Monday, December 07, 2009

‘Jewing’ People

Sadly the title of this post is an unflattering term meant to portray the act of cheating people as a Jewish trait. And what is even sadder is that recent events have reinforced that negative stereotype.

I am gratified that even now most Americans do not think of Jews this way and realize that a few rotten apples exist in every subculture that spoil it for others. But the recent spate of fraud convictions of prominent Jews – religious and otherwise - has prevented eradicating this stereotype from us once and for all.

Rabbi Avi Shafran has posted an article on Cross-Currents dealing with the issue of fraud in the Orthodox community. As he correctly points out:

The Orthodox community has certainly had its share of fraud convictions…

Apparently this was one of the major focuses of the Agudah convention this year:

Jewish crimes, imagined, alleged or proven, have been prominently featured in the media. But they were prominent too at Agudath Israel of America’s recent 87th national convention. The opening plenary session, on November 26, was dedicated to the Jewish mandate of honesty in business and personal dealings.

Two prominent rabbinic leaders spoke and apparently delivered a “pointed, pained and powerful” message:

Honesty is no less a Jewish imperative than any. In fact, in many ways it is a greater one. (emphasis mine)

I am of course very happy they did this, albeit a bit ‘late in the game’. But as powerful as these speeches must have been - no one in my view has made more powerful statements on this issue than the last generation of Gedolim. People like Rav Pam and Rav Schwab for example. Agudah thought so too apparently:

Video excerpts of addresses presented by those two revered figures years ago on the subject of business ethics were projected onto large screens before the crowd… (Rav Schwab) minced no words about the wrongness of “cutting corners” when it came to honesty in business.

“Those who resort to… dishonesty,” he said, “while they may have the outward appearance of G-d-fearing Jews, deep down they are irreligious” – and he loudly emphasized the “ir” of “irreligious.” G-d provides us what He knows we need, Rabbi Schwab explained. To steal is to deny that fact, and any gains thereby ill-gotten are an inheritance bequeathed by evil.

He noted, further, that the dictionary has an entry for the word “Jew” as a verb, as in “to Jew” someone, i.e. to cheat him. How terrible a desecration of G-d’s name, Rabbi Schwab bemoaned, that His people are viewed as defrauders. Even if the definition carries the smell of anti-Semitism, he explained, it is a desecration of G-d’s name all the same.

“I live for the day,” he mused, with a pining, sad smile, “when there will be a new definition for ‘to Jew’: to be a stickler for honesty… ”

Woe is to us that this message was not continued as a top priority in our day. I realize that there are other pressing issues but this one is certainly in the top tier. And yet only now, when the horse is kind of out of the barn is the Agudah dealing with it.

The issues that have been focused upon in the past while these crimes were taking place in their very own backyards - were often those dealing with spiritual matters. Or protectionist - such as denials about sex abuse or denials about mishandling it. Or about condemning bloggers and the Internet. Or making certain that everyone knew that Rabbi Slifkin’s book were filled with heresy.

Business ethics? Of course everybody knows we should have them. No need to talk about it. Where do some of the donations to religious institutions come from? Who knows? Not our business. Not our problem.

In fact I doubt that Rabbi Salomon has ever spoken about this issue publicly before this convention. I doubt there is a video of it - the way there is for Rav Schwab and Rav Pam. If anyone has any recording of such a speech in any venue, I would love to hear it. If he did there has been precious little of it and it has not gotten much play in the religious media - that I am aware of. If that is the case I will be the first to admit I am mistaken.

Rabbi Salomon’s speeches tended to focus on completely spiritual things.

The last generation of Gedolim were far more sensitive to these issues. Stories abound about the scrupulous honesty of men like Rav Moshe Feinstein, Rav Yaakov Kaminetsky, and Rav Ahron Soloveichik - just to mention a few. These men were very spiritual but understood the importance of emphasizing these things long before any scandal broke out.

They understood what Rav Salomon and Rav Perlow understand and emphasized at this Agudah Convention – that honesty is no less a Jewish imperative than any. In fact, in many ways it is a greater one. I just wish they had done so sooner and followed the lead of R’ Schwab and R’ Pam instead of leaving that issue somewhere in the deep freeze.

I am grateful – as I said – that Agudah is at least dealing with this issue now. But what about those who have already been convicted and admitted to these crimes? How should we look at them? Are they to be seen as otherewise religious Jews?

I would posit that Rav Schwab is right. These people are not religious. They are IR-religious. That is how we must see them – no less than if they ate pork.

They are now paying dearly for their crimes and their lack of religiosity.

That said - anyone can do Teshuva - including those who have been caught in a crime of dishonesty. As I said they are now paying a price for their lack of religiosity – as are their families and friends; their respective communities and even all of Jewry.

Doing time in prison will not suffice. They must understand that what they did was fundamentally wrong and a denial of God’s Torah. And they must apologize to their victims - the American taxpayer - and address the Chilul HaShem they caused. In my view - only then will their Teshuva be accepted by God… and by His people. Only then will we be able to stop seeing them as irreligious Jews.