Monday, August 17, 2009

"Haredi Leaders Have Spoken Out On Scandal"?

Rabbi David Zweibel, executive vice president of Agudath Israel of America, wrote an opinion piece in the August 12 Jewish Week insisting that there has been a measrued and appropriate response to the apparent plethora of legal scandals in the Haredi community.

This was my response, as a letter to the editor.

I can't tell whether Rabbi David Zweibel, Esq. ("Haredi Leaders Have Spoken Out On Scandal") is still operating as if he was in a courtroom, but his argument regarding the salience of the Haredi response to scandal falls on two of his claims:

First, the ostensible "soul-searching articles in the Haredi press" lack credibility when some of these same organs denounce certain government informants as "malshinim" [slanderers] and "mosrim" ["informers"], and gleefully pounce on swirling rumors [since debunked] about the father of one said "moser" disowning him and sitting shiva for him. The wagon-circling mentality tends to override any impression that these people have truly taken responsibility for their actions.

Second, and more jarring, is Rabbi Zweibel's touting his "privilege" to chair a program of a symposium on "[]Doing the stirght and good" which opened with...a mea culpa from a MALEFACTOR who PLEADED GUILTY? Is that not like inviting the arsonist to help put out the fire? Is this ADMITTED malefactor a rabinnic community leader? If so, are his halachic pronouncements STILL considered "daas Torah"? Two analogs, however loose, come to mind: Jimmy Swaggart's televised "I Have Sinned"...or, even worse, the possibility that one day someone will convene a child-abuse symposium and have Rabbi Yehuda Kolko open the proceedings [wait, he wasn't convicted of the more serious charges, and wasn't labeled a sex offender...never mind...]

Rabbi Zweibel expresses surprise that "[T]he Jewish Week [gave] this event no coverage." He should be thankful; the perception given will not be the one he hoped for. I'm sure Rabbi Zweibel is even more familiar than I am with Talmudic discussions delineating various levels of Chillul Hashem [profanation of G-d's name]. I have no doubt that, unlike me, he can immediately locate and quote the sugya that offers definition of Chilu Hashem as an action that elicits the thought "Woe to he who has learned Torah."

Thursday, August 13, 2009

Re-eh: Influenca Pandemics

Last year, in my piece on Re’eh, I examined the juxtaposition of the three passages in the parsha dealing with false prophecy [navi sheker], the private seducer [mesis/mediach], and the idolatrous city [ir hanidachas]. I proposed that “the strongest common denominator….sometimes the worst kind of behaviors happen right in front of our noses and can be perpetrated by the people we love the most and are supposed to admire most, [whereas] in the city streets, or “ir”, [] we might be less surprised to find widespread moral turpitude.” I then examined some implications regarding how one influences and is influenced, and attendant issues of assigning moral responsibilities.

I would like to expand upon that theme a bit. In addition to warning us to be aware of morally compromising influence from wherever it comes—as well as the possibility that it can come from where it is to be least expected—the Torah is also dropping strong hints that said influences are oftentimes complementary.

More specifically, when looking at the parsha, we see that a malign influence can be a singular influence—an erstwhile spiritual personality [the navi sheker] or a particularly close relation [mesis/mediach]—or a mass/mob influence [the ir hanidachas]. It can almost become a chicken and egg issue: who influenced who, first? History—Jewish and otherwise—is replete with examples where salient malign influences occurred in either direction [singularmass and vice-versa], or both simultaneously.

The paradigmatic examples of singular malign influences in Torah and medrash are, arguably, Korach and Bilaam. Korach’s dubious accomplishment was that he was able to ensnare the religious elite and then a sizable portion of the populace in open rebellion against Moshe, all for the purpose of his own aggrandizement. Bilaam’s accomplishment predated even his elaborately and unfortunately successful plan to ensnare the Jews in mass flagrante with the b’nos Moav; apparently, the Midrash relates that he influenced the women of the world to remove the last vestiges of sexual continence they had practiced since the days of the Mabul. [This and his own sordid practices involving sorcery and bestialty as related in Helek indicate how thoroughly corrupt his personality was, and maybe hints as to why he was so influential: his credibility in such matters was impeccable.]

Using the example of the Nazi hierarchy, I examined the notion that that the farther away from the actual killing they were, the more actual responsibility they bore for it. One might find it astonishing that there is a very strong possibility that Hitler, deemed the “greatest desk murderer in history”, may never have personally killed anyone in his life [even as a soldier; he was a message dispatcher, not directly involved in combat.]

In contemporary times, the obvious example—and parallel—is Al Qaeda, their minions and their “poskin” [lehavdil e.a. havdalos]. While no one would doubt the grave moral responsibility of the self-detonating mass murderers, one would have to designate the label of war criminal to preachers, imams, recruiters and trainers. They are the modern day equivalent of hostes humani generis, “stateless enemies of mankind”, and deserve a legal treatment equivalent to that meted out to the mesis/mediach, according to Rambam [Avodas Kochavim 5:3-4] based on the Gemara in Sanhedrin [53b], where no warning [hasra’ah] need be given, there is a mitzvah to entrap, and one is to make every effort to convict.

In a similar, one Manhattan mora d’asra addressed the issue of the tendencies rampant in frum communities to whitewash occurring cases of child molestation, if not to deny their existence outright. Said Rav [who did this from the pulpit, which is unfortunately all too rare] equated the perpetrators of these abuses to “terrorists” and their enablers to Al Qaeda. In many cases the offenders’ were only afforded the opportunity to repeat their offenses because their bosses, handlers, or community leaders assumed “omerta” to be in the category of yehareg v’al yaa’vor.

Beyond these more obvious cases, we can examine a few more historical cases where a malign influence may have been somewhat misplaced. Without going into too much detail, when one examined some of what happened regarding Shabtai Tzvi, there exists a very string possibility that his responsibility may have been somewhat mitigated by the fact that he was very likely mentally ill, suffering from some combination of schizophrenia and bipolar disorder. This would make Nathan of Gaza—the man who “anointed” him and continued to insist that Shabtai remained the true messiah even after his public apostasy.

To conclude, I will provide a test case of sorts which combines all of the categories and allow you to judge for yourself. This involves the story of Senator Joe McCarthy, held up as a hero by many, reviled as an evildoer by many others. One of the more salient treatments I have seen of the McCarthy episodes was provided by Lance Morrow in his “Evil: An Investigation”: the sum effect of McCarthy and his era was that, because of McCarthy’s “catastrophic alcoholi[sm]”, he ended up “destroy[ing] whatever value his work might have had in combating a real danger.” Morrow, however, in trying to decide if McCarthy was evil, ends up doing the “very thing I have warned against….he should not be judged evil because there is some other explanation[:]…[h]e was history’s equivalent of a drunk driver.”

I disagree with Morrow, because in the case of McCarthy I see shades of Korach: the seizing upon an issue and twisting it to aggrandize his own power [his “list of communists in the State Department” didn’t exist, by his own admission, which was all the more damaging because they really were there, but he had no idea if threr really were any]. I would however, ascribe more moral responsibility to his enablers—however few or many they were—who rode the coattails of his popularity only to abandon him when he became an obvious liability.

In essence, one might say that the continuous thread running through these three inyanim can almost be seen as a restatement of the notion[s] of “lomed mi-kol adam” and “mi-kil melamdai hiskalti”—there are always teachable moments to be garnered even from the most sordid affairs [add, then, “ein lecha davar she’ain lo tzorech”]. Maybe they occur in direct proportion to occurrences of “We never learn”….

Wednesday, August 5, 2009

Va’Etchanan—Ekev: Moral Priorities

This past spring, Rabbi Avi Shafran, Agudas Yisroel’s Director of Public Affairs,, wrote an unintentionally incendiary piece entitled “Bernie, Sully, and Me”, which concluded: “[P]ersonally, I’m still unmoved by the pilot, and, at least somewhat, inspired by the penitent. “

Apparently, despite the ensuing brouhaha and [inevitable?] “retraction”, it seems that someone was paying attention…for the wrong reasons. And, again, Jews were in the news, for the crime they are most often stereotyped with: financial shenanigans. [It’s possible that we might have to add two new brochos to birchos hashachar, after “Shelo Asani Goy”: “Shelo Asani Suicide Bomber” and “Shelo Asani Child Molester”. If you can’t figure out what stereotypes I’m referring to, I’m not going to put it on the record beferush. Suffice it to say thank G-d for the stereotypes that attach to our rival monotheistic faiths; otherwise we’d be in real trouble.]

In any case, maybe those arrested had read the article and figures that even if they were caught, they might qualify as “heroes”, if Madoff could, kal vachomer; after all, what’s $25 million, vs. $65 billion?

More likely, their thinking followed one of two lines:

First, that it’s practically a “mitzvah”: to pool the wool over the eyes of the secular authorities. I once heard a very prominent frum attorney who has defended many fervently [read: “Chareidi”/”ultra-“] Orthodox individuals in criminal cases who stated that, unfortunately, this attitude is still very pervasive in those circles.

Second, that because of halachic and other stigmas attached to “moser”, they probably assumed that, if any of them were caught, there would be a significant disincentive to anyone talking. This is why much of the chareidi press and blogosphere has taken to referring to informant Solomon Dwek as the “malshin” and there were rumors [since debunked] that his father had renounced him and was sitting shiva.

So what does this have to do with either of these parshiyot?
As we all know, the first parsha of Krias Shema is in Va-Etchanan, the second in Ekev. The Mishna in Brachos [2:2, 13a] notes that the order is relevant because one must be mekabel ‘ol malchus ahmayim before ‘ol mitzvos. Leaving aside the question of morality being ipso facto only what G-d says is moral [the statement in Eicha Rabba “Had they but abandoned Me and kept faith with My Torah!" indicated that this is more of an open question, at least as a hava amina than one might think], the sequence of parshiyos in Krias Shema at the very least indicates that there exists a certain order to moral priorities.

Rabbi Shafran’s praising Madoff while at the same time [borderline?] denigrating Sullenberger was illustrative of what might happens when said [or, sometimes, unsaid] priorities are reversed. The scandals brewing in New Jersey were certainly more graphically illustrative of this phenomenon. [Not to mention the Spinka conviction and sentence, which thankfully was buried in the nether regions somewhere in the New York Post.]

A further note: when the aforementioned attorney was discussing the phenomenon of religious criminality and the attitudes that fostered them, he was unequivocally defensive of the leaders of the various communities affected. His theory was that the ingrained cultural attitudes were too much for them to fight, but somebody had their priorities straight. Unfortunately, in this most recent case, the community leader himself got swept up in the dragnet. Leaving aside questions of [and prayers for] presumptions of innocence, one can only say that this time, he got too close.