Sunday, July 26, 2009

Disgusted and Disgusting

This morning I am reflecting on the most recent scandal in the Jewish community. It seems that in the NJ and Brooklyn area the FBI arrested several rabbis and other "Orthodox" Jews for being part of a massive money laundering and corruption ring. Among them was one Levi Yitzchak Rosenbaum -- who is accused of being "the main U.S. broker for an international trafficking network" - Trafficking in organs!

Its been a bad year for the Jews -- in my view, particularly the Orthodox -- Rubashkin, continued evidence of sexual abuse (without recourse, by the way), riots in Jerusalem including the burning of a welfare office to defend a woman accused of attempted murder of her child, "Jewish residents of Judea and Samaria" -- i.e. settlers riding on horseback to burn Palestinian olive tree groves -- and now these guys. Add this to Madoff, and its been a pretty rotten year. With just about 7 weeks before the introspective period of the high holidays, a few thoughts. And a rant.

What galls me about this is, for one, the basic inhumanity of all of these people. Come on, organ trafficking at a huge profit? Extortion? Terrorizing farmers? Give me a break.

However, I think there is a deeper, more disturbing observation here. It has to do with religion and religious fundamentalism.

There used to be a tendency to look at religious fanatics and write them off as "crazy or bad apples." Now, it is fashionable to look at people -- Muslims in particular -- and say -- "Well so much for the religion of peace. Look what the Koran says about such and such... the religion is at fault and anyone who is a religious Muslim must be a fanatic and that the only good Muslims are secular or those who outwardly reject parts of their traditions (the Hadith, etc.)"

We don't say the same thing about Christian fundamentalists -- the Kansas people who protest at soliders' funerals or kill doctors who perform women's health services. We look at them as outlyers -- but I think that somewhere we also look at their theology as being corrupt or at least suspect.

So, what about the Jews? I am tired of people circling the wagons on this issue. I expressed my concern to a couple of prominent rabbis in my community -- people that I respect. One, who shall remain nameless because of my real respect for his scholarship and community involvement said (and I paraphrase): "I hope that people don't use this as a partisan issue in the community" -- in other words, don't blame the Orthodox for the sins of these people.

Another community leader said something similar when I wrote about this on Facebook. She attributed this chillul Hashem - desecration of God's name -- to free will. This implies that is has nothing to do with our teachings and our tradition.

I would propose that our tradition and the way that it is taught -- particularly among those who consider themselves to be the most learned and pious -- is at the core of this problem. Rather that this being deviant behavior, it is the logical conclusion of those who read the texts and surround themselves with those who agree with them.

If you look at our tradition, there is a very disturbing theme that runs throughout the Torah and the Talmud -- exclusivism. It is at the core of being the "chosen people". That in and of itself is not a bad thing. For a people to have a certain "self esteem" is not unusual. And, it's healthy. How else does one perpetuate a way of life in a competitive environment.

However, at the root of our tradition is also a strain that says that other people -- whether its non-Jews (referred to in religious literature as "ACUM" -- the worshippers of stars and constellations -- or Jews who do not observe the stricture of Jewish law (more on that later) are not "friends" and in some cases not considered human beings. This extends in some small measure to women -- who are excluded from rituals and delegated to a second class status for reasons that are explained away.

How is this expressed?

"And you shall love your neighbor as yourself". The Talmud says that this is one of the centerpieces of the tradition -- the proverbial golden rule. However, the accepted interpretation of this verse (quoted by Rashi) is that your neighbor is only one who observes the Jewish commandments.

This has profound implications for Jewish law.

I will provide a few concrete examples:

There are many activities considered to be work that are forbidden on the Sabbath. One of the discussions that arose in Talmudic literature involves doctors saving lives and people going into burning burnings etc. The rabbinic ruling is that one is permitted to enter a burning building or to provide life saving treatment to Jews only. But not to non-Jews. In a later period, it was determined that "in order to keep the peace" (in other words to avoid persecution at the hands of the non-Jewish majority) one can (if they have to) provide medical treatment or rescue non-Jews.

In addition, a Kohen (one of the priestly caste -- children of Aaron) who serve in the Temple and are to remain religiously pure can not attend funerals with the exception of their closest relatives. (Mother, Father, Sister, Brother, Spouse, Son or Daugther)... no grandparents, step-childen, friends etc. However, they are permitted to attend the funeral of non-Jews. Since non-Jews are apparently not people.

I could go on and on. I won't even begin to discuss the second class status of women who are grouped with children, the mentally handicapped and the slave as ineligible to provide testimony at trial, lead religious rituals and the like.

And don't get me started about homosexuals.

So, the deciet and and lawlessness observed in the fundamentalist communities is perfectly explainable. If you treat others with disrespect and disdain why should you worry about child labor in Iowa, burning welfare offices in Jerusalem, physically attacking women in Beit Shemesh, extorting and laundering money in New Jersey and selling kidneys all over the world?

After all, as long as you eat glatt kosher, wear a big yarlmuke and use some of that filthy money to support religious instituions that promote your values, you are a good Jew.


As we approach Tisha B'av, where we traditionally think of the destroyed Temple from two thousand years ago and some pray for the restoration of a messianic religious theocracy in the Holy Land, let's consider the filth in our own midst and the ugly parts of our tradition that must be rejected and expunged. Otherwise, the exile will go on and on. If not in our bodies, then in our spiritual fabric.


  1. Truly a debate worth having.

    Whether your readers agree with your specifics or not, I hope they will refrain from the instant "defense" posture.

    It's true that the orthodox sometimes (no, not always) lose sight of the ultimate reason to practice Judaism: Not simply because god says so (that would be infantile), but because it can and should bring out the best in ourselves and our community.

    As annoying as all the exanples you cited are, in the end though, I'm not sure I agree that being "religious" contributed in a major way to the arrogance that made their crimes possible.

    True it may be a factor among many, but to me the main reason is simply that they lost their moral compass.

    Notably, many others indicted were not religious or even necessarily Jewish. The sad truth is that when greed meets opportunity, there will always be a few people who fail to turn away. To our great shame, in this case some of them were people from the Jewish community. People who should have known better, and didn't.

  2. Alan, you raise many good points here. Yes, there is a double standard in some sectors of the Orthodox community that legitimize inappropriate, even racist, treatment of gentiles. To some extent, such mindsets may reflect a world view that took root at a time of persecution. But rabbinic literature also takes another point of view, that gentiles are also children of God created in the image of God. And while you have a valid interpretation of those things that are considered permissible מפני דרכי שלום, I don't recall that rationale explicitly stated, so I am inclined to give the sages the benefit of that doubt. But yes, there is clearly a strand within religious life that is very happy to screw a goy because, after all, that is what they have done to us for the past 2,000 years.

    Inasmuch as your assertion that טומאת מת does not apply when a Kohen comes into contact with a gentile corpse, it is not because a non-Jew is less human than a Jew. Rather, because the laws of ritual purity do not apply to non-Jews, they are considered ritually unclean at all times. Rather than prohibit Kohanim from all contact with non-Jews, we do not consider a non-Jew a factor in defiling a Kohen. To state that non-Jews are non-persons goes against the grain of halacha in this instance.

    What is necessary - and this was a lacuna in my own yeshiva education - is teaching those halachic texts that deal with מצוות בין אדם לחבירו - interpersonal mitzvot, including those relevant to business and public values. And perhaps that is something that our community rabbis can get together on, to educate our own communities on the values that should guide our dealings with our fellow bearers of the image of God.

  3. We've been thinking along similar lines, it seems. My theory is that because the Orthodox community has significantly less interface - in neighborhoods, schools, sometimes even business - they are keenly aware of their "other-ness" and conclude that sometimes using means that are not strictly "kosher" will open up avenues for them. After all, if they're dealing with non-Jews, they reason, how kosher does it have to be?

  4. I would advance an alternative Hypothesis. The insularity of the Orthodox world prevents its members from a sophisticated bilking of the system. Had they been more sophisticated an politically connected, they could have opened up their own bank and collected TARP money from the government.

    The anger that we feel about the New Jersey money laundering scandal, I think, is directly attributed to the media coverage. The pictures of Rabbis being led away in handcuffs is disturbing. But, have you read the actual transcripts? The majority of the Rabbis merely passed checks back and forth between different funds.

    Lets compare that with the sophisticated corruption at our mainstream financial institutions. A trillion dollars in taxpayer money went to bail out Citibank, Merryl Lynch, Bank of America, Goldman Sachs, etc. There were people that made millions, hundreds of millions, and even billions from this mess. But, somehow that is legal?

    Let's all try to be better, but, enought with the chestbeating.

  5. Actually, I really haven't seen much of the media coverage. It wasn't a big story in Boston. So, this is really an echo chamber moment.

    I don't blame the media for showing the perp walk. It's a compelling image and that's all that they care about. It would have been the same if it was priests etc.

    As for giving the sages the benefit of the doubt, I stopped doing that a long time ago. It seems to me that the "rabbis" in establishing the concept of "daas torah" seek to consolidate power and de-legitimize anyone who disagrees with them.

    I could go on about this, but I won't. It's enough already. As for chest beating -- I would rather beat those responsible... figuratively of course... holding them up to public scrutiny is the best way to deal with them.

    The bank line is very funny...

  6. Funny, people look at Muslim fundamentalists and then Christian extremists then start associating them with us. Hard to dissacociate when Rabbi's get brought in for breaking the law.
    Israel is probably in most need of organs because of all the positions taken against organ donation. I wonder how hypocritical it would be to advocate halacha then sell organs on the open market?


About Me

Brookline, MA, United States
Thought provoking discussion or musings of a kid from the other side of the tracks...