Thursday, December 18, 2014

When a Premiere Torah Institution is Criticized

Eliyahu Weinstein
First let me state the obvious. Eliyahu Weinstein is a sick individual who probably suffers from a serious case of psychopathy. He was sentenced to a very long prison term for committing fraud on innocent people. Some of them from his own religious community. To say that this Kipa wearing Jew who looks Charedi is responsible for a huge Chilul HaShem is an understatement. No where is this more obvious than in a statement attributed to Weinstein’s sentencing judge. From Shmarya Rosenberg’s blog
Additionally, Judge Joel Pisano lashed out at the Lakewood haredi community for taking money from criminals, for not condemning crime committed by fellow haredim, and for openly enabling crime, the source said. 
If what Shmarya  reported is true, then the Chilul HaShem is self evident. 

Now, I’m sure many reading this will discount the report because they do not trust the source (to say the least). But I am inclined to believe it. Because even though it serves his alleged purposes of bashing the religious world, there is no way Mr. Rosenberg’s blog could continue to credible to even his biggest supporters if he were caught in an outright lie. No one likes to be lied to.

Judge Pisano may be painting with a bit of a broad brush… and it may not be the case that Lakewood is as guilty as he indicated.  But the self imposed poverty of Lakewood’s Avreichim certainly puts pressure on Lakewood to find creative ways of funding them. 

Aside from taking money from the likes of Weinstein, there are other questionable ways of funding advocated by Lakewood. Like taking advantage of the government welfare system. This adds to the negative image of Lakewood and Yeshivos like them. Which makes Judge Pisano’s assertions sound more credible.

Taking advantage of the welfare system is one of my pet peeves. Although they do it legally, I would not call using welfare to support Torah study the most ethical way to do it. Consider the circumstances of the Avreichim versus the intent of the welfare system.

Welfare is supposed to be for those people who for whatever reason can’t find work. They are supposed to try. And for those who do work but are paid meager incomes, the welfare system is there to help them make ends meet.

A lot of recipients are disabled. For various reasons many are not educated enough to find good jobs. In some cases they are from dysfunctional homes where education was not a priority. Or were raised in slums where education has little to no value compared to the values of the street.  

And even for those who are from fine families whose parents overcame those negative influences and transmitted good values and a positive work ethic, many are are not in a position to help their children out financially. Barely making ends meet themselves.

I have only scratched the surface of the impoverished circumstances over which many welfare recipients have no control - and for whom the welfare system was intended.

Contrast that with the circumstances of the typical Avreich and his family. Most of the above does not apply to him. In most cases they are poor by choice.

Now one may extol their virtues in choosing a life of Torah study and the modest lifestyle that often accompanies it. I in fact agree that in that sense they are altruists. But it is still a choice.

And the truth is that many of these Avrechim come from families that are a lot better off than the families of typical welfare recipient. They have parents that can and often do help them out. Some in the form of cash. Some in the form of paying for certain expenses (like rent). Some get shipments of food (like an occasional side of beef which they put into a freezer and use overtime). Some get their clothing paid for (partially or fully) by a parent.  And some even get monthly financial support from their parents.

In short there are many ways that that Avreichim are able to get financial relief outside of the welfare system that they qualify for.  Although it is true that most Avreichim live very modestly by middle class standards, their lifestyles are still a cut above most welfare recipients and are pretty close to middle class. And that is so at least in part because of the financial aid received through the government welfare system.

Additionally, when they choose to better their financial circumstances by entering the workforce, in most cases they are in a better position to do so than most other welfare recipients. Their education is better. Their work ethic is better. They usually come from middle class neighborhoods where better values are extant. They give far higher value to education than most other welfare recipients. They also have better networking opportunities that enable them to find decent jobs. While they do need the welfare to help them make ends meet while still in full time Torah study, they are not the helpless underclass that government welfare is intended for.

It is also a fact that the welfare system is ripe for abuse. And I’m sure that exists too. In short it is not a stretch to imagine that Lakewood’s leaders go the extra mile to fund their Avreichim and take donations from someone like Eliyahu Weinstein even when they must strongly suspect that his money is tainted.

They might argue that they cannot know how any particular donor made his money and do not need question it. And that refusing a donation based on a rumor would unfair to their Avrechim who so badly need it. But if this kind of thing happens enough, we end up with statements like the one from Judge Pisano. Is taking money that way worth the stain of getting a rebuke from a sitting judge? Not in my book.

What about helping out the many Avreichim Lakewood now has? …with plans to increase those numbers greatly in future years? My answer to that is that they ought to be doing the opposite and decrease their numbers. 

The Charedi world has been promoting the primacy of Torah study for decades. I understand why there was a need to do so in the past. Torah study was not popular in the early days of Lakewood. In those days,college was the path taken by most students after high school. While there were many that did both Yeshiva (during the day) and college (at night), the spirit of that time was to learn how to make a living, once out of Yeshiva.  

Rav Aharon Kotler had to change that paradigm or his Yeshiva would never have succeeded. So he tried to get any Bachur he could in any way he could realizing that his Yeshiva would never get off the ground unless he impressed upon as many people as he could the importance of Torah L’Shma (Torah study for its own sake). He was successful in gaining a core of devoted students that were truly the elite of the Torah world. I’m sure he never dreamed his Yeshiva would ever be what it is today.

What has happened is that Rav Aharon Kotler’s message stuck. It has become the new paradigm. So what was once a Makom Torah for the truly elite, is not a meat grinder that churns out a great many Lomdei Torah - but who are not quite elite. The elite may still be there. But they are a minority of those that study there fulltime.  

To my mind there is no ethical basis for funding the masses this way. While it is appropriate for every Jew to study Torah - it is counterproductive to steer every male Jew into it full time - and unethical (even if legal) to do so at government expense.  

Yes, Torah L’Shma is a value we should all share. But it need not be full time for everyone. For most of us, we should work and be Koveah Itim - making time for daily Torah study.  For the elite, they should be funded at even higher levels than they are now so that they never have to worry about supporting their families. How many Avreichim should be considered the elite is beyond the scope of this essay. Suffice it to say that we are currently way beyond that number. Bottom line: there ought to never again be a basis for a sitting judge to say the kind of things that this one did.

After reading Weinstein's sentencing transcript, it is clear that the statement attributed to Judge Pisano was not in it. That does not mean he didn't say it. All it means is that if he did say it (or something like it) it was done after the matter was concluded.