Tuesday, 11 August 2009

Arrests in New Jersey

The following is an article I wrote, on the events that transpired a few weeks ago when various rabbis were arrested in New Jersey and Brooklyn. Your comments are most welcomed.
(The article appeared, originally, in the Jewish Tribune (Toronto) and can be seen on line at http://www.jewishtribune.ca/TribuneV2/index.php/200908111949/We-must-ask-ourselves-What-can-I-do-to-affect-change.html)
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We must ask ourselves: What can I do to affect change?

I was – as were so many others around the world – truly stunned, embarrassed and troubled by the recent arrest of a group of Orthodox rabbis in Brooklyn and New Jersey. How could this have happened? How will antisemites use this information to cause further harm to the Jewish community? What will people say about Orthodoxy? These were questions that I heard asked and that I read in numerous articles. Comments further abounded: these rabbis profaned the Name of God; they caused a great chilul Hashem; they reflected so much of what is wrong within their specific communities. They did this and they did that – yet it still is we who will all suffer the consequences of their behaviour.
On the theological plane, we could ask: if they are the wrong-doers, why must we all suffer? If antisemitism is, lo aleinu, strengthened because of the actions of these few individuals, the entire Jewish community is the potential victim. We can thus wonder about the Divine justification for the many to suffer because of the actions of the few, of the very few. My issue, however, is not theological; it is much more practical. Whether we like it or not, we all still suffer the consequences. What then is the benefit of simply responding by solely distancing ourselves from the perpetrators of these acts? Yet, the responses I kept reading in regard to these events were developed with just this agenda. The overriding motivation seemed to be this desire to distance oneself from the accused parties – that’s them, that’s not me or not us. As if the antisemite will distinguish between you and other Jews, especially such visible Jews.
If we all suffer together, we are all in it together. This is not to say that we should not identify evil and the roots of this evil, yet maybe our response should also include a reflection of this reality of our interconnectedness.We may ask: to whom were these individuals – with their attempts to distance themselves from the perpetrators of these crimes – directing their comments? We may also wonder about a possible hidden agenda behind some of these variant statements. In the most basic sense, those attempting to distance themselves from the perpetrators are attempting to tell others not to include them in any negative responses towards the perpetrators. Does one really think, though, that proclamations that you are not part of this villainous group will cause another, who originally sees you in this light, to change his/her perspective? In the broadest context, do we actually think that by proclaiming that Jews who do criminal acts are not representative of the greater community, we can actually change the mind of the antisemite who already views the Jewish community with contempt and thinks that all Jews really are criminals? Even as we know that the truth is that there may be a wide divide between the general Jewish community and its few members who act with criminal intent, we cannot let ourselves be satisfied with stating the obvious, believing that it will solve all the potential problems. We will all still face potential consequences together, as a we. Thus, we must respond to the problem as a we.
This also applies within narrower contexts, when we attempt to distance ourselves from perpetrators such as these by declaring them members of a particular sub-group within our people and distancing ourselves from that sub-group. They are Orthodox, it’s a problem in Orthodoxy; of course, I am not Orthodox and, thus, not part of the problem. They are ultra-Orthodox or haredim, it’s a problem in ultra-Orthodoxy or the haredi culture; of course, any critiques are inapplicable to me since I’m not haredi. This is not to say that we should not identify negative behaviour emanating from certain groups within the Jewish world or that we should not be virulent in promoting the expression of values in which we believe in the Jewish world. But how often do we turn to such a solution, choose an explanation built upon distancing ourselves from the other, because it promotes our specific group? And how often do we not, thereby, recognize that parts of the problem may arise, to some extent, because of our own inherent friction? Declaring that a negative event may reflect, specifically, a haredi problem, for example, may have some legitimacy yet such an answer may also allow non-haredi individuals to ignore any challenges to themselves and their viewpoints as well, because they simply found the answer in blaming the other.
There is another potential consequence in this process of attempting to distance oneself. I read of one person who stated that people should not judge the entire Syrian Jewish community by the actions of these men. I never even thought of this possibility, that these actions were potentially reflective of a possible moral weakness within this particular community. These comments, presented as a defence for the community, actually made me start to contemplate what the possible problems are, within this community, which would make people think that the actions of these men were indicative of this community’s general mores. If there is a perceived need to defend a community from specific attacks, the problem is not simply the attacks themselves, but also, the very perception that such attacks could be justified.
There is a classic tale of Rabbi Yisrael Meir Kagan, the saintly Chofetz Chaim, in which an accusation of wrong was made against him by some evil individual. The story, though, continues that it was immediately rebuffed because of the very ridiculousness of such an accusation. That must be our communal goal. It should be that there is not even the need to distance ourselves from the perpetrators because it is obvious that these perpetrators were deceiving everyone by representing themselves as members of the Jewish community – for everyone knows that Jews, committed to their Jewishness, do not act in this manner.
My argument ultimately is not that there is no need to distance ourselves from perpetrators of such criminal acts nor to identify weaknesses within specific sub-groups within our people that may be, advertently or inadvertently, spreading a message that may give rise to such behaviour. While the antisemite will not hear such arguments, it is important to present such messages to ensure that naïve individuals within the greater population do not become fodder for these racist pronouncements.
Similarly, it is important to identify weaknesses within various sub-groups so that they can, and hopefully will, confront and rectify them. Unfortunately, the actual response will, rather, often be to simply grow defensive and ignore the challenges, as one often notes only the attack. In any event, what is the very purpose of this process of distinguishing? Does the average member of our society note the distinction between Orthodox and non-Orthodox Jews? Does the average secular Jew note the distinction between haredi Orthodoxy and non-haredi Orthodoxy? We all suffer the consequences of such events as those that transpired in New Jersey together. Our response must reflect this reality of interconnectedness.
In more specific terms, there are challenges we all face when attempting to maintain a strong and identifiable Jewish community within a broader, open society. This demands a balancing of forces of inclusion with forces of exclusion. Sometimes the desire for strength in Jewish identity can, though, yield a negation of the mores of the broader society. When the law of the land is broken, it can reflect such a weakness – the result of a view that the standards of the general society need not be respected because they are not Jewish. Our response, though, cannot simply be to attack those within the Jewish world who we perceive as advocating such a “solution” to the challenge of finding our balanced place in society. The broader need is to further articulate this challenge and advocate how we must all be careful to ensure that we properly balance the necessary respect for the greater society with the necessary respect for our Jewish uniqueness.
Of course, realistically, there are still “bad apples” within the Jewish people who, sadly, can wreak havoc on our community’s image and, regarding which, we can do little or nothing. The majority can suffer because of the acts of the minority, even the miniscule minority. Yet, when we attempt to find something that we can do, we empower ourselves. We must ask: how do these events identify weaknesses that I tolerate within myself and my community; and what can I do to affect change? No matter how difficult it may be for us to ask this question, it is one that we must face – and answer.

Rabbi Ben Hecht


Mighty Garnel Ironheart said...

Here's how screwed up things are. I was talking with our local Chabad shaliach about
all these messes last night.
Incident after incident, he started to come up with rationalizations. Yes, of course
theft is wrong but... Yes of course cheating on taxes is technically wrong but come
on, doesn't everyone... Look, I haven't been following the whole Rubashkins incident closely....
For some people it's quite simple: Stealing is a crime. It doesn't matter if you're
Bernie Madoff or Robin Hood. Cheating on taxes is a type of maximizing of deducations.
Hiring illegal workers and paying them starvation wages is wrong.
And some people just don't see that.
The other night I was sitting at a dinner table with a yungerleit (is that really a
word?) from Lakewood and asked about a family I'd met there when I'd visited for a
wedding a year earlier. I was told they'd moved to Monsey. Fine, no problem. And
then he added that it was because of such-and-such a reason and the reason wasn't a
complimentary one. So I pointed out he was probably speaking loshon horo. And of
course he started saying how it was public knowledge and the parents openly admitted,
etc. etc.
Except I'd already read in Shemirath Halashon and Chofetz Chayim that this is exactly
> what people who speak loshon horo do - they use any justification they can!
We are so screwed. It's no wonder God leaves us to rot in exile.

Eli Adler said...

RE: We must ask ourselves: What can I do to affect change?
I think that the issue of painting all Jews with the same brush is a dangerous one, and clearly common sense would dictate that this is not a sensible approach.

Would we, for example, be comfortable saying that ALL Blacks are killers, when clearly we know that it is only a select few that are involved in gang-like activities, culminating in killings due to say, a drug deal gone bad, or someone entering a turf that they should have avoided?
But for the most part, we would agree that this problem affects the select few, and not the general Black population.

The same, I think, can be said of the Jewish population in general.
However, the danger is posed when crimes of this nature is repeated many more times than we would like, and especially if/when it makes the front pages of the New York Times, or Washington Post. The editors will/do have a field day, at every opportunity that arises.
To make matters worse - it doesn't help when names like Bernie Madoff makes headlines, and everyone knows that he is Jewish. Does it make a difference to a non-Jew, whether it is Maddoff (not Haredi), or Solomon Dwek (Haredi)?
Can you see why it is EASY to paint the Jew with the same brush?

Still waiting for Mashiach....

Eli Adler

Garnel Ironheart said...

I thought of that to, Eli. Take any article condemning Chareidi Jews and change the term to "black" and it sounds racist, doesn' it.

The problem is that to the outside world there is a huge difference. A black man is born that way. He has no choice but to stay that way his entire life (unless he's Michael Jackson). He can't say one day "Blacks are screwed up! I'm going to go be white!"

Chareidim, on the other hand, are perceived to be so out of choice. So one could say "Well, if you're so embarrassed about what other religious Jews are doing, you could just stop being a religious Jew." You could even convert to radical Islam for extra effect.

What we have to ask is: why is a rabbi who trades in body parts not put in cherem when another rabbi who writes a book some zealots find unacceptable is?

Sontaran said...

About insularity:

"Small, tight-knit communities such as the Syrian Jewish enclave in New Jersey and Brooklyn are are particularly prone to white-collar crime ...
It happens all the time in all kinds of closed, insular communities, and these crimes are the toughest to crack,” he said. “The people are bound not just by economic incentives, but cultural, religious, ethnic and family ties. They tend to be highly coordinated, and they can take years to investigate.”

“There are a lot of benefits of insulating oneself from the broader culture around us, as we do,” Zweibel told the Forward. “But one of the costs of insularity is perhaps a lack of appreciation of the importance of compliance with secular law. That is a message that is important for people to hear.”

The kind of close-knit parochialism we still see in the Haredi world was useful and adaptive in the past, when repressive regimes placed obstacles in front of Jews' attempts to support themselves or get ahead through legitimate avenues. But this behaviour is maladaptive and self-destructive in a society that does not create these barriers, has numerous forms of social assistance, and for the most part has reasonable laws.

The very skills and networks that Am Yisroel had to develop in order to survive in a repressive state actually harm Am Yisroel (through shame, Chilul Hashem, and encouraging of criminal behaviour) in a free and fair society.

Just as the Italian Mafia originally developed as a way to protect the local people from
foreign invaders and bandits, before it became a criminal organization, the Jewish Mafia may have served a purpose at one time. Certainly, if the Western World deepens its current flirtation with authoritarianism, a time may come when such structures are needed again.

But that time is not now.

A sensible response to this event is for the more open and socially-functional branches of Orthodoxy
to offer counselling and rehabilitation to the more insular and paranoid streams in the Haredi world, to facilitate teshuvah and healing from the PTSD-ridden attitudes that drive this brand of criminality.

We need to educate the Haredi world about the wide variety of legitimate occupations that exist, and act as an enabling force to help them build the capacity to take on these occupations.

Failure to do this will ultimately condemn a certain portion of them to a life of crime.

Anonymous said...

I have my own theory on why are Orthodox Jews are behaving so badly. I feel this behaviour has it's roots from our school system as taught by the yeshivas. If anyone would observe the study of Talmud by our students, they would find many examples of rabbis finding ways around certain problems that are not allowed. take the pruzbal for example. Shmittah cancels loans, but if you go to beis din and register the loan, it is no longer cancelled. We are so concerned in finding ' kulahs ', we lose sight of the big picture. Thus in this case, they would say it wasn't really money laundering or stealing, it was procuring charity for the needy. If you call an action by another name, all of a sudden it becomes permissible. This kind of thinking is pervasive in our community as a whole in my humble opinion. Until we can differentiate between what is truly permissible and what is not, you will continue to see this kind of bad behaviour.
I also feel we all get painted with the same brush as far as non- Jews are concerned. Bad behaviour is bad behaviour no matter who the culprits are. i think it's a bigger chilul Hashem when someone who knows better falls down badly. after all we are all just human and some fail more miserably than others. We should, though, be more concerned what our fellow Jews think about us and not the rest of the world. although it seems that Orthodox Jews' bad behaviour has reached epidemic proportion. Is this the result of too long a galut? Yhe big question is what has happened to our Orthodox community? Where are the Torah values we supposedly learned or were taught? This I feel brings me back to my hypothesis. I don't have the answers nor the brain power to offer solutions to this crisis. It was told to me by someone in the public office that when these Jews get caught, the least they can do is take off their kippa and tuck in their fringes for their mug shots. I was horrified. I didn't know whether to laugh or cry. It appears a segment of our community feels they are above the law and can do what they want while preaching something totally different. What we really need is the Moshiah. Any thing less and the cycle continues

In conclusion, justed wanted to again mention about the spirit of the law as opposed to the letter of the law, which the Talmud does mention. We should always be cognizant of the spirit in all our actions which seems to have been forgotten.

Rabbi Ben Hecht said...

I first wish to thank those who commented. I felt the comments added important elemants to my original article. There are a couple of things I would like to clarify.

First, my call to expand the area of investigation was not meant to delegitimatize investigations within the narrower confines of one segment of the greater community. There may still be certain problems which are specifically connected to issues within these separate communitities. However, my call for the attempt, at least, to see the broader extension of a problem as well. We must think within both the broader realms and the narrower realms. This is not an attempt to colour everything with one brush stroke but, rather, to see how the brush strokes may be interconnected. For example, the comment about the Chabad shaliach that would seem to downplay the concern with certain problematic bahaviour may not be directly expressed within other segments of the Jewish community. Yet given Chadad's acceptance by a large segement of the non-dati community, there still might be an extended effect. While these non-dati people may not share the cavalier attitude of the Chabad shaliach towards the law of the land, this cavalier atttitude still may not lead them to not connect with Chabad at all. It is not enough of an ethical imperfection to lead them to disassociate with this individual. This also says something and, to me, reflects what I think is the major dilemma that underlies the entire issue: how to maintain the value of a distinct Jewish community or entity within a greater, global community that reflects some general moral and ethical behaviours? It was easy to identify a reason to be Jewish when the non-Jews around you were pagan and barbaric. The more the non-Jewish population consists of individuals that meet basic levels of decency, as may your Jewish friends, the argument to maintain distinction and separation becomes more challenging. So the more I maintain a general negative outlook on non-Jews, including the non-Jewish government, the greater my chance to build Jewishness and the more inclusive one is of non-Jews in terms of seeing them as reflecting correct social concerns, the more difficult is the challenge of explaining why there must be barriers between us. This challenge extends beyond the charedi world but encompasses the entire Jewish world.

Finally, I wanted to just add something to what Anonymous wrote. The problem is not just with kulahs but also with chumras. Whenever one doesn't see the dialectic of the proper moral/ethical path of the mean there are problems. There was an ethical reason for the pruzbal. There was also an ethical reason to challenge it. It was the culmination of the reality of the dialective, a result of seeing the entire moral and ethical issue. Whenever kulahs or chumrahs are stressed without the recognition that there is more to the issue than a dogmatic, one-sided perception of the moral or ethical good, you have problems -- and you miss the very purpose of the thought system of Halacha.

Rabbi Ben Hecht

Rabbi Ben Hecht said...
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