Monday, August 3, 2009

Wake Up Call

Here we go again. It wasn’t enough to have been bombarded for the past week with news about the Syrian community in Deal NJ and their illustrious rabbinic leadership. This week we’ve been treated to two more instances of hareidi style “yiraas shamayim”. But this time in Monsey.

According to the news outlets the police claim they caught two men (bearded and dressed in religious garb) stealing mail out of mailboxes. The police found hundreds of checks sorted in the car of one of the perps. According to their investigation some checks were negotiated locally while others were sent to Israel. How charming.

The very same day that this story broke another scandalous story made the news. This time a couple was arrested for bilking the government out of more than $75000.00 over the past two years. Chump change compared to our brothers out in Deal, NJ. What they have in common however, apart from their larcenous souls is their creativity. They weren’t as crude as the above mentioned who ripped off the mailboxes in Monsey. These frume yidden, a married couple,(a wonderful shidduch, a marriage made in heaven) defrauded the government by misleading various welfare agencies. I don’t want to get into the details out of concern that I may give someone the wrong idea.

Clearly the criminal behavior within the hareidi community has caused more than just embarrassment. Its brought shame to a community already perceived by many critics to be struggling with an ongoing wave of unseemly, unethical and criminal behavior. Consequently an aseifa, just what the doctor ordered, was being sponsored by community organizers “askonim” witht the focus on the theme “Vi’asisa hayashar Vi’hatov” featuring R’Avrohom Schorr and R’Dovid Ozieri and chaired by R’ Zwiebel of Agudath Israel. Calling an aseifa was the worst thing they could have done sending the wrong signal.

An aseifa is nothing more than a venue for polite venting, giving kovod and recognition in a convenient manner without it costing anything – no dinners, no honorees, and no embossed invitations. It isn’t the venue where you can get “down and dirty”, speak the unadulterated truth; pinpoint and analyze the problems and present alternative solutions. An aseifa is an event whereby the issues can be whitewashed, diminished and dismissed with a guest speaker and the public “clopping of al chet”. It isn’t a place where candid and painful discussions and decisions can take place.

An aseifa in a sense resembles Yom Kippur; an annual religious event where we do the expected “cheshbon hanefesh” with the premise that this year our behaviors towards our fellow man and towards our creator will have improved. But it rarely works: it is an annual exercise in futility, an annual national attempt at communal / personal expiation. It can’t work unless you have properly prepared yourself prior to the “great day”.

Preparation takes months perhaps years of professional help, sometimes with the guidance of a counsilor, psychologist, or therapist. It requires behavior modification, introspection and invewtment in serious meditation. With that preparation in hand one can stand before his community and creator and honestly ask for forgiveness by presenting oneself as a changed person. An aseifa is like a doctor recommending aspirin with a diagnosis of diabetes resulting from obesity. It’s not only ineffective and deleterious but the underlying cause of the disease isn’t being addressed.

The aseifa wasn’t addressing the underlying cause of the problem which is far more widespread than that community care to admit. The core problem stems from a jaundiced view of the non-frum and non Jewish world reflected in their dismissive attitude toward them and their values, as demonstrated by their rejection of quality secular education. Ironically, they are also guilty of not providing quality Jewish education to members of its own community. To focus on shas / poskim through the widely accepted pilpulistic methodology defeats the purpose of Jewish education: learning sacred texts in order to live moral and ethical lives. Not having derived this essential core element from Jewish learning is not to have learned at all. In order to learn these core lessons; process and integrate them into our daily lives, one has to study our texts while extracting the philosophical and theological underpinnings. This requires the use of critical thinking which in the hareidi community is loathe in doing. The hareidi community has confused critical thinking for pilpulizing logic and in the process has rendered torah study ineffective as a means of transmitting core ethical values.

Secular education means more than learning how to read and write grammatically correct English. It means more than learning a skill like computer science or bookkeeping. It means studying the classics, history and literature purposefully: to acquire a contextual understanding of whom we are as a people and as an integral link in the human chain. It isn’t enough to understand Jewish history through the victim’s lens, but to appreciate the growth and development of civilization over the ages. It’s enriching, provides a perspective, making us better human beings and thus better Jews. The hareidi community has put the carriage before the horse; first we have to be wholesome, mentally and socially healthy human beings – only then can we consider becoming better Jews.

One anecdotal reference to illustrate this point is the reaction of the Sephardic community to the recent Deal, NJ “bizayon” (shameful and obscene behavior). Their reaction was how one must see the larger picture: the tzedakah and chesed of the overall Sephardic community. Enumerated is the list of charities, institutions and organizations that the Sephardic community supports through charitable giving. Of course, goes their argument, they are part of the larger Jewish community, “clal yisrael” all working toward the same end. They missed the point entirely. This wasn’t about Sephardim vs. Ashkenazim or even the perception of the Jewish community by the non Jewish community. It’s about understanding once and for all that unless this problem is addressed at the very source the problem will continue to persist and fester resulting in an increasingly less manageable problem.

For many in the hareidi community the chilul hashem wasn’t that these behaviors were essentially wrong, unethical and criminal. They don’t truly perceive that they did anything fundamentally wrong other than getting caught. And that is the real chilul hashem.