Monday, July 31, 2006

Tyranny And Mutation: When Tolerance Is Intolerance

I would remind you that extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice. And let me remind you also that moderation in the pursuit of justice is no virtue.
-Barry Goldwater

We are well into the days of foregoing the osso buco in favor of fettuccine con alfredo, when the ancient miracle of the Bais Mikdosh, “Omdim tsfufim umishtachvim revuchim” repeats itself in kosher pizza parlors, and the tenor of Reb Yeedle Verdyger is replaced by irritating clapping, banging and barking from every CD-player branded with the prestigious stamp of revered Kosher cetrifications.

Only one thing goes unchanged: our steadfast conviction that everyone not belonging to our clan is either a certified sheigets, a fanatical extremist, or both. In either case, it’s people like them who caused the destruction of the Bais Mikdosh, and it’s because of them that I’m not allowed to take a good hot sauna in a luxurious SPA. And to think that I have to endure this torture punkt when the kids are out of school! A shande, mamesh a shande!

But the kids may be better off out of school. After all, imagine the embarrassment of a rebbe if he were to be confronted with an unruly five-years-old’s innocent question of what exactly is sinas chinom? For it sure cannot be the indoctrination of such youngsters with proper identification of kosher Yidden and treif Yidden, can it?

And since we are already big kids, responsible and reasonable, and we all know well that it isn’t right to relate to our brethren according to hat shape and hairstyle, -exactly the way we do-, we shall actually ask the question: what exactly is sinas chinom? For among the scores of halachic terms that are discussed and disseminated and investigated at length, the aforementioned kleinekeit somehow fell between the cracks. Not Chas VeSholem trying in the least to insinuate that the subject isn’t getting enough attention, -it’s being plenty lectured about- it’s just never really defined, and so the practical implementation remains rather vague.

The gemore in Yuma (8 A) mentions that the Second Temple was destroyed because of Sinas Chinom. The Gemore in Gittin 55/56 elaborates a little more, and tells the story of Kamtza and Bar-Kamtza, two people who constantly fought each other; one was mistakenly invited to the other’s celebration and thrown out despite the presence of prominent rabbis, who remained silent. He then took revenge by bringing a slightly blemished altar offering from the Roman Emperor, which he knew wouldn’t be accepted. The rabbis then started to deliberate about the course of action: either accept the offering in spite of the blemish, or bring down the traitor. Rabbi Zecharia Ben Avkolas objected to both solutions, and Bar Kamtza indeed reported to the authorities, who burnt the city in revenge. But the truly amazing thing is, that in sharp contrast with the story’s opening line that “The temple was destroyed because of sinas chinom”, it is concluded with “Rabbi Yochanan said: the humility of Rabbi Zecharia Ben Avkolas has burnt our city and destroyed our temple”. So which one is it that actually caused the destruction?
We can look at another incident that occurred a few hundred years earlier, when Gedalia Ben Achikam refused to take heed to the accusations against Ishmael Ben Nesania, and was indeed murdered by him as a result.

It seems that this tendency to prefer righteousness in the immediate, simplistic sense, at the community’s detriment, is in itself a form of sinas chinom all too common in most Orthodox circles.

So while mourning the lamb rosemary between the pasta primavera con pesto and the vanilla fudge, we shall ensure to omit from our nine-days recipe any thought about how our children are educated in our schools, and why kids as young as five are experts on all the latest developments in each Hassidic court, which dress apparel indicates a “sheine yid” and which one doesn’t. While we invest untold amounts of money, blood, sweat and tears to establish new yeshivas, schools, mikvahs and so on, we are reluctant to educate ourselves on basic decency, honesty, - plain mentschkeit. While we take great care to examine each leaf of lettuce for bugs, we refuse to see the bugs in our midst. For rather than having a bug with the neighboring kehilla we conveniently look the other way and pat ourselves on the shoulder for our wonderful mosdos.
Unfortunately, it is exactly this behavior that bred the most vile, pervert, degenerate and repulsive tendencies in far too many communities. That man is vulnerable, weak and prone to fail is well-known; that is why we have the Torah and leaders. But when entire communities accept, adopt and abet this kind of behavior, we become Sdom and Amora.

Because each group wants to be independently organized, they all have their own institutions (Yeshivas, shuls, girls’ schools, mikvahs, kollelim etc.) The amount of tax-exempt properties and institutions relying on government-funds rise, while tax-generating properties decrease. Taxes rise, tuitions rise, and ehrilche yidden collapse.

Fraud, embezzlement, fiscal misconduct, deceptive accounting practices are ubiquitous in far too many orthodox establishments. The fact that the situation is similar in secular establishments is no excuse, not to mention the chilul hashem that is created and what it reflects on Orthodox Judaism.

Entire towns and villages live off a wide array of social services, many men don’t work, the businesses employ illegal immigrants instead of providing jobs to dropouts, families are larger than they possibly can afford and educate, while their children are outfitted with $300 apparels apiece, late-model cars and fancy houses are standard. When is the last time a rabbi explained that it is impossible –and forbidden- to have it both ways: not to work, having thirteen children and spending more dishonestly acquired money than one has?! When is the last time since the halahic status of fraudulently acquiring government funds has been discussed? Did anyone bother to clarify whether widespread and calculated reliance on those entitlements - coming out of our pockets – are considered moiser momon Yisroel b’yad Akum?

The groups most involved in such activities are also the most adverse to others – viewing them almost as non-jews, yet they come for donations in the communities whom they describe as “rashaim”, “treif” and “shkotzim”. And those communities, with naïve benevolence or other reasons, by contributing to their “charities” (read: ”hacnosa kala”) are encouraging this behavior and become accomplices.

Although some groups apparently cannot control fraud, embezzlement, welfare abuse, domestic abuse, inappropriate behavior, divorces and agunahs, they seem to have full control over family growth. Couples keep reproducing despite the fact that they can’t, and don’t want to cope with their children mentally, physically and fiscally. Two direct results are inappropriate education and an out of proportion rate of mentally ill children, especially in communities that promote cretinism. In turn, proper glatt-kosher frum institutions are built, as a mentally ill child would no doubt disrupt the harmony of a sixteen-child strong family. Besides, if the government hands out extra money for such noble purposes, why not benefit from it, especially since the CEO who can’t speak a proper English sentence makes a six-figure salary in the process?

When NYC cops were viciously attacked by a savage mob of promoters of the “obvious and well known halocha” prohibiting rebellion against other nations, Molotov cocktails were thrown, police cars damaged and fires lit in the streets. Yet not one condemnation by the rabbis was heard, not a peep in the frum media.

Is this your idea of “mamleches kohanim vegoy kodosh”???

If you believe that it is possible to destroy, you must believe it is possible to repair, to paraphrase rabbi Nachman of Breslov. It is not easy, but it is possible. Acknowledging the problem is half the solution, or so the saying goes. We first must stop burying our heads in the sand. Then we must stop the Jihad-style education for hatred. The honest and pious people who learn Torah in simplicity, and earn an honest living should be touted as our ‘national heroes’. There are plenty of examples, such as the Monsey bike repairman who learns most of the day and is an accomplished scholar. Or the eloquent speaker-rabbi who owns a small store, and learns every free minute. Or the rabbi who lives in a small basement, in greater poverty than his poorest kollel student. Many educational institutions must be consolidated and provide adequate attention to students at all levels. The shidduch-craze must stop as well. We must start loving each other again – and not only in times of dire.
If we work together, instead of against each other, we may find more and better solutions. Unity is the key, and unity is possible.

We just have to open our minds – and practice what we preach.

© Joseph Izrael 2006

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

Sunday, July 23, 2006

Perfect Strangers

…and Israel encamped before the mount: as one man with one heart - Rashi.
…whither you go, I will go; and where thou lodge, I will lodge;
your people shall be my people, and your G-d my G-d;
Where you die, will I die, and there will I be buried;
Hashem do so to me, and more if aught but death part you and me.

- Ruth 1, 16-17

I am returning the echo of a point in time
And if you hear me talking on the wind
You've got to understand
We must remain
Perfect Strangers

- Deep Purple, “Perfect Strangers”, 1984

The unity of the Jewish people, the prohibition of sinas chinom, the notion of Ahavas Yisroel are not only of utter importance, but also the most essential tenets and principles of Judaism. As a matter of fact they are even a condition for Hashem’s blessing and the prosperity of Klal Yisroel. So why do we, along with our rabbis and leaders, adhere to the lyrics of Deep Purple more than the words of the Torah? Why do we seem to learn our lessons from a drunken rock-star and not Ruth? No truth? Then why is it that our nation, maybe the smallest on earth, is torn and divided into different groups who won’t even consider intermarrying, sending their children to the same schools, follow one leadership, and relate to each other as members of the same nation.

Though the schism is immediately evident to the honest observer, the good-natured ostrich who refuses to see, hear or speak any evil will easily fool himself that because we occasionally daven in each other’s shuls, shop in the same supermarkets (albeit we won’t Chas VeShalom accept the same hechshers) and sometimes attend the same shiur, we are as united as can be, and Moshiach (the real one) is literally at the door. It is interesting to note that our ostrich might well be a distinguished scholar who is able to disseminate the most intricate Tosfosen, rishonim and acharonim for many hours, yet fools himself with the aforementioned superficialities.

But if we would apply only a small percentage of the analytical skills required to understand even a simple Tosfos to what we see in our daily life, we would ask ourselves the simple kushia: how come that while the greatest theology scholars haven’t yet discovered the real difference between Hassidim and Misnagdim, let alone two different Hassiduses, we would be offended and appalled by the simple suggestion that, for example, my son Yanky should enroll in cheder X – they wear long jackets!!! Shocking!!! But it is an absolute taboo question, since an honest answer to this question would involve lifting The Magic Rug, -yes, that magic rug- under which four generations of problems were constantly swept.

And that is exactly what we are going to do. We will not do it because the time has come. We will not do it because many people are disgruntled with our leadership –at one level or another – and are becoming aware of the problem. We will not do it because today it is easier than ever, and neither will we do it because many yidden from all groups are more receptive to the idea. We will do it for the single reason that doing it is the right thing to do and not doing it is the wrong thing to do.

Now, you wonder, Achdus, Unity, Ahavas Yisroel – that’s all good and well, but it is impossible to solve the problem until Moshiach comes, and besides, what does it have to do with myriads of other ills ailing our society? Quite simple: a self-segregated group under narrow leadership is naturally immune to outside scrutiny and criticism. When adversity to criticism is an integral part of that society, it is virtually free to function with no reins other than the rules it sets for itself. In other words, this means that you can be expelled –or shunned and harassed until self-expulsion- from the village of Kiryas Joel for wearing a blue shirt or expressing some views of solidarity with Israel, yet child abuse, racketeering, welfare fraud and adultery are accepted as the norm. As far as they are concerned, these things just don’t exist. An honest man from a different group is lower than dirt, and the mere thought of a shidduch with him unconceivable, yet a thief or child-rapist from his party is perfectly fine. And every single faction and sub-faction of Orthodox Judaism (yes, including the Modern Orthodox and Mizrahi) is full of these destructive idiosyncrasies.

And so, in tacit complicity we all let each other get away with the most vile and despicable actions while pretending that the greatest problems facing our generation are the internet, lack of support for Zionism or too much of it, or not wearing a hat for shul. This separatism is the source of most our problems, and only unity can solve them. And although I don’t expect Skver hassidim and Teaneck Mizrahis to start intermarrying tomorrow, I would like to kindly remind them that no matter what they do, they are brothers, and accountable for each other’s actions nearly as much as for their own. To the Gentiles –and to G-d- a Jew is a Jew is a Jew, period. Whether you live in East Brunswick or Kiryas Joel is completely irrelevant. So when a tremendous chilul hashem occurs and you look the other way because it didn’t happen in your shtetl, you are as accountable for it as its perpetrators.

And while you’re waiting for Moshiach to address these issues, please take a moment to remember that no matter what hecsher you eat, what nussach you daven, what hat, yarmulka, pants and tallis you wear, you and the guy whom you shun and despise for belonging to a different ‘team’ can be made into totally identical lampshades.

© Joseph Izrael 2006