Do Unto Others: Scandals And Sanctity
Fri, 07/31/2009
Editor and Publisher

No alternate text on picture! - define alternate text in image propertiesIt didn’t take long for the jokes to start making the rounds in response to the latest rabbis-as-(alleged)-crooks scandal. There was the one about the latest Friday-night practical halacha shiur, or class, on “ankle monitors on Shabbat,” and another about the shul charity auction offering a new category: kidneys.

I’m not laughing.

Rather, I’m embarrassed that those who seek to represent the highest levels of piety in our community are increasingly perceived as all too fallible, on the take. Their distinctive garb, a symbol of their commitment to a Higher Authority, and conscious desire to separate themselves from others would seem to make it more difficult for them to transgress in public. But that doesn’t seem to be working lately.

A year and a half 

 ago several Spinka chasidim were arrested in Los Angeles on charges of tax fraud and money laundering between the U.S. and Israel. Since then arrests of rabbis on charges of sexual as well as financial abuse have been in the news. What distinguishes these crimes from those committed by other Jews is that they tend to involve religious leaders themselves and their institutions, like synagogues and schools. Sadly, these stories are losing their shock value. 

Then came the major FBI crackdown last week on money laundering and organ selling in New Jersey, with five rabbis from the Syrian communities of Deal, N.J., and Brooklyn among those arrested.

The local tabloids had a field day. The New York Post headline last Thursday was “Kosher Nostra” and the Daily News front page featured a large mug shot of a white-bearded rabbi with a large black yarmulke. The headline asked: “Is Nothing Sacred?”

Good question, indeed. It’s one all of us should be asking, especially this week as we observe the saddest day on the Jewish calendar, Tisha b’Av, marking the destruction of the Holy Temple by the Babylonians in 586 BCE, and by the Romans in 70 AD.

Our sages tell us that the root cause of the Second Temple’s destruction was sinat chinam, causeless hatred between and among Jews — a crime equal to murder, licentiousness and idol worship, the Talmud suggests.

Even today, with a thriving Jewish state and rebuilt Jerusalem, we continue to fast on Tisha b’Av because we mourn the loss not only of the physical stones of the Temple but of God’s presence in our midst that it signified, and of our designation as a holy people.

The message that our most dangerous enemy is ourselves is a chilling reminder at a time when, despite our common obsession with our dwindling demographic numbers, the level of animosity within and between our denominations remains disturbingly high.

Many Orthodox Jews refuse to acknowledge that their less observant brethren can be serious about their religious and spiritual lives, and see them more as a threat to continuity than as sharing the path to a Jewish future. Better not to associate with them, some rabbis say, for fear of appearing to legitimize their beliefs. And there is a distinct element of schadenfreude among Reform, Conservative and Modern Orthodox Jews on reading of financial and sexual abuses within the haredi community, a sense of satisfaction in seeing those alleged holier-than-thou Jews brought low, shown to be as flawed as the rest of us.

But there is plenty of guilt to go around, and the front-page photos of bearded rabbis being led away in handcuffs represents a chillul HaShem, a desecration of God’s name, for us all.

I am reminded of Rabbi Yitz Greenberg’s sly but telling comment: “I don’t care what denomination you are. As long as you feel guilty about it.”

There is much to be said about the culture of a haredi community where, as Mark Charendoff, the president of the Jewish Funders Network, points out in a Jewish Week  opinion piece ,  there seems to exist “a perverse notion that we few who feel bound by the laws of God are free to flaunt the laws of man.”

He makes the case, with eloquence and barely contained anger, that Orthodox Jews would be better off  “perfecting ourselves and the communities we live in” rather than obsessing on the seeming minutia of kashrut or the “threat” of women rabbis. 

(How ironic that the very week that many observant Jews refrain from washing laundry, in keeping with the modified laws of mourning preceding Tisha b’Av, rabbis are charged with laundering charitable funds.)

I agree with Charendoff’s critique, but don’t want to let the rest of us off the hook too soon. 

Haredim are an easy target, particularly in Israel, with their Old World appearance, lack of support for Zionism (and even hostility in some circles), resistance among males to enter the work force, and refusal to serve in the Israeli army. The recent spate of violent outbursts in Jerusalem by a small, militant group of young haredim protesting against a parking garage being open on Friday night, and in a separate incident, against authorities intervening in the case of a haredi woman allegedly starving her young child, have outraged most Israelis and made a mockery of religious values.

But too many of us tend to dismiss with contempt the entire haredi world for the actions of a few, failing to recognize and appreciate the sincerity and countless acts of chesed within that community. 

Bottom line, sinat chinam remains pervasive throughout the Jewish community, 2,000 years after the Temple was destroyed. 

Rabbi Avraham Yitzchok Kook, the much-admired chief rabbi of Palestine almost a century ago, said the antidote to sinat chinam is ahavat chinam, or causeless love between and among Jews. It may sound as naïve as it does charming, but there are too few of us, and we have too much in common, to reject advice that calls for tolerance and understanding, if not genuine affection.

We need to remember that in disparaging others we belittle ourselves. 

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