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.