Wednesday, July 26, 2006

From Nazareth To Medzhybizh To Las Vegas… at your expense

It was of utmost importance to stress, ever since the first budding of our nation, that our forefathers, prophets, leaders and rabbis - even those, an extremely rare occurrence, born with predestined greatness or superior powers - were flesh and blood, born of flesh and blood. As such it was obvious –nay, even stressed- that they were subject to the same urges, impulses, feelings and desires as everyone else. Their greatness emanated not from magic powers or charm, but from their conquering, limiting, and channelling their powers to serve G-d and the Jewish people. Therefore, it was understood that they were not infallible – and fail they did. Their failings were rare, and of extreme finesse – they were sins only compared to their own greatness. And though they were criticised only by G-d, these criticisms were made beknown to the children of Israel and engraved forever in our history. And from the generation following Moshe Rabeinu and on, criticism came from peers – prophets, judges and fellow rabbis. From the Beis of Bereshis until the last line of the Talmud, it is impossible to find even one leading figure or authority who wasn’t criticized for one reason or another. Our leaders were accountable and responsible for their words and deeds. This distinguished us from all other nations, where the kings, holy men and leaders were demigods who acted at will with no accountability.

From the Mishnaic era until the fall of the Roman Empire, Jews answered to one body of authority – the Tannaim, Amoraim, and the Reish Galusa systems. The people or communities were never led and instructed by a single leader – rather, a large group of scholars and rabbis who worked together and were interwoven with the general society. Even until the times preceding emancipation, Jews were grouped according to geographic constrains, not party affiliation. This meant that there was ample communication and collaboration, between most prominent Rabbis and community leaders. The leaders were readily accessible and reachable by the common man, and despite many halachic disagreements, had no party affiliation. The followers of Beis Hillel and Beis Shammai never refrained from intermarrying despite their disagreements. This meant that no single rabbi, or small group of leaders catered only to their own small community’s interests. All the rabbis looked after all of Klal Yisroel, or at least all Yidden living in their vicinity.

With the event of emancipation and the emergence of the Haskala movement, an urge for tighter separation and a more enclosed community emerged. Hassidism was also a major contributor to this trend, especially with its cult-like glorifying of the Rebbes and mystical aspects. Slowly, different groups of Yidden were formed, and started to segregate and distance themselves from each other, not only from the Gentiles and maskilim.

Yet never before was this tendency so strict and extreme as in our days. After the great Disaster some sixty years ago, the remnants of the Jewish people and their few great leaders undertook the near-impossible task of rebuilding of an almost extinct nation. This gigantic project wasn’t faced with few obstacles or little challenge, and yet, step-by-step, the Jewish phoenix rose again. But one unfortunate side effect was a radical fragmentation and factionalization of the Orthodox world. Not only the ideological disagreements between the three prevalent streams – Agudah, Mizrahi and Eidah Charedis, but also the different Hassidic and Yeshiva leaders caused the nation to split in different groups. With time the rift became more and more extreme, with each group catering to its own institutions and reaching the point of total estrangement, no marriage between different groups and a culture of separatism.

Hassidism bred an especially fertile ground for unfettered corruption. A crowd vastly ignorant of Jewish law and almost completely ignorant of all other matters, yet particularly meticulous about customs, clothing, the near-tribal folklore, and the legends about mythical Rebbes with supernatural powers, were extremely malleable at the hand of a single powerful and charismatic leader. As the old Hassidic song goes, „Wenn der Rebbe lacht, lachen alle Chassidim, wenn der rebbe weint, weinen alle Hassidim…“ (When the rebbe laughs, all the Hassidim laugh, when the Rebbe cries, all the Hassidim cry). In our days the song would ring more true with the lyrics “When the Rebbe doesn’t forbid theft, theft is permitted”

Unfortunately, this mentality and lifestyle have influenced the Yeshiva world and even the MO/Mizrahi communities. The advent of small, self-segregated groups strictly looking at their own advancement and interests, coupled with yeridas hadoros, lack of cooperation between rabbis and the desire to improve their image, the internal discipline and moral codes in most groups shifted more and more towards external marks and superficialities, while core principles of vital importance slowly waned and lost their objective importance. Among most such groups, behavior that is intolerable in most human societies is the norm, all the while appearing as holier than everyone else. The more isolated a group is, the less they are subject to scrutiny, the leader is not answerable to any authority, and as a consequence the unsuitable behavior becomes more and more radical and rampant.

This situation has created a climate of complete immunity to scrutiny and criticism. Many community leaders consider anything happening outside of their group totally irrelevant, and won’t address these issues. Another factor is that rebuke from someone not free of blemishes isn’t well received. Under such circumstances it was only natural that each group forms its own Beis Din. Is it any wonder that those Batei Din became quasi irrelevant? How can rabbinical courts obtain a get for a defenseless woman if it has no power and influence? How can debts be returned? If a Beis Din has zero authority outside it’s strict “jurisdiction”, how can anyone not defy them with impunity? Is such a community able -and willing- to moderate widespread deviance at all?

The recent wake of Loshon Hora awareness is vastly abused to hush painful subjects that are uncomfortable to hear. But as the Chofetz Chaim points out, loshon hora is the product of sinas chinom. A father who loves his son does everything to keep his son in the right path. When we see a Rebbe build a $4 million shul – especially when he already had an absolutely good one- yet sends his Hassidim who need a kidney transplant to knock on our doors, we should know that something is very, very wrong with us. When members of groups who’s largest source of income are our tax dollars, for the most part fraudulently obtained, who despise us, who wouldn’t make shidduch with us because the shape of our hats, yet come to schnorr in our shuls - isn’t providing them with “charity” a tacit seal of approval and encouragement to their despicable behavior? Isn’t closing our eyes to the widespread phenomenon of Hassidim – our brothers - spending their welfare checks and HUD-Sec.8 income in casinos and houses of ill repute, at least as great a Chilul Hashem as the act itself? If we refuse to acknowledge these problems –and, unfortunately, much more- and act upon them, we become full-fledged accomplices. Raising these unfortunate, and uncomfortable, issues is not sinas chinom.

Sinas chinom is looking the other way.

© Joseph Izrael 2006


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