This past week the Village Voice (December 8, 2010) published a disturbing article “How Can a Religious Person Justify Being a Slumlord”, by Elizabeth Dwoskin. She interviewed people in Jewish leadership positions in an attempt to understand the apparent oxymoron: how can one profess to be religious and yet operate slum properties. These were interviews in futility because those in the ”know” either didn’t “know” or they weren’t totally forthcoming. What I found more upsetting was the entire subject of inquiry. Why would the Village Voice find this any more of a fascination than the cutthroat pricing of the 7-11’s run by Indians? For that matter why not run an article on Muslim owned grocery stores in black neighborhoods charging usurious prices. If the Village Voice was concerned with the nature of Jewish religious practice vis a vis its affinity to shady business the thrust of the article should have been: why is it that Ultra Orthodox Jews tend to drift into shady business dealings?
There have been much worse violations of the law by the ultra orthodox community than operating slum properties. Truth be told and while not defending these slum operating, so-called “religious Jews” I can imagine that they are caught between a rock and a hard place. Tenants in New York can do no wrong in the eyes of the law and if they do, it is virtually impossible to evict them from an apartment. Paying rent is almost unheard of in many of these apartment buildings. Judges aren’t wont to evict them, especially if children are involved, the elderly or winter. Yet, the municipal government expects the owner to keep the building in prime condition well heated in the winter even when rents haven’t been paid in months and where windows are left open in the winter. Tenants know how to work the system. If something is remiss they hotline the appropriate agency even though they are sorely delinquent in paying rent and the owner is cited with a building code violation. So the Village Voice article really isn’t balanced nor is its basic premise correct if based upon the inner workings of inner city slum properties. So the real question remains as stated earlier: why is it that Ultra Orthodox Jews tend to drift into shady business dealings?
There are physicians from the ultra orthodox community who while practicing their craft have the compulsive need to defraud the Medicare system. There are those like Rubashkin who rather than run a legal, profitable business break the laws for purposes of enrichment. And of course there are many ultra orthodox Jews who are in the Nursing Care business who have been under investigation for Medicare/Medicaid fraud. There are ultra orthodox Jews who have violated the trust off their own communities by disguising non kosher meats as kosher knowing full well that the products they were selling were non kosher. There are roshei yeshivot who have scammed the government out of money by inflating student census.
What all the above have in common is a fundamental disregard of the law (civil) by the ultra orthodox community whenever and wherever possible. Violation of trust doesn’t seem to be a moral issue within the community and the question is why. Many of the ultra orthodox Jews are not necessarily religious by commonly held societal definitions. The average Jew would be considered religious if he practiced mitzvoth ben adam lamakom (between man and god; ritual) and mitzvot bein adam lechavero (between man and man; civil). A Jew who dons a black hat and wears a beard is automatically assumed to be this kind of Jew, minimally. That of course is wrong. Just because someone wears a kapote or wraps a gartel around his waste at prayers doesn’t make him religious, nor does a woman wearing a sheitel make her religious as the Heidi-Mendy appearance in People’s Court will attest. What it states is that they are meticulous and sometimes compulsive about ritual.
Appearances are very important in this community because it is the community that provides emotional, social and financial support of its members from the cradle to the grave. Being in good standing with the community will determine whom you marry and whom your children marry. They can be the least scrupulous outside their community because at the core they really aren’t religious, but they must give the appearance if they want to reap the benefits of their community.
Community and belonging is the lifeline to this segment of the Jewish community. Being rejected is like being ejected from the Garden of Eden. Belonging is everything. The toddler is raised on the myths, folklore and history of the Jewish people as well as that of the micro community one’s ancestry came from. Everything else is outside their interest, purview and experience. Their schools and yeshivot reinforce those sentiments, as does the rigid life at home, resulting in the phenomenon of being alienated from the world outside the ghetto. To this community, the “other” is an outsider. That is why the Bet Din of Crown Heights ordered its Lubavitch followers not to talk to outsiders about crime: “no one shall bring to any media…information…that would lead to an investigation…by a law enforcement agency….” To the ultra orthodox, they are not only the outsiders, but the ultra orthodox are the chosen to the exclusion of everyone else. To many of this community the gentile was created to serve them and to help them fulfill god’s law, even if it as the expense of the gentile! In this sense they aren’t operating with the same value system that everyone else is.
Perhaps this was the rational for Heidi and Mendy, described as frum people trying to rob a poor dry cleaner appearing in People’s Court for allegedly ruining her $3000.00 sheitel. To them being religious is to punctiliously follow ritual. Ritual is sort of like a formula. There doesn’t have to be rhyme or reason; you just have to do what is commanded to do by force of divine history and ancestry. In their perverse idea of religion you don’t have to be honest, you have to follow the magic formula. One can even cheat the gentile system since they (gentile) were created to serve the Jews. Performance of the formula is your guarantee for reaping rewards. Rabbi Shmuly Yanklowitz, president of Uri L’ Tzedek (and who was quoted in the Village Voice article cited above) commented on the “Sheitl” scandal by commenting that it was a chilul hashem because the story was broadcast on national television. His reaction leads one to speculate that if it hadn’t been broadcast on national television it may have been swept under the carpet. However to Rabbi Yanklowitz’s credit he does question the values taught in yeshivot whereby mitzvot ben adam lamakom (between man and god; ritual) are emphasized and fails to internalize the mitzvoth ben adam lechavero (between man and man; civil): “Our kehilla has a serious problem…we can all be better about how we treat non-Jews in business…But even further we must watch every move we make. If we are given an extra coin at the register, as frum Jews we must return it. In business we must act honestly in all cases….If we don’t clean up our act, our kehilla is going to continue to be a source of …embarrassment… and chillul hashem.” His statement leaves one to conjecture if the motivation for treating people honestly is for altruistic or ulterior motives.
In western faith religions, the whole point of being religious is to be closer to God, to have a relationship with Him. This of course is predicated on respecting His creations. Dishonoring man is to dishonor God. To do so would indicate a disconnect between the so-called religious person and his behavior. There is no dissonance in the ultra orthodox community because their understanding of religion is different. Important to them are the rituals; it mechanics and formulae which are the keys to getting back into Gan Eden.