Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Modern Culture -Isolation or Immersion?

Fred Flint-stoned.

That might be Rabbi Baruch Chalomish’s nickname. Rabbi Chalomish - apparently an ordained Orthodox rabbi - is a wealthy businessman who lost his wife to cancer back in 1996. He blames his ‘indiscretions’ on the pain of that loss of 13 years ago.

By his own admission as reported in the JC.com he is a coke-head and consorts with prostitutes.

How Frum can this guy be? He looks certainly looks Frum. And he did make certain he had kosher food for his cocaine parties and sexual escapades. (I'm just trying to picture his thinking process.) I’ll bet he is also meticulous about keeping Shabbos.

So here we have yet another religious looking Jew who is responsible for making a Chilul HaShem.

The question is whether this guy is alone. The answer is that he is not. There are others who have gone down this path. How many are there? I don't know but it seems like we have been hearing stories like this for decades: Frum Jews - often prominent ones - succumbing to the temptations of the flesh. And to dangerous mind altering drugs.

I remember clearly when – many years ago - another wealthy religious Jew who was a confidant of Rav Shach’s. He was found dead of a drug overdose in his mistress’s apartment. He was a married man at the time. And then there were those reports from Sidney Biddle Barrows – The Mayflower Madam – who ran a high priced call girl service for wealthy clients. She reported in her book that a substantial portion of her clientele were Chasidic Jews.

I have in the past suggested possible answers to these questions. Most of them had to do with an overly repressive and insular world that sees the outside world as the ultimate forbidden fruit to be avoided at all cost.

It has been shown that in many cases - when circumstances are just right - the outside world will come pouring in like water from a broken dam. There is no protection from being drowned by it. No learning about the ways of the world and how to properly deal with it. No inoculation by allowing some exposure to it via various media. TV, movies, the Internet, secular newspapers, radio… virtually all contact with the outside world is removed from that segment of Orthodoxy. The goal is insulation. And they have succeeded in creating a highly insular environment. To say that they are isolated from the world is an understatement.

I don’t know if Rabbi Chalomish was raised in that kind of environment. But even if he was, certainly his success in business put him in contact with the outside world. And he slid very quickly into a world of drugs and sex. Was he a victim of improper preparation of isolationist Orthodoxy? Or is he the exception – an individual with an addictive personality - that proves their rule: the less contact you have with the outside world - the better.

For what it's worth I do suspect that Rabbi Chalomish suffers from an addictive personality. Not that this absolves him of responsibility for making a Chilul HaShem. It doesn't. But does that mean an insular lifestyle otherwise works? Or does it grease the path for the kind of slide he took when he encountered it? Are addictive personalities more prone to this behavior upon encountering it -when their lives are insulated?

Is forbidding the New York Times into your world part of the solution? Or is it part of the problem? If one assumes that Rabbi Chalomish was raised in this kind of environment was he a victim of it? Would he have done better being raised in a more open environment?

There are those who say that the more one is exposed to ‘The outside world’ the more likely they are to succumb to its temptations. I think that there is some truth to that as well. Taken to an extreme - if one is raised by a prostitute mother in a brothel one will view drugs and illicit sexual activity as normal.

In my view – just like everything else in the world there is a happy medium between the two extremes. The question is where exactly that medium lies and how big a range should that medium encompass. That would be an interesting discussion. But one thing is certain. Neither complete isolation from nor complete immersion in the ‘outside world’ is ideal. Both extremes should be avoided because I truly believe that extremism of any sort is a prescription for disaster.