Sunday, November 16, 2014

Actions - Not Platitudes

Rabbi Chaim Dovid Zweibel addressing the Agudah Convention last night (VIN)
The hits just keep on coming. I’m not talking about music. I’m talking about the world of Orthodoxy being ‘hit’ yet again with another scandal. This time it is financial. The ‘hits’ seem to alternate between financial scandals and sex scandals.

To say that I am embarrassed by it every single time it happens - would be an understatement.  We are barely past the scandal of a Modern Orthodox rabbi’s voyeurism and we are once again faced with yet another financial scandal.  This time by a group of Chasidim from Kiryas Joel and Williamsburg.

As Rabbi Chaim Dovid Zweibel indicated in his address to the Agudah convention last night, the goodwill we in Orthodoxy have built up by all of our achievements and contributions is countered by one scandal after another. The people who befriend us read the same newspapers we read. They read about people who claim to be among the most moral and ethical Jews; people that go out of their way to look different from a general society they paint as completely immoral - defrauding the government in the millions of dollars.

I have said this before. When a society sees the surrounding culture as completely immoral and believe them all to be anti-Semites, it should not be all that surprising that some people in that society see nothing wrong with ultimately cheating them.  

It starts with gaming the system to get government aid legitimately. That is often accompanied with comments like this: ‘The lowlifes of the inner city get government aid, why shouldn’t we - the people with the lofty ideals of the Torah? It is not too much of leap for some of them to say, ‘It’s OK to scam the system illegally since they Goyim are all evil Jew haters anyway’! ‘’As long as you don’t get caught!’ ‘And since we Jews are so smart we won’t be!’ That is bolstered by religious leaders like the Chasidic Rebbe caught in an elaborate tax frauds and money laundering scheme.  He was caught and convicted. The message received all too often is that if the Rebbe did it, it must be OK. What is not OK is getting caught.

I know it isn’t only Chasidim that defraud. Bernie Madoff proved that. As did a non Chasidic Orthodox Jew that stole money from the charity fund he headed.

But it just seems like a lot more of it comes out of a system that utilizes government welfare to the max. 

Addressing the issues crime committed by Orthodox Jews, Rabbi Zweibel made the following comment with which I agree. From VIN:
(I)t is our adherence to mitzvos that makes Hakadosh Baruch Hu look upon us favorably’.
It is the lack of adherence to them that caused these miscreants to try and cheat the government. In his closing remarks he said the following:
(I)t is incumbent upon each of us to strengthen ourselves in our performance of mitzvos in order to regain the respect of the outside world.
“When the nations of the world see and they look and they see the tefillin and they see the sheitlach and they see the kosher restaurants and they see all of the outer trappings of yiddishkeit, they look at us and they say this person is special.  This person in fact conducts himself in a way which is elevated… that is when we can be 800 pound gorillas.”
He could not be more right about this. Artifacts are not what make us great. It is our conduct that does. But as true as this is, it is not enough. It is in fact yet another platitude coming out of Agudah. Nice words. But he ends without a hint as to why some of our own people do not conduct themselves in ways that are a Kiddush HaShem - and instead act in ways that are a Chilul HaShem.  The blame for this should be placed squarely where it belongs. On the faulty Chinuch that characterizes the outside world as totally immoral and Anti-Semitic. The worst offenders of this approach are the Chasidim of Satmar and other like minded Chasidim.

If you continue to vilify ‘the Goyim’ that way is it really a surprise that even a devoutly religious Jew that prays 3 times a day and is meticulous in ritual observance thinks it’s perfectly fine to cheat ‘the Goyim’? ‘As long as they don’t get caught?’ Is not this view bolstered when a Chasidic Rebbe is found guilty of a an elaborate tax fraud and money laundering scheme?

The message taken is that if a Chasidic Rebbe thinks it’s OK to defraud the government then it’s OK for me to do it. The only thing he did wrong was getting caught! I know he apologized for the Chilul HaShem he made. But he did not say that what he did was wrong. If I recall correctly he basically said that if you want to avoid going to jail, then before attempting anything – get a lawyer so you can stay within the letter of the law.

This was completely ignored by Rabbi Zweibel. So while I agree with his message, I am disappointed at yet another platitude coming out of this august body. We need more than yet another admonition about making a Kiddush HaShem with our behavior instead of making a Chilul HaShem. There needs to be concrete steps taken by rabbinic leadership to change the way some in the Orthodox world think.

You can’t continue to promote statements like ‘Halacha He, Esav Soneh L’Yaakov’.  Because if you keep hammering people over the head with the idea that ‘the Goyim’ hate us, you perpetuate the feeling that it is OK to cheat these people because ‘they hate us anyway’!

This should have been stated clearly from the podium. We have to get serious about changing attitudes. True the idea that ‘the Goyim hate us’ has legitimate roots in the centuries of Jew hatred in Europe that culminated in the Holocaust. You can’t blame people for believing that ‘the Goyim’ hate us after that. 

But America of 2014 is not Europe of 1939. Instead of focusing on past hatred in Europe and erroneously transferring that onto the American people we ought to be focusing on truth. The American people do not hate us. They have only the highest regard for Judaism. Recent polls have shown that Judaism is the most admired religion in America. This in spite of the seemingly endless parade of Orthodox Jews committing crimes and misdemeanors. Sexual or financial.

The American people know that not all Orthodox Jews are crooks. They do not all paint us with a broad brush. Senator John McCain made this very observation when asked about the crimes of another Orthodox Jew, Jack Abramoff. The American people are fair.

If we want to continue to command the respect of our fellow citizens, we need to do whatever it takes to prevent this kind of thing from ever happening again. That starts with our religious leaders calling a spade a spade and making sure that the classroom is no longer filled with the message that ‘the Goyim’ Hate us. They don’t. But if things like this keep happening, their attitudes may change. And who would blame them?