Sunday, July 26, 2009

Deaf Ears

Catching up on old mail I ran across a piece on Kiddush Hashem which appeared in VIN under the name of Dr. Yitzchok Levine, professor emeritus at the Stevens Institute of Technology, Department of Mathematical Sciences. It was a good essay: the only problem was that it was written for and about a different era. It was as though Dr. Levine has been living in a time warp for the past thirty years. He hasn’t a clue as to who he is writing for or who his audience is.

In his article he reviews the works of Rav Hirsch, Rav Breuer and Rav Schwab all focusing attention on the awesome burden of the orthodox Jew: to behave in such a way that they bring credit to their community. To do otherwise would possibly be inviting chilul hashem. Rav Hirsch developed this idea by reflecting on the midrash that asserts that the “luchot habrit” had been etched on both sides, “through and through”. Using this as a metaphor, Rav Hirsch asserts that the orthodox Jew has to be genuine, through and through. It can’t be that a person can perform mitvot bein adam lamakom and neglect the mitzvoth bein adam l’chavero.

To hammer home his point he sites Rav Breuer on the observance of kashrut. Being kosher, according to Rav Breuer isn’t just about dietary restrictions and regulations but also “yosher”, walking the straight and narrow. “The so-called chassid who confines his avodah to prayer does not deserve this title, if this avodah of the heart does not call him to the avodah of life where he must practice and apply the precepts of chassidus.”

Finally Dr. Levine presses to his case Rav Schwab who 35 years ago wrote an article on fraud that scandalized the frum community. In that essay he commented on the words of the Shema “you shall love hashem” to mean that we are “to lead exemplary lives that would contribute to the universal adoration of hashem….” The opposite behavior brings on chilul hashem which provides ammunition for those who doubt the validity of torah “and encourages the desecration of torah learning, torah education, and torah influence.”

What strikes me as odd about this article is that while there may be some relevance it raises questions and doesn’t seem to address the current spate of chilulei hashem. The examples that Dr. Levine sites all have one common denominator. Ones actions don’t necessarily have to be altruistic, they have to be performed in order to avoid a chilul hashem. The orthodox Jew carries a burden. Always watchful of the gentile’s reaction to his behavior, his actions aren’t pristine, but driven by an ulterior motive. This approach has been programmed in us for centuries and has the ingredients necessary to set us up for seismic failure. While reading this article I couldn’t help but notice the following stories relating to the frum community that have been breaking in the recent past:
• Rabbis implicated in an international money laundering scheme involving a yeshiva and a synagogue.
• Solomon Dwek pending fraud case.
• The imminent transfer of a “bachur” tried and convicted on drug charges in Japan.
• A “bachur” driving without a driver’s license turned to Harav Chaim Kanievsky seeking a bracha as a result of a car accident that he caused.
• The myriad cases of pedophilia within the orthodox community, and the cover ups.
• The Spinka Rebbe scandal still being adjudicated.
• The Rubashkin case.

The most recent scandal involving rabbis and mayors in the N.J. / N.Y. area isn’t just about money laundering but something far more heinous and highly unethical: the trafficking of human organs.
How does one explain this bazaar behavior? One can say in the defense of the frum Jewish community that this really is a small number, a fraction, barely detectable on the radar screen. On the other hand, if I apply the principles of Rabbis Hirsch, Breuer and Schwab then it would appear that although the absolute numbers of sinners may be low their impact is great.

I have often argued that the root cause of the problem within the frum community is the subliminal message that they are teaching their children. This subliminal message didn’t begin with the onset of the day school movement after WWII but began centuries before that in Eastern Europe. It was in the shtetel that survival became tantamount to outsmarting the system which was run by goyim. And of course the rampant anti Semitism that plagued Europe for centuries contributed to the negative image the Jewish community had of the gentile. This bias was reinforced over the centuries by the close knit community which we chose to live in either by choice, necessity or fiat.

Many of us were able to liberate ourselves from this prevalent mindset especially as we became acculturated into mainstream America. Many however opted to maintain the old ways, the old bias’ that were no longer relevant but were comfortable nonetheless. The outsider is still the goy and there is a system that begs to be exploited.

But how do rabbis and frum Jews justify the trafficking in human organs. These are rabbis who are not only arranging for and buying kidneys; they are exploiting the poor. They are not only exploiting the poor, but they are exploiting their own brothers, Jews living in Israel. The ethical issue here is the pure and unadulterated exploitation of people reduced to poverty and willing to sell a vital organ for a few dollars. Nauseating. And while these deals are being executed these same rabbis are faithfully attending daf yomi classes, sending their wives to the mikveh and making sure that their communities have a kosher eruv.
The current mindset at play among the orthodox community isn’t only the result of the teachings of rabbis such as Breuer, Hirsch and Schwab whose pedagogy flowed from negative rather than positive reasoning (shanda far de goyim). Halacha for many within this group has become technical gobbledygook; exploited in order to belong, to fit in. Halacha isn’t practiced as a “practice” in order to elevate man, but is rather mimicked mindlessly as a means by which identification with the group is secure and solidified. Until halacha is understood as a method and mitzvoth as tools by which we elevate ourselves as ethical human beings the teachings of our masters will be falling upon deaf ears.