Thursday, July 31, 2008

Failed Messiah and The Chofetz Chaim

I don’t know what happened to Shmarya Rosenberg that made him so bitter. But it must have been pretty bad.

Shmarya Rosenberg is the owner of Failed Messiah, a blog that focuses almost exclusively on the Torah world and does so in the most negative way. Not that he doesn’t often have a point about many of his issues.

It isn’t so much about what he writes. It’s about how he writes it. He sees things in the Torah world in the most negative possible terms. Most people who have commented on my blog about him characterize him as just about the worst Charedi basher there is

(Although many would say I’m gaining on him, I would beg to differ in that my criticisms are meant to be constructive - intended either for improvement or as a public protest of Chilul HaShem).

But Mr. Rosenberg's negativity is so strident; it really makes me wonder what happened!

According to a recent article in the Forward, he was a Lubavitcher Chasid for about 20 years of his life. And then he apparently became disillusioned. Now - not only has he left Lubavitch, he is no longer even religious – at least in an Orthodox sense.

Mr. Rosenberg says it was because of the publication of an unsigned draft of a letter from the Lubavitcher Rebbe which he had never received. That letter was a response to his asking the Rebbe to focus more on the plight of Ethiopean Jewry. The Rebbe told him he should focus more on Jews in his own community.

That, outraged him - and he left. But as bad as this sounds, I have to believe that there is more to the story. It is one thing to leave Lubavitch. Why drop observance of Mitzvos altogether after being observant for 20 years?!

It would be easy for people to characterize Shmarya as a Rasha – an evil person with a vendetta against religious Jews – especially Charedim and most specifically Lubavitch. But that would be unfair without knowing all of his circumstances.

The title of his blog - Failed Messiah - pretty much tells where he stands on Lubavitch. Indeed his biggest target is the Lubavitcher Rubashkin family. Aggriprocessors - the kosher meatpacking house is owned by them. His attacks are relentless and merciless.

But as I said - it still unfair to judge him. Those who do know nothing about his circumstances and why he feels so compelled to lash out. And in fairness his articles are not entirely unjustified.

One should remember that he was a Bal Teshuva. An idealistic Jewish activist who saw in Lubavitch - a sincerity that motivated him to become completely observant for 20 years. This is not the stuff of Reshaim. And is the case with all Jews, especially idealistic ones like Mr. Rosenberg, my hope is that he can be reached once again. This time by the right people.

Be that as it may, I cannot stand by and see him blame the Chofetz Chaim for the problem of child molestation in our time. Even if he does it is indirectly.

Some may find it odd that I am defending the Chofetz Chaim because they view my blog as violating his classic works on the laws of Lashon Hara – gossiping about others - all the time. I of course disagree that my blog does that – but that is beside the point. This is about standing up for the honor of one of the giants of the 20th century.

What Mr. Rosenberg says is that the Chofetz Chaim’s works on Lashon Hara are at least indirectly at fault for the way in which the Torah world covers up sex crimes. In a graphic article he describes what a Rebbe in a Yeshiva did to young boys for a period of 20 years and that it was covered up and allowed to continue. Why? Because of the Chofetz Chaim’s writings on that subject.

This cannot be even remotely true. It is a gross abuse of those laws that allowed that situation to continue. There is no way the Chofetz Chaim who is rightly described as saintly would have ever countenanced keeping such behavior swept under the rug at all - let alone for so long. Even at the expense even one victim, let alone so many. We are talking about a man who cared deeply in the most emotional way about the welfare of every single Jew. No one disputes that is part of his legacy. It is therefore wrong to link him in any way - even in the sense that his writings have been abused.

But the fact is that those who protected that Rebbe used the concept of Lashon Hara as part of their reason for not reporting his behavior. But the Chofetz Chaim did not invent the laws of Lashon Hara. They have been around at least since the days of Moses. The concept of Lashon Hara was improperly applied in that case and in all other cases where molesters were not reported to the police. It has nothing to do with the Chofetz Chaim.

Fortunately things are changing for the better now. There is more public awareness and those rabbis who in the past were so reticent to report cases of sex abuse to the police are now telling parents to do so – and saying that it is not Lashon Hara. The Orthodox community has a long way to go. I hope we have at least turned the corner on cover-ups and are taking steps in the right direction – even if they are baby steps. But please let us not drag down one of the most pre-eminent sages of the 20th century in the process while we are doing so.