Tuesday, February 27, 2007

Depleted Judaism

In recent weeks there has been a spate of news articles about segments of the ultra-orthodox Jewish community which suggests a disturbing lack of fundamental core values. Some of these revelations revolve around sexual-predatory abuse and pedophilia, and their cover-ups. Other revelations suggested the lack of true kosher slaughtering standards and scruples at a major slaughter house in the Midwest.

To be sure, these issues aren’t new. Several years ago there was the revelation of a cover-up at a leading orthodox institution regarding the sexual abuse of one of its rising star rabbis. For years there have been watchdog organizations warning that the so-called kosher slaughter practice at that particular facility does not stand up to its claim of being the most humane system. It appeared then, and based upon hidden cameras the concern for the bottom line trumped any concern for the humane treatment of the animals destined for slaughter. In both instances one would have thought that as a result of exposure and public scrutiny, these institutions which claim to espouse strict halachic standards would have put into place standards and protocols that would have been reassuring to the public so that these behaviors would never repeat themselves.

What has become alarming is the frequency of occurrences. Over the past several years there have been some notable cases of Rabbis’s in leadership positions who betrayed the public trust:
Rabbi Mordechai Tendler
Rabbi Baruch Lanner
Rabbi Yonah Metzger
Rabbi Yehuda Kolko
As recently as three weeks ago The Forward published an article about an Orthodox American Rabbi living in Israel accused among other things, of sexual abuse. Examining Rabbi Gafni’s past it became clear that this wasn’t the first time charges of this nature were leveled against him. There had been several occasions when in the past his behavior was covered up by Rabbis who preferred silence rather than coming to grips with deviant behavior. The New York magazine featured an article recently where another Rabbi from an ultra-orthodox Yeshiva in New York has for the past two decades abused adolescent boys. Again, this too was covered up for years by the rabbinic community. If one were to log on to the awareness center. org one would be shocked by the sheer volume of documented cases of sexual abuse by our rabbis. These are not isolated cases. For years in Chicago there had been cover-ups of abusive sexual behavior perpetrated by Rabbis on their unsuspecting students.

Recently The Forward exposed once again the Ultra-Orthodox owned and operated slaughterhouse, Agri Processors for inappropriate management of their kosher slaughterhouse. In the past they were cited for cruel and unusual treatment of animals. This time however they are accused of cruel behavior towards undocumented workers as well as exploitation of their compromised position.

Both of these phenomena share in common the same religious affiliation and ideology. In both instances the perpetrators are not only orthodox but Rabbinic in stature. In both instances they are not acting independently but with the support and backing of the orthodox establishment. And that my friends is the rub. While the behavior of the perpetrators is shocking what is indicative of a lack of systemic ethical awareness are the cover-ups. Every culture, group or sub group will have in its midst predators and those who will cheat for profit. In most societies there are agencies and methods by which to acknowledge and limit as much as possible the damagen and prevent reoccurrence. There is, however something disturbing when a group refuses to recognize or deal with the problem preferring to dismiss it or sweep it under the carpet. A case in point is the Vale case, a young haredi living in Mea Shearim, accused of murdering his infant son. The haredi community in Israel, rather than cooperate with the authorities in bringing this young haredi to justice is doing everything in its power to cover up the heinous crime by turning it into an accident. Something is fundamentally wrong with the orthodox establishment. There seems to be an absence of a collective moral and ethical conscience within that culture. There seems to be a deviated approach to truth when vague and misunderstood concepts such as Lashon Harah come into play. There are circumstances when one is obligated to share information with the public if it means protecting the innocent or preventing or solving a crime. There seems to be a fundamental lack of morality, and social conscience when confronted with the possibility of Chillul Hashem. Rather than an ethical imperative which guides this community even at the cost of Chillul Hashem there is collective selfishness that prefers to “get away with it” if at all possible.

The ultra-orthodox establishment emphasizes ritual to the extent that they have eclipsed the true meaning, purpose and value of Torah. The purpose of Torah is to provide man with the tools whereby he can Transcend and live an ethical life. The mitzvoth are not an end in and of themselves but are intended to serve as “practices” by which we can rise above, become better human beings closing the distance between men and angels. Unfortunatly, the emphasis on ritual has morphed Judaism from its original intent and left it in a depleted form unrecognizable from the original intent. The Mitzvah has become and end in itself and as such has become a form of Avodah Zarah. The fanatical attraction to stringent practice of ritual has sucked the life and spirit out of Ethical Judaism as practiced by this community of zealots. It is no wander then that Glatt Kosher (a minority opinion in the Shulchan Aruch) has trumped the concern for the humane and compassionate treatment of animals. The Lubavitch Shechita, under the name of Rubashkin is more concerned about their esoteric and questionable methods than they are about the treatment of human beings, even if they aren’t Jewish. Eating their Glatt Kosher meat under these circumstances cannot provide the means for transcendence and has become a mockery of Jewish values as is learning Torah from a sexual predator.

The ultra-orthodox Jewish community as it is evolving and on its present trajectory is on a self destruct course with little or no spiritual values to save it. It is a depleted version of Judaism and appears to be bankrupt of ethical standards. It is somewhat akin to many of the anachronistic Jewish organizations that exist out of inertia. Its only value is to perpetuate itself. If this community truly retains spiritual values than where is their outrage? Why the deafening silence or the posturing of those in leadership position for the sole intent of saving their careers and reputations? Why aren’t they screaming to the heavens as they do on Yom Kippur during the Neila Service?

Several weeks age A.B. Yehoshua addressed the American Jewish Committee charging that a Jew in the diaspora can’t live as meaningful an existence as an Israeli Jew living in Israel, even if he is secular. He kept on referring to Jewish values permeating the state of Israel without ever delineating what those values are. The real issue is whether or not we as Jews are living with Jewish values regardless of our geography. The time has come to clearly define what those Jewish values are. The time has come when the Jewish community says loudly and clearly that we won’t tolerate deviant behavior, sexual or otherwise. Those values I believe must be defined and taught in our synagogues, day schools and seminaries. People placed in positions of trust must be screened. It is no longer enough that they possess Semicha or its equivalent. Sound moral character coupled with a strong understanding and practice of Jewish ethics must set the standard for doing business with companies that supply our communities with kosher products or hiring spiritual leaders to serve our communities.

There are some core Jewish values which without will be hard to live as people. Hillel in an attempt to simplify thing made his comment of “Don’t Do Unto Others….” While this is profoundly true, perhaps the time has come to amplify upon this in our Yeshiva curriculum and begin teaching core Jewish values which focus on ethics and ethical behavior rather than pilpulistic Judaism that has been responsible in part to the perversions we are witnessing.