Jack Abramoff’s Black Hat, Round Two

letter-447577_1280

When both my wife and Jonathan Rosenblum think I left room for some serious misunderstanding of my position, I know I’m in trouble.  Allow me to explain what I do and do not believe, albeit not in that order.

I do not believe that there are more kids at risk, divorces, criminals, or people with midos (character problems) in the BT community than in the FFB community.

I do not believe in the failure of BT yeshivos.

I do not believe that either MO or haredi Orthodoxy could survive today without the infusion of zeal, talent and purity of purpose that BT’s have brought to contemporary Orthodox life.  They are the saving grace, the best thing that could have happened to the Orthodox world.

I do not believe that I could personally survive without baalei teshuva.  I gravitate towards them not only as those whom I prefer to teach, but to those whom I often prefer to be around.

I do not firmly know whether Jack Abramoff is a BT.  I had reasons, which I cannot divulge, to assume that he was.  My latest intelligence is that he is indeed a BT, although at an age so early (13) that my thesis would not have held for him anyway.  The thesis, while perhaps inapplicable to Abramoff, is one I will still defend, so here goes.

I do believe that people are usually responsible for their own behavior, and cannot escape moral blame entirely by pointing to inadequacies in their parents, schools, societies, and spouses.

I do believe that we can and must learn from the errors of others.  Wherever possible, we should create the conditions that will make it easier for people to make the right choices, whether by education, or legislation.  There is almost always something to be gained by asking “Why?”

I do believe that it is hard for an FFB’s real character flaws to go undetected and unreproached if he has spent years in the conventional educational system.  Rabbeim, mashgichim, roommates will generally bring these flaws into sharp focus.  He may choose to ignore the warnings and remonstration.  He may pay lip service to the idea of change, and make no real progress.  But it is not so likely that in years in  conventional yeshivos (unless completely spent in the mega-yeshivos were no one was ever “in charge” of him) that people will not have asked him pointedly to deal with his issues.

I believe that it is easier for some baalei teshuva to avoid this scrutiny.  That is not their fault, but the fault of their mentors.  Those mentors do indeed focus inordinately on relatively superficial conduct, without addressing whether the inner person is keeping up to the rate of change.  This is not a wholesale condemnation of BT yeshivos.  It is a condemnation of some of the FFBs who serve in positions of authority in some of them, and take enormous pride in numbers of returnees, as measured by external behavior.  I believe that this is particularly tragic, because BTs are often far more motivated than FFBs to do whatever Hashem asks them to.  If these mentors would put due diligence into addressing the inner person, they would probably find more eager receptivity than in parts of the FFB community.

I do not believe that this is a matter or speculation.  I have met too many of these products – people who picked up halachic detail, but no one ever thought it necessary to point out the serious lapses in menschlichkeit that continued unabated.  (Again – this in not to say that FFB’s don’t have their own problems with midos, perhaps in even greater numbers.   But the etiology of those problems is often different.)   I do believe that there is enough of this going on, that it constitutes a pattern of neglect.  I do not know how to quantify it.  (This is likely a topic for a later discussion, but I also believe that this neglect is behind the shepherding of new BTs by some BT institutions into premature marriages in the hope that this will insure their remaining observant.  Character flaws that should have been obvious are somehow ignored, and marital strife is made likely.  I do not know whether the incidence of divorce is higher or lower among BTs than FFBs, but this factor applies to the former, not the latter.)

I am, and will continue to be, an equal-opportunity critic – especially of my own community.  (I frequently repeat that lovely bon-mot that I first heard from Dennis Prager: “I don’t care what group you belong to, as long as you are ashamed of it.”)  If you are skeptical, wait a few days, when BE”H I will write a short review of  “Off the Derech,” a new blockbuster (written by a former student of mine) which is far more critical of shortcomings within the FFB community than anything misread or misunderstood about my original post.

I don’t know whether everyone will be satisfied with this explanation.  But I can hope.

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19 Responses

  1. evets says:

    Thanks for the clarification; it was much needed. Incidentally, Eliezer Barzilai makes a good point about FFB disdain for government (and, I would add, for the welfare of surrounding society in general) and haow that can lead to moral and legal lapses. I actually think this is an attitude too often absorbed by BT’s from FFB’s; perhaps they think it shows that they’re really part of the team. I speak as a BT troubled by the attitude and by those who adopt it as a sign of belonging.

  2. Anonymous in LA says:

    Oh, I own a black hat for Shabbos, Yom Tov and simchas.

    I kind of miss my old tan straw fedora which was orders of magnitude more practical here in Los Angeles summers. A sweat stain is really kavodik, right?

    But if a normally black-fedora-wearing frum Jew dared to deviate, say by donning a straw replica of his usual black hat style during the summer season, please don’t deny that people would look askance. There is lots good to be said about haredi life — it’s how I raise and educate my children — but there are also social affectations that meet a textbook definition of cultism.

  3. Anonymous in LA says:

    Just Googled for images mentioning Slabodka and came up empty.

    A second hat to keep the yarmulke in place doesn’t bug me. Can you provide evidence that 90% of the non-rabbinic but frum lay-Jew wore nearly identical styles?

  4. Yaakov Menken says:

    Anon in LA,

    Fedoras may be 90 years old, but if you look at 19th Century photos of Slabodka they are wearing something very similar. It’s not the brand name or even the style that matters — the concept of wearing a head covering besides the yarmulke is ancient.

  5. Anonymous in LA says:

    Can we drop the fedora affectation, now?

    When did it become part of the frum uniform and why?

    Wikipedia says fedoras were invented about 90 years ago, so there’s no mesora for it. The homburg is from the latter 19th century, popularized by Edward VII. Borsalino dates to 1847. Stetson, 1865.

  6. Shlomo Dovid Freedman says:

    R’ Avraham Twerski’s book “Dear Rabbi Dear Doctor”, a collection of his articles in The Jewish Press, has a number of letters from readers on the idea that marriage will “straighten out” someone and improve his middos. Rabbi Twerski’s response is headed by the title “Marriage is Not A Hospital”. But the idea/myth obviously exists.

  7. ja says:

    The BT I know almost all have fine midos, and work on them. I find this:

    “I do believe that it is hard for an FFB’s real character flaws to go undetected and unreproached if he has spent years in the conventional educational system. Rabbeim, mashgichim, roommates will generally bring these flaws into sharp focus. He may choose to ignore the warnings and remonstration. He may pay lip service to the idea of change, and make no real progress. But it is not so likely that in years in conventional yeshivos (unless completely spent in the mega-yeshivos were no one was ever “in charge” of him) that people will not have asked him pointedly to deal with his issues.”

    to be true only superficially. Midos are in any case best taught at home; it’s odd to think of the school system as a place to teach midos, they at best reinforce them. When they actively try to teach midos, they usually fail, focusing only on formalities and breeding arrogance; it is simply not the proper venue. In addition, to some extent yeshivos can teach bad midos; the atmosphere can breed cynicism, encourage putting people down and so on.

    By contrast spiritual types are heavily overrepresened among BT. Maybe they don’t naturally conform to particular norms, but overall, IME they have better midos and indeed I often wonder that they are not a kitrug on our FFB “System”

  8. Anonymous in LA says:

    Way too much emphasis even here in “laid back” Los Angeles on frum phenotype over frum genotype. Better chances for an adult BT to get good shidduchim for his kids if he’s seen going through the motions and wearing the right garments than wearing “civilian clothes” on a Sunday while doing yardwork that might — shudder — have colors of the rainbow!

    The local rigidity of interpreting clothing like they were infallible Chinese tea leaves foretelling all is considerably worse the further east one travels from LA. The intolerance reaches a peak where it’s almost at the point where you can’t get off a plane at Ben Gurion without someone taking a micrometer to measure the exact size of your kippah, whether it’s cotton or velvet or (gasp!) leather, the angle at which you wear it, the opacity of the stocking of any females in your party… all so the society can shift you into an intolerant corridor from which you cannot wave at a neighbor. That’s how you create veal, not achdus.

    An over-emphasis on scholarship over observance results in Jews leaving yiddishkeit altogether, too. If not for the populist movement of the Baal Shem Tov, the either-you’re-a-yeshiva-man-or-a-bum elitism was a recipe for disaster. Elitism self-destructs. We’re repeating a historic mistake by not emphasizing a Zevulun-track over the contemporary myopic focus on a pristine Issachar-track and trying to manufacture gedolim. The BT factories do a lousy job at even asking what’s motivating the BT candidate, let alone steering the person toward the kind of lifelong track that would be a Kiddush Hashem.

    Planning to be a dentist? DON’T buy the cult-like venom spewed at higher education! Become the best frum dentist possible! Planning to sell furniture? The yeshiva would do best by finding the most mentschlike observant furniture seller there is to become a mentor. More mentoring to see frum laypeople in action is better recipe than starting on day one with “you can spend a lifetime and never learn all of this… and you’ll be held accountable for every transgression… so you better not budge from your bench in the yeshiva for at least 40 years.” Learn life and time and business management skills that are practical and aimed at getting a comfortable response when, at 120, the BT is asked about his business life in this olam.

    Abramoff clearly never had THAT as a role model.

    Issachars will become Issachars because they can’t help it. Trying to force Issachar-itude and its standards on the majority will inevitably produce a lot of discontent. What if you’re really cut out to be on an Asher- or Gad-track?

    “Back in the day”, the chinuch wasn’t aimed at making everyone into a gadol. The gadolim-to-be got tutoring on the side. The rest focused on the general and the community leaders would steer. The rest worked for a living and shouldn’t be made to feel guilty or “non-elite” by the scholars.

    But when we’re aiming at universal smicha as the standard for the charedi schools… don’t get me started on where that path leads us.

  9. mycroft says:

    Steve: Off the derech is a must read for everyonenterested in the furtherance of Yiddishkeit!! No modifiers needed.

  10. Steve Brizel says:

    Sorry to beat you to the punch-but I already purchased and have read Off the Derech. It is a blockbuster because it shows that
    there are multiple manifestations, causes and solutions for adolescents and adults who go “off the derech” as opposed to one. It is must reading for parents, rabbanim, mchanchim , kiruv professionals and anyone else concerned with this plague.

  11. Eliezer Barzilai says:

    One type of character flaw is more prevalent among some segments of the FFB world than the BT world, and that is the perspective that the government is a hostile entity and therefore not entitled to esteem or obedience. This attitude can lead to tax evasion and illegal manipulation of government programs. This is likely a meme that has been carried with us from the times when government policy institutionalized a virulent anti-semitism, and is completely out of place in the United States.

  12. ori says:

    do believe that it is hard for an FFB’s real character flaws to go undetected and unreproached if he has spent years in the conventional educational system. Rabbeim, mashgichim, roommates will generally bring these flaws into sharp focus.

    In other words, years of education, starting with toddlerhood, are more effective in teaching good Midot than the relatively short time that BTs spend in Yeshiva as adults. That seems fairly obvious.

    The real question is, what is the most effective way to teach good Midot to adults when you only get them to for a relatively short time.

  13. ron mann says:

    Rabbi Adlerstein,

    You claim, “I am, and will continue to be, an equal-opportunity critic – especially of my own community.” Yet a cursory review of your Cross-Currents posting back to August does not support that contention.

    Yet again you elect to focus on BTs problems instead of real problems in the FFB community. I have no idea how you can claim that the FFB education system roots out character flaws. Take a look around Brooklyn, Lakewood or other places. How many people are hanging outside the Beis Medrash drinking coffee and smoking cigarettes instead of learning?

    If anything, the FFB school system stifles questioning and creativity. It forces out children who do not toe the line. It is strict and uncompromising.

    Next Chol Hamoed, go to one of the amusement parks that has a “frum day”. Try and find any menschlichkeit among the FFB throngs pushing and shoving their way around.

    As long as you attack others, you will have a hard time fixing your own house.

  14. Steve Brizel says:

    Dear Rabbi Adlerstein-Yasher Koach on an important follow-up to yesterday’s post. Noone says that we should offer a Bronx cheer at all of the good
    in the Torah world. Yet, in my opinion and with all due respect for the views of others, we have an equally valid Mesorah of intolerance to those who appear ritually correct and whose interpersonal relations and actions are less than ideal that stems far back in our tradition. One can applaud the wonderful aspects of Torah life and and criticize those factors that undermine the future of our communities. I fail to see how one hashkafic route denominated as “the Torah way” can displace a Mesorah of public actions and tochachah that has its origins in Tanach and Chazal.

  15. mb says:

    I found myself singing Yigdal.

  16. Mark Frankel says:

    Rabbi Adlerstein.

    First let me thank you for your translation of the Maharal’s Be’er Hagolah, I have learned so much from it. I believe that you didn’t intend to defame BTs as a group in your first post, but I think you are making some of the same generalization mistakes by saying things like you “have met many of these products”, without quantifying the term “many”.

    Excuse me if I am out of place, but I’m not sure that being an equal-opportunity critic is such a positive trait. It seems that public criticism often creates more problems than it solves and violates some of the Rambam’s basic rules of rebuke.

    The news and most of the Internet portrays a negative view of the world, it’s all we hear. But that’s not the Torah way as I’ve been taught and am trying to internalize. Isn’t leading with the positive, being supportive and finding all the good in the Orthodox community the Torah way. When criticism is necessary, shouldn’t we look at our goals and see if a blog blast is the most effective tool to reach those goals. Might not a face to face, a private letter or email be more effective.

    We have a new Baalei Teshuva group blog at http://www.beyondbt.com where we are trying to take a more positive approach.

  17. Rivka Haut says:

    I have been an advocate for agunot for about 25 years. Moat of the agunot i have dealt with have been from the FFB catagory. So have their recalcitrant spouses. I am currently trying to help a woman in the Satmar community, and one from Lubavitch, as well as about 5 agunot from the right wing “yeshiva’ish” world. Over the years I have been involved with some agunot and their spouses from the baal teshuva camp, but for the most part they are from the born frum world. The yeshivot the recalcitrants studied in range from Lakewood to Telz to Baltimore Yeshiva to Torah Vadaat- etc. the roshei yeshiva have not been helpful, for the most part. there are exceptions, of course.
    Women in the frum community leave marriages only for very serious reasons – violence, drinking and drugs, molestation of children. I have seen all of these in the FFB world. So do not be deluded and think that a frum lifestyle, and even a yeshiva background, shields a person from grievious problems. If this were true, there would not be so many – hundreds, thousands perhaps- of agunot whose spouses are FFB.
    Rivka Haut

  18. Michoel says:

    No question. You are %100 right in your criticisms of the BT yeshivos. Unscientifically, I would say that divorce is much more common amongst BTs and it grows directly out the problems that you are pointing out. So these problems are not a small issue at all. They need to be addressed in a forthright way. When rebbeim fail to focus on substantive issues, they are completely neglecting their responsibilities. It is close to abuse, IMO.

  19. Rivka W. says:

    “I also believe that this neglect is behind the shepherding of new BTs by some BT institutions into premature marriages in the hope that this will insure their remaining observant. Character flaws that should have been obvious are somehow ignored, and marital strife is made likely.”

    This happens all too often among FFBs as well. Too many people seem to think that marriage will somehow cure character flaws, despite all evidence to the contrary.