Friday, March 06, 2009

Orthopraxy: the Orthodox Fifth Column

Guest Post by Yossi Ginzberg

There is one word that truly describes the following guest essay: Brilliant. It is a bit lengthier than the norm here - but a must read for anyone who cares about the future of Judaism. - HM

Of the following familiar neighborhood personalities, which do you think poses the greatest danger to Orthodoxy?

1- The Jews-for-Jesus wild-eyed missionary who will stop at nothing to save souls

2- The neighbor’s off-the-derech kid who could easily be a bad influence on your child

3- The personality-challenged Talmid Chochom with three day’s meals stuck to his beard

4- The wealthy lawyer/ broker/ businessperson who wouldn’t dream of not being part of a Daf-yomi class or of wearing a non-white shirt on Shabbos or of doing kaporos with anything but a live chicken, but who belongs to a Kiddush club, jokes about what he really does on his frequent business trips, and while priding himself on having a “heimishe” home, pretty much never has a “shaila” or questions about business ethics

5- The Chassidishe Yid who answers “azoy haben mir zich g’fiert” to any question about his dress, his religious customs, or his family behavior, and who has investments in several names, gets government assistance of several types, and has a way to avoid high health insurance costs, auto insurance costs, income taxes, sales taxes, and auto lease bills for his Lincoln.

As not just Orthodox but rather “heimishe” Jews, few of us worry much about the newer streams of Judaism such as the Humanists, the Reconstructionists, or the Renewalists. We have little truck with those that deny the most basic of beliefs, that there is a G-d who created the world, and we know that even if OUR kids strayed, they’d never join any one of those unacceptable groups.

The one group that we most don’t think about, though, is the one that is the most rapidly growing, and the one that I’m very afraid is most likely to affect us strongly.

That group is the Orthoprax.

Most of us are likely still unfamiliar with the word, although it’s use is rapidly growing. Orthoprax per modern (mostly blog) usage means a person who behaves like a standard Orthodox Jew, davening, dressing, learning, keeping kosher, and so on, yet his reason for doing these things is not his deep belief in God but rather his commitment to habit, his fear of change, and/ or his fear of his neighbors/ wife/ community. Looking and usually acting the part of a typical frum person, he often behaves differently when no one is looking or when there is profit or pleasure to be had. Away from home on business, he may eat anything short of bacon. He’ll not hesitate at all when an opportunity comes, even if it may be the type of thing that would require a “shaileh”, and many times even if it is outright forbidden by law and /or Torah, as long as no one will know. While at home, he may define himself as Chassidish. Yeshivish, or Modern Orthodox, or a subgroup of those.

Many, perhaps most, of those I refer to here are unaware even that they are Orthoprax, and most likely would classify themselves as heimish or yeshivish on surveys.

I may be perceived as being a bit harsh here. After all, even the most “ehrliche” people bend the rules from time to time, and for this we have the concept of Tshuva and a Yom Kippur. My response is that these apply to someone that is a believer in the basics of the Jewish faith, but sometimes falls prey to his human lusts. The people I speak of here are coldly calculating their violations with a cynicism towards the rules that puts them outside what I would consider to be the parameters of acceptable Halacha. Halacha does have categories called L’taiavon and l’hach’is, loosely sinning due to lust or due to malice. These cold calculations, in my opinion, make these violations malicious towards G-d. An example would be one who falsified and sold mortgages: He certainly knew he’d get caught eventually, but obviously felt that the money justified the Chilul Hashem sure to ensue. Cases where there might be less chance of being caught, or where there is a Halacha violation but no legal one, would perhaps be better examples.

One understanding of Orthoprax is that they seek subconsciously to make Judaism more like some other religions, where indulgences can be bought with a cash payment instead of with observance and belief.

My thesis here is simple: I believe that normative Orthodox Judaism faces a greater danger from those who profess being “Frum” but aren’t, than it does from those who admit that they are Orthoprax.

Ramifications of this are many. Orthodox criticism of the less-stringent, a favorite topic of many Orthodox, would be seen to be wrong. People would stop being critical of the innovators among the Orthodox, who at least are trying to keep Jews in the fold. While ecumenicism still won’t be acceptable, perhaps dialogue with the Modern Orthodox will. Certainly the Orthodox media’s OCD back-patting will stop pointing out every non-Charedi indictment and be reserved for actual achievements.

Too, reactions to the OTD issue will change. People will maybe finally realize that if their kid is shomer Shabbos and kosher, maybe it’s not so bad while they realize that the other kid, who still wears the whole “l’vush”, is a crook and needs help.

The concept of Jewish indulgences would explain why there is now such a huge industry inventing new segulos, expensive travel to say Tehilim in odd places, visiting dead tzaddikim instead of live ones. Visiting Rebbes where you are part of a huge crowd and don’t need to actually learn or take advice from him. Soothsayers of all types, reading palms, faces, mezuzahs, kesubas, are all doing box-office business. Likewise those with real or imaginary “traditions”, such as baking challah, pouring “blei”, and so on. Having a problem with Parnosoh? Give money to Chai Rotel. Having a shalom bayis issue? Have your kesubah expertly analyzed.

All of these are cop-outs, nothing but ways to appear like you’re dealing with the issue when you are not. Throwing money at a problem is a natural tendency in a wealthy society, but it never works: there’s a reason that more kids from wealthy homes go “off”. A few years ago a young Rockefeller was found dead in front of my office, of an overdose.

An example of Orthoprax in action: On a vacation trip years ago to Puerto Rico, when there was a kosher wing in one of the large hotels, I shared a lovely kabbalas Shabbos and Shabbos seudah with another guy, who was there alone. We spoke a little of Torah, of our yeshiva history and other Jewish geography issues before we parted that evening. Hours later, I took a late stroll around the hotel.

As I passed the casino entrance, this fellow walked out, not noticing me at first because he was busily counting the chips in his hand.

When he saw the astonishment on my face, he explained himself. “First of all, asmachta lo kanya, so it’s not really forbidden on Shabbos. Second, the chips are asimon, not coins, so they’re not really muktza.” He blathered on for another few seconds with other perversions of Halacha before I simply walked away in disgust.

That is classic Orthoprax, a man who celebrates Shabbos with the minyan (and wouldn’t even think of not doing so), but cannot resist the gaming table when he thinks no one is looking.

Another example, one that shows how pervasive Orthoprax is becoming in some Frum circles: On a trip once to Hong Kong, I treated myself to a really first-class hotel stay, at the world-famous Mandarin hotel. I arrived there from Japan on a Friday afternoon, and as I always do, I was wearing my kipa.

This hotel was so elegant, they had a concierge on every floor. When I arrived at my floor, he met me and showed me to my room, and explained all the various luxury appointments there. As he left, he turned to me and asked, “What time do you want me to come to turn on the movie?”

Things are in a sorry state when a Chinese man sees a kipa and knows only, “That religion mandates that they have other people turn on their TV’s on Friday nights”.

Should we compare these to the difference between a ganev and a gazlan, and give them credit that they are at least discreet? Perhaps, but my feeling is not, and here’s why: These are issues that permeate the Jewish community, and not just the businessmen. The frum “vibel” who thinks nothing of parking illegally or blocking traffic so she can pick up the better challos for Shabbos, the frum teenager who is rude on the train, the self-important young kollel man who sleeps late while his spouse works, the privileged Seminary girl who shoplifts: all are Orthoprax.

A sub-set of the Orthoprax are those with PN Syndrome, sufferers of that disease which is so much more common in heavily Jewish neighborhoods, “Pahst-Nicht Syndrome”. This manifests most commonly in homes where, instead of investigating relevant Halacha on any issue in question, instead they ask the question as to whether or not the practice “Pahst Nicht”, letting behavioral norms govern their religious practices instead of the Torah. (For those who grew up outside of such homes, the words Pahst Nicht are Yiddish for “It’s inappropriate behavior “, by implication hinting that for people as Frum as us, that’s not acceptable. I don’t know how many families outside New York use this standard, but I never heard it until I spent time in Boro Park.)

Which leads me to my next issue about the Orthoprax: How is it that we allow, abet, and even encourage this behavior? Not only do we not shun the criminals, we too often honor them, at least if they stole a lot of money. How is it that the guest speaker at a major Yeshiva function is a convicted felon? (Granted, he’s paid his societal debt, but still…) How is it that the guest of honor at a major mossad has served time? How is it that the mizrach wall in too many shuls has men repeating “l’maan Tizkuru, tizkaroo, tizkaru”, while they stole/ cheated/ perjured/ embezzled/ torched for profit?

How do we allow both Rabbis, Rebbes, and Rebetzins who were publicly accused of multiple cases of chicanery and caused tremendous chilul Hashems to still lead shuls and educational institutions, and write columns in Jewish publications? Judging people for the best and being innocent until proven guilty is still not an explanation. Using “lashon hara” as a pretext for redacting news doesn’t accomplish what the Chofetz Chaim wanted, it just makes the consequences of crime less punitive, making criminality more attractive, surely the opposite of the Radiner’s intent. While the legal system considers one rehabilitated after serving his time yet will no longer allow him to vote, we seem to be “koshering” all ex-cons as soon as they make a significant donation to any Orthodox institution.

I understand that protecting the families of these malfeasants is a Chesed, but what is the message sent to our kids? “When you steal, steal a lot, and we’ll protect you, we’ll stop the media barrage, we’ll even honor you if you donate to us. We’ll send Rabbis to visit you in jail, we’ll send kosher food, we’ll even finance entertainers to visit you. We’ll have straw men ‘buy’ your house from the foreclosure and let your family continue to live in it. in short we’ll eliminate the downside of criminality”. The result of this is not the Chesed intended, rather it’s a fulfillment of the Mishna, “ilmale moraah shel malchus, ish es rayayhu chaim belaoh”, and we in fact see this almost daily. .

Years ago, frum scandals were once-in-a-decade, now they’re almost constant. Victims used to be only banks and the government, now there’s no hesitation in scamming friends, neighbors, and mosdos. Worse, the gullible extend themselves protecting these criminals, blaming everything on anti-Semitism, corruption, or other imagined justifiers. Read the comments on the “frum” news sites when they report the arrest of a Heimishe Frum person (whose name they redact!), and you’ll see why some accuse all the Orthodox of mass paranoia.

What is the message that we send to our children, to our fellow Americans, to the world, when we allow criminals to represent us in the rabbinate and in the schools? It’s easy to mock the church’s alter-boy problem, but now they are starting to mock us. No longer are we judged automatically as beyond reproach, the Orthoprax among us who sell themselves and us out for a quick illicit profit, a quick jolt of fun, a good time or a good profit are destroying the religion.

Try Google-ing “rabbi scandals”, or “Orthodox Jewish crime”, or “Orthodox criminals”, and you’ll get a very nasty shock. We all understand that movies portraying us incorrectly are bad for the religion and we protest them, why do so few accept that the huge cumulative media exposure of Frum scandals is even worse because it’s real? Saying that the “Goyim are worse” is scant consolation, even if it’s true.

And not just for the outside world, even more so for our own kids.

How many cheder kids assume, deep down, that the real reason Maharam Rothenberg was in prison was for stock fraud or money laundering? That the real reason for the Inquisition was Jewish crime? That the books that the Church burned were the second set of ledgers? Surely the children in yeshivas run by those convicted of crimes, probably those in schools that honor criminals.

Every time there’s a headline of a frum person being indicted, another 200 youngsters probably fall off the derech. If the scandal involves chilul Hashem, too, like the Monsey Kosher, that number likely rises to 500 or so. Ask anyone in the know- there are likely far more children at risk that you can imagine! (I concede that I pulled these numbers from my hat, but I know of no accurate ones, and I know that the numbers are far higher than anyone not “in the business” would imagine).

We now have, in the frum community, serious issues. Drugs, alcoholism, anorexia, psychiatric issues, suicide, AIDS, child abuse, spousal abuse, the whole gamut experienced by the secular universe have entered our world. Only the most ignorant would deny that we have to face these issues, and sooner rather than later.

But where is the strong response? The traditional frum response, denial, has been tried for decades and is clearly not working. Having lots of mosdos with their dinners and fund-raisers to deal with the issues isn’t working. Talking about children at risk hasn’t solved the problem, either.

Presumably a coincidence, but on the very day that the largest Frum child-abuse scandal hit the news, a large ad ran in the Frum papers claiming “The biggest problem facing American Jews today is cell phones with text messaging”, signed by prominent Rabbis. While certainly unintended, the ad sent a message, and not a very good one, about how the rabbinate is going to deal with real issues.

Certainly banning things hasn’t worked: Lipa is more popular than ever, and more girls wear slit skirts than ever, and more people have TV’s, internet and text-messaging than ever. Rabbi Slifkin’s books and the “Making of a Gadol” without a doubt sold far more copies than had they just been ignored. Raising the tznius bar as high as Rabbi Falk did has (in my own opinion, anyway) made more girls give up trying than anything since the Hippie revolution. Likewise the inane attempts to ban music, social occasions, and so on.

It seems clear to me that the chance that our own kid will leave religious practice is far more likely to be influenced by irreligious behavior he witnesses far more than by some outside influence. A hundred missionaries will not influence as many boys to leave Judaism as will one Rebbe that’s an abuser, one Rosh Yeshiva that publicly condones fraud or racism, or one parent that doesn’t practice what he’s preaching.

And like a treacherous fifth column, these perverters of Judaism are undermining the bedrock of the religion, weakening all our hopes for the future.

I have no answer to the original question, but I do have a suggestion: The next time you find yourself being extra-frum, making sure the mayim achronim is off the table or looking for your gartel or checking if the Chazan has a hat on, review your day and make sure that you didn’t do anything illegal or immoral or creating a chilul Hashem.

And tell your son/ friend/ neighbor to do the same. When we put as much attention on having a properly aligned moral compass as we do on having just the right type of black hat, we’ll be a lot closer to solving our important issues.

Another possible step toward a cure would be to stand up for what’s right, not just what’s done by others. If more people would insist that the schools their children attend be moral compasses instead of teaching how to get program funding, if more people would realize that there is more to Judaism than just writing tzedaka checks, we’d all be better off.

And my answer to the question I posed at the start of this screed is both #4 and #5-for two reasons. One is the Talmud in Sanhedrin that says that a person who says “mai ahanu lan Rabanan”, of what use are the Rabbis, is a heretic/ apikoros. The other is that numbers 1-3 must recruit one at a time, while these can create Chilul Hashems in wholesale lots. Your answer may differ.