Silver Lining of the LA Scandal Cloud

It is still very much the elephant in the room. We can pretend that it didn’t happen, but it won’t go away that quickly. News sources are still writing new pieces, and the prosecutor has pledged new indictments. If you think it is one of the worst cases of chilul Hashem in memory, you are in good company. If you think that the story is all about sordid sleaze, you might have overlooked some points that were not picked up by conventional outlets. Not all the news was bad.

No one but the accused know whether the allegations are true, but no one can be sure that they are not. A few generations ago, an important Rosh Yeshiva visiting from Europe needed to borrow a small amount of cash for a short time. His would-be creditor embarrassedly asked him to sign an IOU. “It’s not that I don’t trust you, but I’ve been burnt before by others dressed like you who borrowed and disappeared.” The Rosh Yeshiva broke down and cried, that a talmid chacham should even be suspected of such a thing. Whether the current allegations hold up in court or not, I haven’t met anyone who finds them surprising. This itself is tragic.

The good news starts with some people who instantly got it right, who knew how to make a contribution to the effort to decrease the likelihood of waking up to a different scandal in the future. The rov of my shul – home to none of the accused – spoke about the need to reexamine issues of personal honesty and integrity. He did this not once, but three times. A prominent mechanech in town did not wait for students to ask questions. He dedicated his shmuess to issues of chilul Hashem and how to avoid it. As far away as Riverdale, where talmidim are kept so busy learning B”H that they have very little awareness of the scuttlebutt of the Orthodox world, R. Avrohom Ausband shlit”a seized the opportunity to give talmidim a litmus test in addressing subtle and not-so-subtle moral challenges. “Would you act the same way if you knew that your actions will be splashed across headlines the next day?” This was superb pedagogy, making the best educational use of a bad moment.

Not all rabbonim and mechanchim were so enterprising, but we can hope that they too will realize that they can contribute to a solution.

Of course, there are those who do not recognize that there is a problem. In some places, too much of the conversation turned to CW, the “cooperating witness,” the FBI’s substitution for what everyone else calls the moser. Too little attention was focused on the alleged fraud. While RK’s conduct was contemptible, it reflects nothing more than human weakness, of a willingness to turn on others to save his own neck. The rest of us are not responsible for that, particularly since RK has hardly been a poster boy for Orthodox living.

The accused are a different story. Guilty or innocent, there are too many other Orthodox perps who have been convicted for similar misdeeds. The roots of a lackadaisical attitude towards defrauding faceless entities – particularly governmental ones – should be apparent. Guilty or innocent, those who go about business as usual and do not distance themselves from the root causes are virtually insuring that some of their children will one day fall prey to the same thinking and the same behavior. (Sensing that the shul was going to be mechabed the Rebbe with davening for the amud shortly after he posted bail, a few people quietly absented themselves, without fanfare and without raising the roof. They understood that – guilty or innocent – according such an honor did not stem from the treasured American belief in assuming innocence until guilt is proven. Given the proclivities of some people towards this kind of behavior, treating the new “guests” with undiminished honor was tantamount to announcing to their children that they took certain crimes and misdemeanors lightly. I am proud to say that all those who left and did not want to be part of such a statement are my friends.)

Additional positive news came from some of the blogs that are friendly to the chassidishe world. From the time the scandal broke, I endeavored to learn how Chassidim in particular would react to the arrests. I was pleasantly surprised. To be sure, there were lots of rants about anti-Semitism behind the charges, and nonsensical statements about victimless crimes, and charges that the government had no right to steal taxes from its citizens. On the other hand, many commenters completely rejected the specious arguments, and owned up to the seriousness of the chilul Hashem, to their abhorrence of programmatic dishonesty, and to the general fairness of American society. Some of these comments came from people outside of the Chassidic community; many clearly did not.

Some people – more than I would have expected – clearly understood the difference between living under the Czar or the porutz, and living in a constitutional democracy.

You might object that my sample is skewed. Chassidim who frequent blogs cannot be typical of their communities. Perhaps. Even if this were true, however, it would suggest where to begin on a solution. Greater exposure to the “outside” world had many attendant risks, but it also provides some needed enlightenment about the relationship between Jews and non-Jews. Jews with more exposure to the non-Jewish world are in a better position to discard stereotypes that were accurate in pre-War Eastern Europe, and have little application in America. Whatever they have absorbed from history has been countered by the living example of so many good, decent, unbiased non-Jews.

Perhaps some reader will prove me wrong, but why is it that neither I nor the friends I asked can remember similar scandals affecting Orthodox Jews of German extraction? Is it only that “yekkes” are straighter? Is it not also that their attitudes towards the rest of the world are not as contemptuous and not as benighted as in other quarters? Why does it take so long for some people to take note of the differences between corrupt, anti-Semitic governments of older vintage, and the arguably better record of the medinah she chesed we inhabit? Is it not related in part to having no frequent and sustained interaction with our neighbors, so that only fictionalized versions of them are encountered?

Insularity has its merits, but it seems to come at a price as well. Part of that price is living in a time warp, where little has changed from hundreds of years ago, and all non-Jews are assumed to be cut of the same cloth. Those who promote insularity as a hedge against dilution of spiritual energy had better come up with a way of injecting a bit of an update in attitudes towards non-Jews and non-Jewish governments, or scandals such as the present one will continue to plague the community. If anything, we can expect to see an increase in them, as the secular authorities have trained their sights on what they see as pockets of corruption. The fact that the FBI was able to so efficiently translate idiomatic and coded Yiddish and Hungarian conversation gleaned from their surveillance is chilling. We understand that they didn’t advertise for part-time help on Craig’s List. They have committed resources to the hunt.

Models for misconduct are hardly restricted to any one part of the world, non-Jewish, Jewish, or Orthodox. People interested in learning the wrong lessons will not suffer from lack of others to imitate and blame. The bottom line is that if your children are absorbing inappropriate conceptions about the worthlessness of everything in the non-Jewish world, you had better modify their instruction. If not, you may be visiting them in prison some day.

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44 comments to Silver Lining of the LA Scandal Cloud

  • Gary Shulman

    Here is a simpler example: Can you imagine a family living in America where Dad works and earns a salary of double minumim wage. He works 50 hours a week total at one full time and one part time job. Mom stays at home with 5 children ranging in age from 4-11. They want to send their kids to a yeshiva day school.The grandparents can’t help. Where do they get the money for absolute minimum tuition? If there is no flour there is no Torah. This is not a lust for materialism for its own sake but rather a need for money to do mitzvoth. No way do I justify illegal behavior. My question to my fellow bloggers is this: How does this mythical family make ends meet in light of the financial demands of our society?

  • Charles B. Hall

    This is timely. “Dina malchutcha dina” happens to be in today’s daf yomi.

  • Calev

    As ever, whether a Chassid, Litvak, ‘Modern Orthodox’ or Yekke, the secret is to seek balance in all things. There are no guarantees about finding such balance – but you never know unless you try.

  • mb

    “Perhaps some reader will prove me wrong, but why is it that neither I nor the friends I asked can remember similar scandals affecting Orthodox Jews of German extraction?”

    Perhaps they take the prayer for the Government seriously. It’s noticeable how many of those that do consistantly get embroiled in these scandals do not even have such a prayer in their Siddurim, let alone publicly have it read on Shabbat?

  • Michael Atlas

    Interesting article; well said.

    Although I believe that the insularity does in some ways create these feelings, this is definitely not limited to Chassidim and definitely not limited to monetary issues.

    I think it has a lot to do with how we define Am HaNivchar. I think at this point in time, the definition that should be promoted more often (as I believe it is the emes anyway) is that we were chosen to be role models, to bring G-d’s presence in this world. It has less to do with being better, good for the ego but misleading, and more about being “bni bichori Yisroel”. When I was in college, a couple of my more Yeshivish friends were less makpid about copying others’ papers than were my frum MO friends. And I think a lot of it had to do with their notions of the relationship between Jew and Gentile. I’m not generalizing but just extending your observation about insularity, definiton of Am HaNivchar and understanding of relationship between us and the goyim.

    Either way, we all need to do a cheshbon. It’s a lesson for all of us and we’re all in the same boat-the Klal Yisroel boat.

  • Danny Rubin

    I think that it is about time that we INSIST that parts of Choshen Mishpat be added to the High School curriculum.- Particularly for Women!!!! ( Is it my imagination or is the Orthodox world putting them in to the workplace beyond Ms. Steinhem’s wildest dreams :-))

    There are more dual earning couples than ever before.
    For those people who appropriately take government or community funds the challenges are as great as ever.

    I have started reviewing Rabbi Bodner’s sefer “Halachos of Other People’s Money” at the Shabboss table and it has worked out beautifully. If anyone would like gather a group for this or a similar commitment please respond.

  • Steve Brizel

    This is a column that is a must read, but echoes a teshuvah of RMF that condemned those involved in the federal food lunch program scandal in the late 1970s. Why is it that we need such headlines as a community to wake up and realize that CM is as relevant as OC and YD?

  • dr. william gewirtz

    You write: “R. Avrohom Ausband shlit”a seized the opportunity to give talmidim a litmus test in addressing subtle and not-so-subtle moral challenges. “Would you act the same way if you knew that your actions will be splashed across headlines the next day?” This was superb pedagogy, making the best educational use of a bad moment.”

    I assume this was not in full context – we certainly should not teach that things are not done because you might be embarrassed by headlines!

    What I find troubling, is that we tend to focus on the brazen acts of a few. While reprehensible that would not be as worrisome to me were there not a broader undercurrent of dishonesty/fraud in various parts of the community. I have no facts or statistical base, just a hunch. If you want to believe these are isolated and I am wrong, then, we disagree and I will not argue with you. But assuming my hunch, everyday events/”Maasim bechol Yom” are much more troubling; acknowledging my hunch and then “matter of factly” arguing that orthodox Jews are no worse, is yet worse.

  • Toby Katz

    The difference between German and Polish Jews isn’t that the former think more highly of goyim while the latter have internalized negative messages about goyim. It certainly isn’t that the German Jews were influnced by Reform, and that’s why they’re more menshlich and more honest. (A suggestion someone made seriously, on another blog.)

    The difference has to do with historical circumstances, and that in turn has a direct bearing on the halacha, especially on dina demalchusa.

    In those times and places where the goyim deliberately discriminate against Jews, where anti-Semitic persecution is the norm, and where the government itself acts with the deliberate intention of impoverishing Jews — where the law itself distinguishes between Jews and non-Jews, to the intentional harm of the former — there it is mutar and perhaps even obligatory to flout the law.

    It is mutar to evade anti-Semitic taxes and residency laws, to do anything possible to stay out of the czar’s army, to do business under the table rather than having your last ruble confiscated.

    In a country like America, where taxes may be too high and business regulations onerous, but where the law applies equally to gentiles and to Jews, and where there is no legal, official anti-Semtism at all (B’H) — in such a country, dina demalchusa dina applies and it is assur to break the law. That is where the fact that this is a malchus shel chessed becomes entirely relevant and central to the question of whether Jews have the right to break the law in America.

    Polish, Russian and Hungarian Jews tend to maintain the habits that historically enabled them to survive under severely anti-Semitic regimes.

    German Jews tend to be more honest than east European Jews because Germany was a more honest, law-abiding society, and it tended to treat Jews as equal citizens in the 19th century — certainly much more so than in Russia, Poland and Hungary.

    The Holocaust could never have been imagined or foreseen by 19th century and early 20th century Jews. Even now we look with shock and horror at what happened in that most civilized of nations, Germany. And it should make us all shudder with fear, even in this warm and comfortable American galus. Nevertheless, at this point, there is little if any halachic justification for Jews to disobey American law. As long as it is a malchus shel chessed, and as long as its laws apply equally to Jews and non-Jews, we Jews should be law-abiding citizens.

  • Haveil Havalim #150…

    InstaCarnival Beta Draft HTML for Carnival Edition http://blogcarnival.com/bc/spreview_17100.html –> The next few lines insert the BlogCarnival LogoLink for the January 20, 2008 edition of “haveil havalim” here. Presence of the BlogCarnival LogoLin…

  • mycroft

    I certainly agree with the rest of Mrs. Katz’s post that I didn’t copy..
    I will simply raise some minor questions on a few sentences which takes nothing away from her cogent post.

    The difference between German and Polish Jews isn’t that the former think more highly of goyim while the latter have internalized negative messages about goyim.

    Is that really true-SRH gave on a sermon on Shabbos in honor of Schiller’s birthday-could one imagine a Hungarian,Polish, or Litvak Rav doing a similar thing. One of the possible reasons for SRH arguably being the intellectual founder or modern religious anti-zionism is that he saw the galut as having positive aspects and certainly his high regard for German culture could have been a part of it.

    It certainly isn’t that the German Jews were influnced by Reform,

    is that really true? Certainly choirs etc seem to a laynab to be part ofthe influence of Reform. Remember the vast majority of Orthodox Jews in Germany did not follow SRH’s separatism from the general Jewish community. One reason why we tend to forget that is that SRH has a lot that is currently read in English translation and frankly the success at least for close to half a century of KAJ in Washington Heights.

    and that’s why they’re more menshlich and more honest.
    Assuming arguendo that Yekkes are more menshlich and honest why would not exposure to groups that claim the importance of prophetic religion rather than ritualistic religion. BTW I regularly attend a Motsei Shabbos showing of Rabbi Y. Reisman’s Navi shiur-it may be a pretext for his excellent shiur/drasha that follows but one finds IMHO a much greater dealing with ethical and bein adam/adam issues listening to his shiur than most others. He might deny the basis of it being Navi made its his being clearly influenced by Rav Pam ZT”L but those issues of behavior are discussed often at his shiur.
    (A suggestion someone made seriously, on another blog.)

    The difference has to do with historical circumstances, and that in turn has a direct bearing on the halacha, especially on dina demalchusa.

    “Certainly a major part of the reason.”

    There may be another reason why these issues are coming to light more recently-it appears that US legal authorities are much less hesitant to indict religious leaders for crimes than they were in the 60s and 70s. There have been a whole host of convicted “religious leaders” of various denominations in t last couple of decades. Previously, they seemed unofficially to be content with occasional prosecutions of the lay workers in religious financial frauds.

  • nachum klafter

    I agree with Rabbi Adlersteins conjecture that insularity can lead to blind spots which he correctly, in my opinion, attributes to the maintenance of a hostile and paranoid stance toward government and general culture. This attitude was appropriate and adaptive in anti-Semetic Eastern Europe, under centuries of persecution by corrupt and ruthless despots, who in addition to occasionally orchestrating pogroms and massacres, regularly plundered Jewish property. After the monarchies were finally done in, the Communists were just as bad if not worse.

    In American we are blessed to live in what is arguably the most fair, decent, gracious, and law abiding society that has ever existed. Jews are overrepresented in all professions, including law, and including the judiciary. We should feel good about paying our taxes. It pays for a wonderful society where Torah and the Jews have flourished. Insular communities have less of an appreciation for this.

    I have a good friend who was an immigrant from Russia in the 1980′s. His girlfriend, who became his wife, got out illegally. They were absolutely shocked at how law abiding Americans are. The couldn’t believe that we bother to have our cars inspected, bother to obtain drivers licenses, vote, pay taxes, etc. They also couldn’t believe that it is possible for a common individual with no proteksia who wants to open a restaurant to receive a permit from the Department of Health and a liquor license. There is no need to bribe anyone!! This individual made a living in Russia dealing on the black market. Bribery was part of his overhead. I believe he received receipts for it! It was a way of life there. When his mother immigrated to to the US, she brought her daughter a gift: A Masters in Computer Science from the Univesity of Moscow complete with transcripts and letters of recommendation! Had this friend of mine settled into a Chassidic Ghetto, then I doubt he would have shed any of his old world attitudes. He became frum among people who are loyal and patriotic American Orthodox Jews. He has since become thoroughly Americanized.

    It is hard for Americans to understand how thoroughly corrupt and dishonest many other societies are. In my opinion, we are too insular. If I had to choose between zilzul in Choshen Mishpat and zilzul in Even ha-Ezer, I will choose a community where there is zilzul in Even ha-Ezer. Fortunately, I live in a wonderful community where there appears to be neither.

  • Yechiel Cohen

    On German Orthodox “Superiority”

    The Chassidim are a movement that was initially met with bans. The bans are no more. However do these bans show proof of the inferiority of Chassidim? The answer is of course NO. Wearing an odd garb, is this a reason that perhaps Chassidim are ethically challenged? Of course not. The emphasis on a “Rebbe”, will this make Chassidim ethically challenged? Of course not. These are the only differences with the Chassidim and German Orthodox. My proof for the normalness of Chasidim is Williamsburg, a beautiful modern neighborhood.
    Where does a sort of suspicious attitude of the ethics of Chassidim come from? Why that is quite simple! It is an unfortunate negative influence from non-Jewish society!

  • Yitzchok Adlerstein

    Toby -
    It may not be any of those, but I think you are looking at a different question. Almost all people I know try to explain – but not justify – the scandals that happen by pointing out how attitudes shaped by hundreds of years of Eastern European history don’t die so quickly. These same people will admit to not being so comfortable with their own explanation, because after two generations on American soil, some attitudes should have changed. The question is not how the attitudes developed, but why they have not been moderated by experience

    My piece attempted to be optimistic, not just accusatory. Attitudes ARE changing, but the change may be dependent upon the nature of the interaction with other elements of society. There are still areas where that interaction is minimal. Even in other areas, children’s attitudes are still shaped by otherwise superlative teachers, who nonetheless come from the most insular parts of the community, and continue to convey, without malice, attitudes that should be and must be treated with more nuance.

    Dr Gewirtz -
    R Ausband was certainly NOT arguing that the reason to act correctly was public oprobrium. He spoke of situations where it is not at all clear what the right thing to do is, where even knowledge of Shulchan Aruch could yield arguments in different directions. He offered his students a valuable touchstone. If you think you’ve found a halachic justification for your action, but would be reluctant to broadcast it, your justification is probably not as good as you would want it to be.

  • nachum klafter

    I would like to respectfully respond to a few of Toby Katz’s points (though I agree with the majority of what she has said.)

    “The Holocaust could never have been imagined or foreseen by 19th century and early 20th century Jews.”

    In fact, it was forseen by several thinkers, particularly the Zionists. Of the top of my head: Jabotinsky, I believe. Others can add to the list.

    “German Jews tend to be more honest than east European Jews…”

    I would prefer to avoid that kind of generalization. What I am saying (and I think Rabbi Adlerstein is saying) is that insularity may lead to a particular ethical blind spot for white collar, “victimless” crimes and tax fraud because the values of the society are not internalized, and there is no empathy with the IRS, police, SEC, governmant bureaucrats, etc. That is very different from saying the people in one community are “less honest” than another.

    “Nevertheless, at this point, there is little if any halachic justification for Jews to disobey American law.”

    I am aware of no Jewish Law scholar authority who would suggest that there is any justification whatsoever to violate U.S. tax laws or commit fraud. Fraud is not dina de-malchusa; it is geneiva (theft). In fact, I have heard numerous Jewish Legal authorities state that it is a clear mitzvah to pay one’s taxes honestly and a violation not to. I also heard a presentation by Lawrence Kellerman (author of To Kindle a Soul), who suggested that we do our taxes with our children present and repeatedly stress to them how important it is to be scrupulously honest in paying taxes.

    When I read about scandals like this, I consider by contrast how easy it is to be stringent about derivatives of kitniyos or Pesah.

  • Joseph

    Why should the honor of davening for the amud be denied to the Rebbe? That is a presumption of guilt.

    Secondly, this article places far too much faith in the American justice system. Does Lemrick Nelson and OJ Simpson mean anything to you? Clearly guilty and found innocent by American justice. Does Rodney King mean anything? Police Officers doing their job on a drug-infused violent felon tried in court ACQUITED and tried again (”double jeapordy”) and convicted. Clearly innocent being convicted by American justice. And these are just a few of the many examples. How many times every single year do we read about convicts proving their innocence (DNA, etc.) many years after serving lengthy jail sentences.

    American justice is broken. Do not place your faith in it.

  • Bob Miller

    Regarding the comment by Joseph — January 20, 2008 @ 5:04 pm:

    It’s all very well to say the American legal system is flawed—but that puts the burden back on us to keep our own house in order.

    Does any American Jewish community have its own effective system for identifying and disciplining a community member who has cheated outsiders?

    We can’t have it both ways.

  • A K

    “… insularity may lead to a particular ethical blind spot for white collar, “victimless” crimes and tax fraud because the values of the society are not internalized, and there is no empathy with the IRS, police, SEC, governmant bureaucrats, etc.”

    Problem with this analysis is that I personally know (as most of us probably also know) of people who are totally integrated into the society at large who have this exact ethical blind spot. One such person I know is totally shomer shabbos, a product of an all-American middle class home,college educated,etc,; not quite insulated.

    I would presume that this ‘ethical blind spot’ is found in all segments of orthodox Jewry, as much as it is found in society at large,(and not more so). Maybe these people are unfortunately absorbing the values of the society we live in.

    I am NOT defending such behavior; we ARE the Am Hanifchar; We SHOULD be as scrupulous with Chosen Mishpat as we are with Kashrus and Shabbos; We SHOULD hold ourselves to higher standards than the society around us.

    And most importantly, I am pained by the Chillul Shaim Shomayim that has occurred. I personally started saying Yehai Shmay Rabbah Mevorach, with a little more feeling, as a way to actualize the realization that Kovod Shomayim has been diminished.

    Yet I think it is simplistic and plain wrong to attribute these actions to one segment of society. Please show me that there are more federal indictments of Jews, in general, Orthodox Jews in particular, and more so of Chassidim. I don’t think so.

  • Robert Lebovits

    Perhaps there is a simpler explanation still for these events in our communities. Of course historical and group experiences are influential in our behavior. While Torah tells us what is and is not ethical, we all suffer from an egotism that allows us to pick and choose that which we adhere to strictly and that which we treat much more casually.
    These scandals are different, however. There is a common denominator. Money. Not money as the “Root of All Evil”, but money as Avodah Zorah. Many commentators have noted that in the post-WW II era we have ascribed such enormous power to money that is has become an independent force which controls our lives, without clearly identifying the Source of all goodness – the very definition of idolatry.
    That men of supposed spiritual stature could be susceptible to this Avodah Zorah ought not be a surprise. There are many precedents in our history. And as with all temptations, some people are more drawn to one over another. Yet as a nation we seem to be more obsessed with money than ever before. Maybe it’s a post-Holocaust reaction to regain the material standing we lost. I have heard many survivors remark wistfully about the affluent life they lost along with their families, especially those of Austro-Hungarian roots. Maybe it’s a too-literal identification of the US as the “Goldena Medina”.
    In any case, grievous improprieties involving money are far over-represented as compared to other potential ethical/moral indiscretions. The Anshei Knesset Hagdolah may have successfully achieved the removal of the yetzer harah for more elemental Avodah Zorah, but some remnants are still with us.

  • Nachum Klafter

    AK:

    If you doubt Rabbi Adlerstein’s premise that the scandals seem to be unevenly distributed among different communities, then I accept that you disagree and the rest of what we are saying will be sound like total nonsense to you.

    I do not doubt Rabbi Adlerstein’s observations, or his conjecture about what this is happenning, but I accept that you could prove that he is wrong.

    But I would, even in your view, disagree with this statement you made: “Maybe these people are unfortunately absorbing the values of the society we live in.”

    Yechiel Cohen said something similar above: “Why that is quite simple! It is an unfortunate negative influence from non-Jewish society!” (Actually, I am mistapek whether that post was be-loshon sagi nohar.)

    This type of thinking is very counterproductive, and I would argue based on a false belief. It is an attempt to externalize of that is bad. It follows that WE are essentially good, and that whatever is bad comes from outside influences on us.

    This is simly not true. We are, of course, both good and bad. My yetzer ha-ra is not a product influence from the surrounding culture or society. It is essential to who I am as a Jew and as a human being. It is part of my personality and part of my nefesh. Every approach to Hassidus, mussar, and machshava states this.

    If we could create the most insular society that one can imagine, it would still have zenus, geneiva, ga’ava, ka’as, loshon hora, sin’as chinam, hamas, shochad, etc. The 1st churban was for shefichas damim, giluy arayos, and avodas kochavim. The 2nd churban was for sin’as chinam. We cannot attribute these sins to outside influences.

  • Mike S.

    “…and the arguably better record of the medinah she chesed we inhabit? ”

    This is really an indication of part of the problem. There is no argument at all, and comparing the record of the American government to the currupt, antisemitic tyrannies of Eastern Europe in the 18th and 19th centuries is outrageous. [Editor's note: The word "arguably" means "able to be demonstrated by argument." A few other commenters made the same error]

    Finally, Halacha does recognize collective entities, both in dinei mamaonot and in issur veheter. Perhaps a good way to start recognizing that deeper in our hearts is to remind ourselves, and teach our children, that it is assur to speak lashon Hara about communities as well as individuals. As any number of posekim, most prominently R. Moshe Feinstein, ZT”L have pointed out over and over again, there is no excuse for cheating the US or State governemtns out of taxes, or on government programs, nor is it permissible to cheat corporate entites such as insurance companies.

  • Orthonomics

    My original comment never posted, so I will try again.
    I might be one of the few bloggers who has the tax notes sitting on my nightstand. I would not use insularity as the description to describe the basis for this scheme, but arrogance. The sheer span, depth, and width of this scheme, which evolved as it became more widespread and there were more tracks to cover, involved perpetrators from different subgroups of the Orthodox community, from lawyers to the Spinka Rebbe himself. I believe I have enough of a background with fraud to say that insularity combined with ignorance can bring out the yetzer hara for small crimes, but arrogance combined with desperation is the brainchild behind such complicated schemes as we have been continually witnessing for at least 20 years.

    In addition, to the poster who suggested Choshen Mishapat should become standard for men and especially women, I would also like to point out that we as parents need to make sure our daughters believe they are equal partners in the financial dealings of the household. No one should sign on the line of their next 1040 without knowing where the income and where the deductions came from. Every single one of the “victimless crimes” leaves a wife and children as the victims when their families are torn apart.

  • HILLEL

    No one has addressed the problem of Government theft of taxpayer funds.

    The Orthodox Jewish community contributes millions of dolloars to the Government–Ciry, State, adn Federal. Much of this money is allocated to “education.”

    But the Government(s) then turn around and tell us Orthodox Jews that, while all children are equal in America, some are more equal than others–Jewish students are NOT entitled to the same funding as secular public school students.

    So, we Jewish parents must pay for “education” twice–once for the “public” schools, and again for our own schools.

    Our school administrators are starved for money to properly run their schools. Teachers are paid late; students are deprived of adequate services.–This is a national scandal!

    It was not always thus. Before Horace Mann started the secular wave of education in the Massachusets school system, in the late 1800′s, Government gave full aid and assistance to all religious schools. The “separation of church and state” is a very recent “constitutional” creation, by secularists whose goal it is to cripple and ultimately dismantle the religious school systems in this country.

    …And it’s working. The Catholic school system–this country’s largest parochial system–is closing schools, left and right.

    Without justifying the Rebbe’s activities, I think it is only fair to observe that the Rebbe used the money to fund his chool system, which is under enormous financial pressure, as are all parochioal school systems.

    The take-home lesson for us is that, if we want to avoid such problems in the future, we need to devote more of our community’s resources to adequately funding our intentionally-starved school systems.

    Saying Tehillim and giving lectures on morality are not enough!

  • michoel halberstam

    When Rabban Yochanan ben Zakkai told his talmididm, Y’hi ratzon shtehai morah shomayim aleychem kmorah basar vadom, (may it be the will of hashem that you fear him as much as you fear other people) was he suggesting that that is the reason for observance of mitzvos? Clearly, he was suggesting what Rabbi Ausband is suggesting, that people sometimes need additional help to keep them on the staight and narrow. This is true of all people.
    I think that the issue is not whether there are certain elements of the community that are more dishonest than others. Even if a demonstrable statistical argument can be made to support this position, it will not deal with the real issue, which is that we all need help seeing ourselves as others see us, and realizing that the opinions of others need to be acknowledged. To the extent that certain groups have made it a principal of their lifestyles that the “others” have nothing to teach us,or that they are not worth paying attention to, they run the risk of losing this barometer.
    It is important to note that the types of people who have these atiutudes change all the time. Today you may think it is the Chassidim, look around, tomorrow its just as likely to be someone else. I think that many of the respondenst here have said the same thing, but I just wanted to add ny two cents. M Halberstam

  • a k

    Nachum;

    Thank you for analysis of my comments. It is truly appreciated.

    I, actually agree with most of your comments. I acknowledge that the yetzer ha’ra within us, is not a product of the general society around. What I was trying to point out, is that neither is it a product of insularity.

    I think you would agree to that.

    My point was that while it is extremely distressing that those of us, who, by virtue of our dress, or acknowledged association with the Orthodox Jewish community, engage in totally unacceptable (legally, halachically, and most important, morally) behavior, I maintain these serious lapses exist in all segments of society.

    This does not mean that we shouldn’t engage in serious cheshbon hanefesh; I think we should take away the lesson of how precarious our moral compass is and how easy it is to fail to live up to what should be obvious standards.

    I still think that it is overly simplistic to attribute serious moral flaws to insularity.

    Orthonomics:

    Thank you for your thoughtful analysis. I think you ‘hit the nail on the head’. I think that the sheer arrogance of grand fraudulent schemes, are the common denominator that result in federal indictments.

  • Mike S.

    1) I am pleased to see that R. Adlerstein did not mean what I thought he did.

    2) Arguable means (according the the American Heritage Dictionary) “that can be argued about.”

    3) Sorry Hillel, Jewish students are entitled to the same public school education everyone else is. Any of us could send our children to the public schols for secular studies and hire m’lamdim to teach our children Torah (or do so ourselves). That most of us (myself included) choose to send our children to yeshivah or day school does not entitle us to steal from the government.

  • Mark

    “… insularity may lead to a particular ethical blind spot for white collar, “victimless” crimes and tax fraud because the values of the society are not internalized, and there is no empathy with the IRS, police, SEC, governmant bureaucrats, etc.”

    Boy – it sure is tempting to read one’s own bias’s into an incident like this one, but I’m not sure I’d want to go there. Let’s not forget that RK [the informant who participated in this scheme and MANY others] is not an insulated Hassid by any standard. If anything he’s MO or non-observant. Further more, many more people participated in this scheme who were not Hassidim as the indictments will soon show. One of my closest friends is a tax lawyer and the bulk of his clients who are in trouble with the IRS are not Hassidic in the least. Some are not Jewish and some are but cut across the entire spectrum with secular and MO very well represented unfortunately. This doesn’t mitigate the crime, but be careful before drawing conclusions about where it’s roots lie.

  • joel rich

    From the recently released Abraham’s Journey – p64(R’YBS)-”If one commits a crime and the community does not ostracize him, or if one preaches bigotry and hatred and the community does not condemn him…, then a conspiracy of silence is just as bad as a conspiracy of action. …Hilchot Melachim 9:14)”

    KT

  • Aaron

    Until a gadol says that it is assur to expand a school in communities where 3-bedroom homes exceed $300k (and therefore require two-income families to pay the mortgage), we are on financial thin ice. If frum families can’t make it on 3-4x the minimum wage, we’ve got problems.

    Innumeracy leads people to believe they can live above their means. This is in the micro (single family) and in the macro (community). A family decides not to add a room to their home because they can’t afford it. If they MUST have more space but nothing nearby is affordable, they move farther away.

    Moving rabboninim (with families) into a community where half-million-dollar mortgages are necessary (as a starter) is an excessive financial burden on baal habatim who pay the tuitions that pay the salaries. Doesn’t v’shinantam l’vanecha mean that a father should live in a community where he doesn’t have to work a second job to pay rent/mortgage/tuitions?

    Too bad there’s no “Orthodox Community” edition of the computer game SimCity to experiment with “frum urban planning”. I would pay good money to see (in aggregate, not the specific) the average math SAT scores for our black-hatted yeshivas. I think we’re cranking out financial illiterates.

    If the yeshivos aren’t generating families that can earn the rent/mortgage to live within walking distance to schools and shuls, either the yeshivos need to increase the business potential of their graduates or the yeshivos ought to move or build satellites in affordable communities. Maybe yeshivos should make a point of setting the example creating one Zevulun for every Issachar that graduates? Or do we really NOT believe that Zevulun gets a full share of Issachar’s learning? We certainly ACT as if we don’t believe it.

    If we’re relying on “miraculous infusions” of funds to survive, it’s long overdue for an audit. Our frum financial reality checks are bouncing.

  • Joseph

    “No one but the accused know whether the allegations are true, but no one can be sure that they are not.”

    We CAN be sure they are not. At least if you believe that the laws discussed in Sefer Chofetz Chaim are binding.

    “was tantamount to announcing to their children that they took certain crimes and misdemeanors lightly.”

    And where do their CHILDREN pickup the latest gossip about who is being indicted by some career advancing prosecutor? Perhaps that is the problem.

  • michoel halberstam

    One important caveat to this whole discussion: Those for whom it is important to articulate an opinion about a person’s behavior, i.e. if you are looking into a shidduch, or something similar, it may be appropriate to characterize someone’s actions as wrong or worthy of condemnation. For those who simply like feeling superior to others who may have been challenged more than they have, it is best to avoid expressing any opinion. Too may of us have found out the hard way how easy it is to do the wrong thing. Ask any criminal lawyer

  • Ori

    HILLEL and Mike S. raise a very important point. Lack of money for education provides both an incentive to steal, and a way for yetzer hara to rationalize it (“the entire world was only created for the sake of Torah, including the money I diverted to that purpose”).

    Public schools are organized by geography. If there was enough demand to open a public school in a primarily frum neighborhood it would have mostly frum students. Given how sensitive school districts are to being sued (much more sensitive then they should be, in general), the teachers would probably do their best not to offend the parents’ sensibilities.

    Would such a school, supplemented with Torah studies in the afternoon, be much worse than a private school? If I understand things correctly, the purpose of Torah study is not academic mastery, but to teach students so they will be more moral people. Learning that a teacher or principal they considered a role model is a thief forces students to re-evaluate everything they learned from that authority figure. They might conclude that stealing is OK as long as you get away with it.

    BTW, HILLEL, I support school vouchers. But until that particular battle is won, a different solution is required.

  • LOberstein

    A rich man once told me about a rabbi who would give you back 90% of your donation in cash. I asked him, “aren’t you afraid you will get in trouble?” He answered “No, this rabbi is honest, he would sit in jail before he would reveal who got refunds.” I kid you not. Talk about a perverse sense of what integrity is.
    We all have ethical blind spots and see the “mum” the blemish in others. There is such a thing as prevailing community standards and if you grow up in that environment, you think it is ok because everyone does it.

    Here in Baltimore we simply don’t do any of these illegal things in any of our institutions. Many times I have been told that we are naive out of towners who are depriving our yeshiva of money .

  • Elitzur

    Actually, the gmara says explicitly that not forcing the loveh (borrower) to sign an IOU is a violation of lifnei iver…
    I guess he wasn’t such a big talmid chacham after all…

  • Saul Mashbaum

    Toby Katz wrote:
    >>
    Nevertheless, at this point, there is little if any halachic justification for Jews to disobey American law. As long as it is a malchus shel chessed, and as long as its laws apply equally to Jews and non-Jews, we Jews should be law-abiding citizens.
    >>
    Toby Katz states two conditions for being law-abiding US citizens.
    The second priviso is the pertinent one, and is a necessary and sufficient condition for the conclusion.

    The “malchus shel chessed” proviso is irrelevant, and its inclusion is thus confusing and greatly weakens the point Toby is trying to make.

    I don’t know what exactly a “malchus shel chessed” is, but even if the US were not such a malchus, there would be an ethical and halachic imperative to obey its fairly-applied laws.

  • HILLEL

    Sorry ORI:

    Your assumption that a public school in apresominantly Jewish neighborhood will be allowed to teach Judaism is wrong.

    The “Ben-Gamla” Charter School in Broward County, Florida tried to do that. But the Atheist Enforcers from the public school establishment stopped them. See this link:

    http://www.jewishexponent.com/article/13666/

    Susan Onori, the charter-school coordinator for the Broward school board, noted that her agency rejected Ben Gamla’s original curriculum, which utilized textbooks replete with menorahs, Stars of David and other religious symbols.

    “We felt that was inappropriate for a public school,” she said, adding that the school made changes, and is now in compliance with the law.

    “The Ben Gamla school is not religious in nature at all,” stated Onori. “We do not fund public religious schools in the state of Florida.”

    Onori vowed that the school would be monitored, and have its charter revoked if it was found to be teaching Judaism.

    “They have a contract with us,” she said, “and the contract is very clear about separation of church and state.”

  • Joseph

    Saul Mashbaum, I think Mrs. Katz’s point was exactly that a malchus shel chesed is fair in implementation of its laws, and non-discriminatory towards the Jews, and hence the requirement to follow-it.

  • dovid

    HILLEL writes: Without justifying the Rebbe’s activities, I think it is only fair to observe that the Rebbe used the money to fund his school system…

    First, let the Rebbe have his day in court. News reports are just allegations.

    Second, if the allegations do turn out to be true, the use of treife money to fund yeshivos will of necessity yield treife chinuch, i.e., GIGO (garbage in, garbage out). Rabbi Yosef Dov Soloveichik personally handled the administration of the Brisker Yeshiva to make sure that the donations came only from bona fide sources. He invested a huge amount of time towards this goal because he believed that Jewish chinuch can be built only with untainted money. The goal justifying the means has no place in the Torah.

  • mycroft

    “Until a gadol says that it is assur to expand a school in communities where 3-bedroom homes exceed $300k (and therefore require two-income families to pay the mortgage), we are on financial thin ice. If frum families can’t make it on 3-4x the minimum wage, we’ve got problems”

    We have big problems-quoting from Chaim Waxman in “Flipping Out”-in 1999 the household income of American Orthodox Jews was almost identical with white Americans $42,304-in New York 52* of households had income of less than 450,000 in 2002.
    The issue of our losing people because they can’t afford Orthodoxy must be raised-it is embarrassing doesn’t serve the agendas of either MO or Chareidi Orthodxy.

  • dovid

    Mrs. Katz writes: “Polish, Russian and Hungarian Jews tend to maintain the habits that historically enabled them to survive under severely anti-Semitic regimes.”

    I will start off with an incident that took place in Monsey about 3 yrs. ago. Most readers will be able to relate similar incidents in their communities. A handicapped Jewish girl disappeared on a Friday afternoon from a home that took care a several other girls with various physical and/or mental handicaps. Police was notified and a search party was organized. It consisted of police helicopters, police personnel, and Jewish and gentile volunteers. Baruch HaShem, the girl was found unharmed. Never in the history of our Galus did the authorities of the state that we lived in extend themselves to save Jews in distress. The great majority of the Jews in your list, Mrs. Katz, were born in the USA, or arrived here at a young age. As such, they did not experience organized, systematic anti-semitism. Hence, any Jew, even Russian, Polish, or Hungarian ones that cheat the gov’t, are nothing but frauds. One should not attempt to stir sympathy in their favor or justify their deeds on account of the horrors their parents lived through.

    Hungarian Jew

  • michoel halberstam

    I thought I was finished with responding to this blog. However, I urge you to read the secular press about this incident. What has happened is that the Jewish community is now under attack for its “policy” of killing mosrim, as if we are all in some grand conspuracy to overthrow the government. There is no shortage of anti-clerical Jews who love to expose us.The next time we try to focus on being fair to the defendant, and being fair to this or that group, we should also focus on requiring all our coreligionists to be fair to us. What do you think ” Oi Lohem Labrios Me’elbona shel Torah” means?

    The problem is not what an individual did. The problem is how we are perceived to react to it as a community

  • dovid

    Gary Shulman asks: “How does this mythical family make ends meet in light of the financial demands of our society?”

    This family cannot make ends meet unless the father, who is paid double the minimum wage, works 180 hrs. a week (There are only 168 hrs. in a week.) I arrived at the 180 hrs/wk. based on an annual $150,000 salary which a yeshiva administrator stated that is the annual income which enables a Jewish family to meet tuition fee requirements, in addition to its other bills.

    My son will be going ii’h to mesifta next year. I requested application forms from a number of top-of-the-line mesiftos in the NY Metropolitan area. One of them stated upfront on the application form that the annual tuition fee is $12,600. It may include dorm, but I am not sure. It didn’t say. With tuition fees of such magnitude, I am not sure that $150,000 will be enough.

  • Dr. E

    Aaron makes some interesting observations of the cost of frum Jewish life and some systemic factors which make things more challenging. The premise is that the greater the financial pressures, the greater the Yetzer Harah. Well put. Unfortunately, in a culture where college is treif, where “Zevuluns” are viewed not much better than those “at risk”, and where headhunters are expected to magically “give a parnassa” to experience and education-challenged resumes, the situation will not get better soon.

    I really hate to see when serious issues like this degenerate into making the perpetrators into victims. The whole mesira thing has really worn out its welcome in my book. No only in this case, but to the sexual abuse phenomenon and subsequent scandals which have been on the agenda of late. If people would behave themselves and if not our community would take appropriate action, we would not even be talking about mesira.

    Spinka-gate should be taken as a wake-up call to our community to demand a greater financial openness for its schools, yeshivos, and tzedaka organizations (which have recently become “big business” if you peruse the mailboxes and social calendars). Often, finances are managed by a chosen few who know what comes in, what goes out, and to whom. And we are not only talking about scamming the government as was the case here. It’s much more than that. After all, these monies being managed are a public trust. Things are run way too “heimish” for my tastes with little accountability. Many “boards” of directors, trustees that appear on organizational letterheads are merely a facade for who really runs the institutions. Waste in operating costs, tuition breaks that are given which no one else seems to know about, and people being paid for cushy, fluff jobs are all violations this public trust. Chazal are replete with the lofty standards for Gabbai Tzedaka. They are probably worth some amount of review before giving over the car keys to some administrative leaders.

  • Ori

    To strengthen Dr. E’s point, in Parashat Pikudei (Shmot 38:24-27) there is a full accounting of the precious metals used to the make the Mishkan. I assume that nobody running a Jewish Tzdaka organization thinks s/he is more trustworthy than Moshe.