Monday, December 28, 2009

Agudah Misses the Boat

It’s not like they were wrong. In fact I agree with much of what they said. But they missed the boat. The focus was on the wrong thing.

I attended three of the major sessions given at the Biennial Midwest Convention of the Agudath Israel of Illinois over the weekend. The sessions were given by many prominent rabbinic leaders, Rabbanim, Roshei Yeshiva and lay leaders. The issues addressed were those often written about here. Issues like business ethics. Kiddush HaShem versus Chilul HaShem. Attitudes and relationships with secular Jews and non Jews. And ‘adults at risk’.

I give them credit for acknowledging problems in their own world. In fact this is not the first time they have admitted having these problems. The problem is no longer that they don’t acknowledge it. It is in their solutions to them. It’s all about Frumkeit. Here is a synopsis:

*The Torah world is just not Frum enough.

*True - we are better than Goyim, but we could do so much better.

*We should isolate ourselves even from Goyishe culture - more than we already are.

*Stay away from the internet and bloggers.

These were not the exact words they used but the message was clear. And most of the crowd just lapped it up. “Very inspiring” is a phrase I heard a lot during that weekend.

What I didn’t hear is any self reflection by the leadership. Nothing about whether their own system of Chinuch ever played any part in these problems. Not a word. It was all about the level of Frumkeit. As if what they have been teaching is fine - just not being followed enough.

Their answer as to why so many Frum people cheat the government? Conspicuous consumption by the wealthy! Big beautiful homes, fancy cars, and expensive vacations by the wealthy cause’s jealousy. People want to "keep up with the Cohens" so they will cut corners to do it - as in tax evasion.

Solution? Hide your wealth. If there is no conspicuous consumption there will be no motivation to steal.

Not a word about underlying causes or that the Chinuch itself is flawed. Was the Spinka Rebbe jealous of his wealthy friends? Is that why he created an elaborate tax evasion scheme for his wealthy friends? Did those multi millionaires who utilized it to evade paying taxes do it because they wanted to keep up with the Cohens?

The answer is no. They did it because they thought it was Mutar to cheat the government as long as they didn’t get caught and thereby create a Chilul HaShem. There was absolutely no mention of that at all. It is all about conspicuous consumption. While I agree that this may contribute to the problem significantly - it s not the underlying cause.

What about adults at risk? There have been increasing problems with Frum adults who have become addicted to pornography via the internet. And that has tragically destroyed many families. What is the cause of the problem? Goyim and their culture! We live in a culture that is hyper sexualized. There are erotic images all over the place. They are almost impossible to avoid.

Solution? Isolate from the culture as much as possible. The more isolation - the merrier. We are a holy people and the Goyim are immoral.

No nuance. No differentiation between good and bad people - Jewish or otherwise. It’s a war: The evil Goyim and their culture versus the holy Jewish people. That is how it was framed. Not a word about the fact that most of the non Jewish world has decent values too, often based in religion. They hate the smut just as much as we do. Their standards may not be the same as ours but to label the entirety of the non Jewish world as the cause of our problems not only avoids the issue but casts non Jews in such a negative light - that cheating them almost becomes a Mitzvah.

Nor does it address the underlying problem: Sex addiction. People with addiction disorders require professional help. Telling them to simply stay away from porn or avoid the internet simply does not work. Nor is it true that everyone exposed it will become addicted.

Of course everyone should avoid smut as much as possible. But to blame sex addiction entirely on the culture is to miss the boat entirely.

Besides, the super saturated culture we live in is the fault of an amoral segment of society with an over-whelming influence. It is mostly sourced in the entertainment industry. An industry heavily populated by secular Jews as much as secular non Jews.

They are the ones who in large measure are responsible for what we encounter in the so-called street. They influence the way we eat, the way we dress and the way we act. The majority of non Jews are upset by it too. It cannot simply all be blamed on the Goyim. But that was in part the message.

Doing that reinforces an attitude of permissiveness about cheating them. It’s called being Moreh Heter – a rationalization that incorrectly uses Halacha to justify it. “Why shouldn’t we cheat the Goyim?” “Look what they do!” “They deserve it!”

That they said stealing is Assur without even mentioning that the recent revelations about massive tax frauds against perpetrated by otherwise very religious Jews is not going to change what happened or prevent it from happening again.

Not a word about this kind of thinking. Only words about how evil America culture (read – Goyim) has become.

Then there was the obligatory swipe at bloggers and the internet. No, this time they did not say it should be banned. But it was nonetheless an object of scorn. The claim was made that whatever a Torah personality would say at the convention, it would be immediately ridiculed by bloggers - the Leitzanim or scoffers!

In fact one speaker said that the world of today is entirely filled with scoffers. He then told the story of Rav Wolbe who once gave a Sichas Mussar - a lecture on Jewish ethics. It was so good that it seemed impervious to any criticism. A listener approached Rav Wolbe and complimented him on it saying that no one will be able to refute what he said. Rav Wolbe said, what do you mean? I can refute it myself! The listener asked, “How is that possible?” Rav Wolbe answered, “With these three words: Ha! Ha! Ha!”

Yes there are bloggers that are scoffers. But not all of them.. Some of us try and be as respectful as we can when bringing up criticisms. I think it only fair that this be recognized.

To say I was disappointed is an understatement. Disappointed but not surprised. The convention messages were just more of the same.

It would have been a truly pleasant surprise for them to have had speakers like Rabbis Yakov Horowitz, Yair Hoffman and Jonathan Rosenblum. And to have allowed them complete candor.

Maybe next time.