Thursday, September 29, 2016

A Holy People or a Bunch of Criminals?

Is this our new image?
I am not a member of Agudah. Nor do I always side with the views and pronouncements of their rabbinic leadership. I am in fact occasionally disappointed at some of what they say and do. And when that happens I generally say so, publicly. However, I never thought – nor do I think now that Agudah’s leadership is anything but L’Shma.

I am not one of those people that sees evil in everything they do. Just the opposite is true. Agudah’s lay leadership (which has the approval of its rabbinic leadership for everything they undertake) has done a lot for Jews of all stripes in this country. They are one of the most effective lobbying agencies in Washington… as they are in a number of state legislatures where a lot of Jews live. Again I don’t agree with every position they ever promoted, But I do agree with most of them.

One of my criticisms in the past has been that Agudah has not focused enough on how Jews should interact with the non Jewish culture in which we live. The way they have treated this subject in the past was to try and avoid that culture as much as possible… treating it like evil incarnate! Contact with that culture should be limited as much as possible - they would say - so as to avoid those evils which could end up infiltrating our own culture.

The problem with constantly characterizing the culture as evil, is that it gives the impression since they are such an evil culture we can cheat their government in financial matters as long as we can get away with it. They come to feel that their ethics are not our ethics and can be ignored. Which can lead to fraudulent conduct by all too many of us.

While the vast majority of Orthodox Jewry does not behave in that manner, unfortunately there has been an increase in the number of us that do. Making matters worse is when religious leaders get caught doing it and then apologize for making a Chilul HaShem. That strengthens the perception that getting caught was the only real problem. Otherwise they would not have done it in the first place. What kind of religious leader would deliberately violate Halacha for purposes of money – even if it is only to fund his religious and charitable institutions? It therefore must be OK from a Halachic standpoint. Because it is only the Chilul HaShem that we have to worry about, Not our behavior towards people and governments whose culture is so evil.

Unfortunately that has caused an explosion of fraudulent behavior among Orthodox Jews.
I was sent a video by Avi Schick, an attorney who is a lay leader in Agudah. It was of his address at an Agudah 'Yom Iyun - Emes and the Law' which he titled ‘Yashrus and Kashrus’.

It was a well attended event. And it was recorded for as wide a distribution as possible. His address was eye opening on several accounts. It was frank and it addressed the specific concern of fraudulent behavior by Orthodox Jews. The goal was to change the culture from one that tolerates such behavior to one that abhors it!

The primary point Avi made was one that I have made here before. More than once. That all too often Jews that are meticulous about ritual behavior are cavalier about dealing with their non Jewish neighbors, or government.

Many Frum Jews are careful to be stringent about things like Shabbos and Kashrus. Like not opening a bottle of pop (that’s soda - for all you New Yorkers out there) because you may be creating a Keli (vessel) out of the cap on Shabbos. Or using only Chalav Yisroel products and not relying on the Heter of Rav Moshe Feinstein with respect to Chalav Stam - milk produced by this country’s non Jewish dairies.

But when it comes to dealing with the government, the opposite attitude can be found in those same people. They will look for any loophole in the law to take advantage of. No being stringent there! Why? The rationale is that we are dealing with an evil culture anyway - so why not if you can get away with it?

Avi said that his law practice has seen a substantial increase in the number of ‘Frumme Yidden’ that are being investigated by the government. When he started his practice he had none! …no Frum clients at all.. Today, a very large percentage of his practice are Frum Jews and Mosdos (Orthodox institutions)! His non Jewish employees are now used to seeing Jews that are meticulous about things like Kashrus coming into the office because they are being investigated by the government! So common are such meetings that they are used to a routine that accommodates Frum Jews.

Avi suspects that on the minds of these non Jewish employees who see this parade of Orthodox Jewish clients is the question about why this religion of ours that has so many rules and regulations - doesn’t have anything to say about the conduct that brought the client there in the first place!

The video below is about 25 minutes long. It is well worth watching for several reasons. Among them is to realize that there are a lot more problems like this in the Orthodox world than most of us might think there are; to understand why such behavior is wrong; to try and change the culture from one that tolerates such behavior to one that abhors it; and to see that Agudah realizes that a thing like this in the Frum world is so bad that they felt moved to address it in such a public way. 

Yom Iyun Emes and the Law Avi Schick from Agudath Israel on Vimeo.