If you ask me, they all got it wrong. He did not wear the hat to look more pious.
Decades ago, the head of a large group within American Orthodoxy faced extremely serious charges of nursing home impropriety. Although he did not identify with the haredi world, this figure turned to America’s greatest halachic expert, Rav Moshe Feinstein zt”l for guidance. He asked Rav Moshe how he should appear in court, with scores of television cameras trained on him. Should he keep his yarmulke on, or remove it? Rav Moshe advised the latter, to prevent or diminish the chilul Hashem (desecration of G-d’s Name) that would result from millions of people associating his bekippahed (I just made up the word) head with the scope of his crimes. He did not follow the advice.
I suspect that Jack Abramoff attempted much the same. He did not want to remove the yarmulke that he usually wore, expecially at an emotionally trying time. On the other hand, he did not want to make a bad thing even worse by further tarnishing the image of Orthodox Jews. The hat was meant to hide the yarmulke.
Like most attempts at pushing a chilul Hashem genie back in the bottle, Abramoff’s attempt did not work. The media are buzzing with talk of Abramoff’s Orthodoxy. The damage cannot be undone. Too many people have a real need to reject G-d and religion, and pounce on every excuse they are afforded. Perhaps this is part of the reason that the Gemara (Yoma 86A) considers chilul Hashem the most severe of all transgressions.
If I am correct, Abramoff intuited more about the severity of chilul Hashem than my friend David Klinghoffer in his debate with Rabbi Eliyahu Stern. Klinghoffer has made several attempts to put Abramoff and others loosely connected to him in the best possible light. Some will be cynical, but I attribute this to his loyalty and fairmindedness – admirable qualities. But he goes too far when he writes
Stern calls Jack Abramoff an “embarrassment to Orthodox Jews.” Why should we be embarrassed? Are we supposed to be so naive and childish as to think that no one wearing a kippah will ever act in an unethical manner and end up in the news columns for it? Am I supposed to be embarrassed that Orthodox Jews are human too?
I am embarrassed that he is not embarrassed. Of course we should be stung, pained, embarrassed when the activities of any Jew tarnish the reputation of the Ribbono Shel Olam Himself! This is the essence of chilul Hashem: diminishing the image of G-d’s greatness through the misadventures of those who, like it or not, are seen as His ambassadors. The world expects more of observant Jews, and rightfully so. We claim to live by His Word. When that Word seems to be insufficient to prevent mischief, G-d Himself is seen as inadequate, c”v. Being human is a reality, but not an excuse. The world expects more of us, but so does Hashem. He gave us a Torah to allow us to transcend our weaknesses. When we fail to utilize the tools that He gave us to rise above our coarser selves, we have only ourselves to blame, not our humanity.
Is there more to be said about Abramoff’s failure, beyond the observation that as long as people have a yetzer hora (evil inclination) and free will, many will make mistakes? I believe there is.
My good friend and colleague Rabbi Shaya Karlinsky, Rosh Yeshiva of Darchei Noam/ Shapell’s, has often complained to me about the trajectory of many returnees to observance. Outward behavior is addressed and changed, but not the inner person. Many Teshuva mills grind out people with the external appurtenances of committed observance, but without touching the core. Call it what you want – mussar, reaching the penimiyus, remaking the personality – some yeshivos for baalei teshuva just don’t get around to doing the work. They pride themselves in numbers – and then react in horror when some of their products have failed marriages and at-risk kids, because they never really transformed themselves in years of observance. Take a person with bad middos and put him through a program of Torah study, and you do not automatically produce a saint. Sometimes, you just produce person with bad middos with tefillin marks on his arm.
This does not take away from the legions of baalei teshuvah who are so inspired and committed that they put the rest of us to shame. But they are not alone. We need to take a harder look at how we help people become frum.