Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Beyond Troubling

I’m not in the habit of criticizing Beyond BT, the blog dedicated to the Baal Teshuva. I generally find the articles there quite enlightening, often inspiring, and rarely if ever controversial. But not this time. Although well intentioned Rabbi Chaim Coffman wrote a guest post yesterday that is ‘beyond’ troubling.

It’s not that I totally disagree with him. I don’t. Much of what he says is just fine and matches my own beliefs and attitudes.

The subject is scandal in the Jewish community. He was a panelist at a Shabbaton that was apparently organized for Baalei Teshuva where the following question was posed:

What happens when there is a scandal by a rabbinical figure in our community? How should we react? Did we really change our lives, sometimes alienate our families and not feel welcomed in the frum community to see a religious spiritual leader not acting in line with the Torah’s ideals?

This question in and of itself demonstrates the reach of a public Chilul HaShem by a rabbinic figure. It not only desecrates the name of God… and embarrasses and shames His people. It is perhaps even worse as it can also make the best among us - the Baal Teshuva – second guess his difficult and courageous decision to embrace Torah and Mitzvos.

Rabbi Coffman’s response to this question was less than inspiring.

First he said that one should never believe what they read in the paper and should always judge a person innocent. Just because something is written in a newspaper – that doesn’t make it true. While that statement is in and of itself true, it is beside the point. The question was not whether we should believe everything we read. The question was about how to react to a scandal!

Of course we have to be Dan L’Kaf Zechus and give people the benefit of the doubt. But that is only if there is any doubt. Not if guilt has been established. Rabbi Coffman goes way too far with the idea of being Dan L’Kaf Zechus.

Judging all unfavorable reports as untrue unless proven otherwise is an unrealistic approach when there is massive evidence to the contrary. Yes we should still be careful about assigning guilt to people until all the facts are in. But that doesn’t mean we suspend belief and bend over backwards to assume innocence in the face of massive evidence. When confronted with this circumstance – a wait and see attitude should prevail. Foolish defenses are just as harmful with respect to Chilul HaShem as is the rush to judgment of guilt.

If I were a Baal Teshuva, Rabbi Coffman’s answer would leave me with a less than inspiring feeling. It might even do the opposite and strengthen my question about what exactly I gained by embracing an Orthodoxy that gives the benefit of the doubt to rabbis who commit crimes and Chilul HaShems. Here is how he puts it:

There is a mitzvah to judge someone favorably even if the circumstances may appear to be incredibly incriminating.

The problem with this attitude is that it minimizes the crime and aggrandizes the criminal. You can’t explain away crime - and you can’t explain away Chilul HaShem. When it happens the Mitzvah is to do the opposite and condemn it. One can perhaps try and explain why an individual resorted to a crime –out of desperation or for a good cause. But in no way should one ever excuse the crime or minimize the Chilul HaShem. When a rabbinic figure purposely schemes to defraud the government in any way – sugar coating it only makes the Chilul HaShem worse. It has to be called out and labeled for what it is.

Rabbi Coffman then posits that when a rabbinic leader is caught in a crime it really says nothing about the community. In other words, ‘Don’t judge Judaism by its Jews’. I agree. I also agree with the following statement said in the name of Rav Yechezkel Levenstein, famed Mashgiach of the Yeshivas Mir and Ponezveh:

(Do) not… get too concerned with ‘frumkeit’. This means that just because we see a person dressed in a certain way or has a certain title, doesn’t necessarily mean anything.

Just because one can walk the walk and talk and the talk in frumkeit, doesn’t mean that the person is necessarily frum. It just means that they know the lingo. We have to be careful not to mix-up Jews and Judaism.

Our leaders have an obligation and should live up to the highest spiritual standards that they can. After all, if they act in a way that contradicts Torah and people learn from their crooked ways, then that is a chillul Hashem at the highest level!

Rabbi Coffman is absolutely correct here. But if only it were that simple. Of course Judaism should never be judged by those who violate its precepts. But if too many people end up violating the same precept, how can anyone be expected not to judge Judaism by it? Isn’t that precisely what a Chilul HaShem does? That is how we end up being stereotyped!

But then Rabbi Coffman comes up with the most ridiculous statement of his post. It was in obvious reference to the Spinka Rebbe. He was convicted of a scheme to launder illegally gotten gains of donors through an elaborate scheme via his charitable organizations both here and in Israel. Many may recall an Agudah gathering that was called before the Spinka Rebbe started serving his sentence where with full emotion he ‘beat his breast’ saying how sorry he was for what he called a ‘mistake’.

It was as if to say that he didn’t think that planning and executing an elaborate and detailed money laundering was anything more than a mistake. Yes, he was sorry. I would be sorry too if I were facing a stint in prison. But I do not recall him saying that he violated Halacha. Only that he regretted the Chilul HaShem. It is almost as though his real regret was being caught. He off course urged everyone there not to make his ‘mistake’ and to raise money in compliance with the law (…big Chiddush!) This - claims Rabbi Coffman - makes him a Gadol …a great sage!

If I were a Baal Teshuva who recently came to observance and was told that a rabbi who merely admits guilt after his conviction is a Gadol - it would make me seriously wonder why I ever thought Orthodox Judaism was in any way ethical! My hope is that those were present at that panel discussion or who read his post on ‘Beyond BT’ realize that this view is only that of Rabbi Coffman. And although there may be others who think like this there are plenty of Orthodox Jews of all stripes who do not. Including me.