Friday, July 24, 2009

Shock and Disbelief? I Think Not. Thoughts for Shabbat Chazon

Let me begin this post by saying that the level of chillul Hashem the recent case has and must pain each and every one of us. For this reason, instead of hiding from it, we need to write about it. Unless the Jewish community begins to address the core issues at the heart of this case, this won't be the last time we see rabbis in handcuffs.

Even here in Israel, all people have asked me about this morning are the charges of corruption against a large number of government officials and private citizens in the New York Metropolitan area, including several rabbis and leaders of the Syrian community in Deal, NJ. It's really bad. My immediate reaction is simple. The Torah spells things out quite clearly:
וְלֹא-תִקַּח שֹׁחַד--כִּי הַשֹּׁחַד יְעַוֵּר עֵינֵי חֲכָמִים, וִיסַלֵּף דִּבְרֵי צַדִּיקִם.
and do not take bribes, for bribery blinds the eyes of the wise, and perverts the words of the righteous.
Note that the Torah does not say that bribery transforms the righteous into sinners. It blinds the righteous. No one is immune - not even rabbis with long black coats and white beards. Anyone is susceptible to the draw of easy money, even rabbis, and bad things always happen when people begin to think otherwise.
Reacting to the story in the New York Times, Dov Hikind said,
“Shock and disbelief — my cellphone, my office phone, they’re ringing off the hook,” said Assemblyman Dov Hikind of Brooklyn, who represents an Orthodox Jewish community adjacent to the southern Brooklyn neighborhoods where about 75,000 Sephardic Jews live. “People do not believe it.”...
David G. Greenfield, executive vice president of the Sephardic Community Federation, a group representing the approximately 100,000 Sephardim in Brooklyn, Manhattan and New Jersey, said in a statement, “The community is shocked and saddened by these allegations, which go against every value and teaching the community holds dear.”He added, “If over time these allegations are proven, we must remember that these are the isolated actions of a few individuals.”
Really? We don't believe it? Come on Mr. Hikind. These are the actions of a few isolated individuals? Please. Who didn't know that things like this happen all the time. The check to the school, shul, tzedkah - which takes a cut and returns the bulk of the money plus a receipt for a full write off. I wonder what percentage of day school tuition is paid in this manner? (and for that matter, wonder how this scandal will therefore affect Day Schools, as parents fearing repercussions, can no longer deduct their tuition "donations". It's an open question.)
At the same time, we need to begin to address the root of this issue. For whatever reason, the notion of stealing from and cheating the government is simply an accepted behavioral practice in large swaths of the Orthodox community. This is just the latest example of corruption that everyone "knows" about, looks the other way, and the only thing that really shocks us is the fact that they got caught.
A simple example of this is the story of the three yeshiva bochurim currently sitting in jail for drug trafficking in Japan. Let's assume that the bochrum are telling the truth, and that they had no idea that they were carrying drugs in their suitcases. But they did think that they were smuggling artifacts into a foreign country and thereby circumventing the laws of the government. They had no problem whatsoever doing that.
Which makes me wonder: why does our religious educational system (or a really big chunk of it), supposedly steeped in ethical and moral study, which emphasizes adherence to God and continued self-assessment and self-improvement, raise children who think nothing of lying and helping others steal?
Why is it OK to steal from the government - any and every government - in many Jewish circles? Why do we wink at this kind of behavior and look the other way, instead of speaking out loud about it and finally saying that it's got to stop?
This story is especially timely in light of the Haftarah we'll read this Shabbat - called Shabbat Chazon. We call it Shabbat Chazon because the Haftarah begins with the word "chazon" - the vision that the prophet Yishayahu conveys of the coming destruction of the first Beit Hamikdash. Why? Why were the Jewish people slated to lose their beloved Temple? The prophet answers clearly and unequivocally (See Isaiah Chapter 1):
שָׂרַיִךְ סוֹרְרִים, וְחַבְרֵי גַּנָּבִים--כֻּלּוֹ אֹהֵב שֹׁחַד, וְרֹדֵף שַׁלְמֹנִים
Your princes are rebellious, and companions of thieves; every one loves bribes, and follows after rewards;
If we really want to bring redemption, the prophet tells us quite clearly how to do it:
צִיּוֹן, בְּמִשְׁפָּט תִּפָּדֶה; וְשָׁבֶיהָ, בִּצְדָקָה.
Zion shall be redeemed with justice, and they that return of her with righteousness.
Until we finally start speaking out, the chillul Hashem will only continue. We will continue to see ever more men in black coats, kippot, beards, hats, etc, led away in handcuffs. And we will all suffer the consequences.