture to make sure that what is wrong remains unthinkable. And anyone with say in a shul board or a school PTA has say in what topics we focus our attention upon.

Instead of using your blog space to yell at people you disapprove of, why not spend it discussing the obligations of interpersonal law? Or tips on how to develop integrity?

Here's a quick tip: Those people who keep a picture of their rebbe in the house (be it the Agudah type or the YU alumnus's picture of "the Rav"), why not move the picture to your bill desk? Make it a reminder not to cut ethical corners when managing money.


Jeff Eyges said...

Zev, I know you've been speaking out for some time, but, as you say, you're alone. Nothing will change. What we're seeing now is the tip of the iceberg. More will come out in the months and years to come.