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Should We Judge Judaism By the Jews?

on Friday, November 22 2013. Posted by Rabbi Efrem Goldberg

Should We Judge Judaism By the Jews?

This week brought the latest in the string of scandals among so-called Orthodox Rabbis.  The former Chief Rabbi of the State of Israel was arrested for committing fraud, bribery, money laundering, breach of trust, witness tampering, and obstruction of justice.  A few days later, a Chassidic Rebbe from Yerushalayim was arrested in New York for not revealing on his visa application that he had previously been convicted for abusing a child relative.

As I have written about in the past (http://rabbisblog.brsonline.org/state-of-the-rabbinate/), one can’t help but read these stories and wonder if there are any Rabbis left worth admiring and holding in high esteem, or whether it is only a matter of time before their skeletons come out of the closet.  Some have a tendency to learn about these individuals and to lose their faith in leadership and religious personalities altogether.

In watching the reaction on social media and blogs to the latest revelations, it seems to me the most dangerous and, frankly, self-damaging response is sarcasm.  One person linked to the story of the Chief Rabbi on Facebook with the comment, “But he has a white beard and learns.”  Another wrote, “but at least he wears a black hat.”  Just because someone who happens to have a beard or wears a hat turns out to be a corrupt, dishonest crook, doesn’t mean that these religious traditions are meaningless, or that all who follow them are likely criminals as well.  To cynically draw either conclusion is unfair to others and serves as a tremendous obstacle to religious growth for the one who says it.

Human beings are and have always been imperfect, and vulnerable to temptation.  Great individuals, too, are not immune to struggling and wrestling with their inclinations and urges.  In fact, the Gemara teaches us that ha’gadol mei’chaveiro, yitzro gadol hei’menu, the greater a person is, the greater the inclination he must struggle with.  All people are still human and rabbis, too, are susceptible to judgment being impaired and character becoming corrupt.

Frankly, while disappointing and deeply disturbing, we should not be surprised that these scandals occur.  The truth is, the likelihood is that they have always occurred throughout our history, but most people simply didn’t hear about it or find out the details.  Today, with the proliferation of the internet, blogs and social media, news travels fast and the more scandalous and salacious the information, the faster and more widespread it travels.  In some ways the advent of these media allow corruption to be exposed and injustices to be held accountable and for that it is an important tool.  However, to the extent it is a platform to gossip, lament, gloat, blame or excuse, it is dangerous and destructive.

To be clear, there is no excuse or justification for people in positions of influence and leadership who are corrupt, dishonest, or abusive.  They must be held accountable and there must be consequences for their poor judgment and poor character.  However, to draw generalizations or perpetuate stereotypes of all religious people, or people who have a similar appearance, is destructive, divisive and most of all, damaging to one’s self.

The worst response to rabbinic scandal is to allow cynicism to disturb our own personal observance or religious ambition.  There seems to be a tendency to point to the rabbinic scandal and use it as a justification and excuse for laxity in observance.  It is tempting to see the hypocrisy and duplicity of supposedly observant individuals and cynically conclude that Torah and its values are not in fact authentic, binding, or valuable.  Those who have already abandoned observance or a religious lifestyle for different reasons altogether will often revel in a frum scandal and gleefully and gloatingly bring the scandal as evidence for the ineffectiveness and inauthenticity of a rigorous religious life.

Such reactions are foolish and self-destructive.  Imagine you go to the gym to exercise and work out because you are determined to improve your health and physical well-being.  You then discover some of the people that you most admired and looked up to for their commitment to healthy living eating donuts and cake.   Even if you discovered your trainer himself, the role model and teacher of proper nutrition, eating unhealthily, it would be foolish to declare, “That’s it, I am done working out and eating right.  This whole thing is a sham and pointless.”  A much more appropriate and productive reaction would be to find a new gym, hire a new trainer, and surround yourself with people who are committed, consistent, and genuine.

Judaism is the framework for us to pursue spiritual and emotional wellbeing.   The Shul is our spiritual gym and our rabbis and teachers are our trainers.  It would be foolish upon learning of their hypocrisy to declare that spiritual wellbeing is itself meaningless and Torah must not be the authentic mechanism to achieve it.  Instead, we should find a shul and rabbis and teachers who are consistent, genuine, and dependable.  The Navi Malachi (2:7) says, “Ki sifsei Kohen yishmeru daas v’Torah yevakshu mipihu, ki Malach Hashem tzivakos hu.” The gemara learns that if your Rebbi is like a Malach Hashem, an angel of God, then you should learn from him, but if he is not like angel, you should not seek to learn from him.

We should specifically participate in a minyan and community of those truly working on themselves to achieve the desired spiritual results and that are not ‘cheating’ when they are out of the spiritual gym.  At the same time, we must recognize that nobody is perfect and when we encounter those who disappoint us with their behavior, we must not use it as an excuse to lose our inspiration or to stop frequenting the “gym.”

Perhaps there is nobody in our history who was more entitled to walk away from Judaism than Yosef Ha’Tzadik.  Think about it.  Yosef was raised with his brothers in his father’s home.  Together, they learned about ethical monotheism and moral living from their father Yaakov and from their grandfather Yitzchak.  These brothers were to be the transmitters of a sacred tradition that would contain God’s plan for the world.  And what did these brothers do?  They threw him in a pit and ultimately sold him into slavery.

Living in Egypt, Yosef would have been entirely entitled to say, “My brothers’ behavior was scandalous, hypocritical, and disgraceful.  They are supposed to stand for this new philosophy and improved worldview called Judaism., and look how they behaved  Forget about it, I want absolutely nothing to do with this.”  It would be perfectly understandable for Yosef to fully embrace and assimilate into the Egyptian lifestyle and way of thinking and to abandon the experiment of his father, grandfather, and great-grandfather.

But Yosef doesn’t walk away just because he is disappointed by the behavior of those he trusted and admired.  He saw the benefit and truth of a life committed to God and His values, regardless of whether the other supposed adherents were in fact consistent and reliable or not, and so must we.

It has often been said, “Don’t judge Judaism by the Jews.”  This statement is only partially true.  Of course we can’t help but react when we are either impressed or disappointed by fellow Jews.  Their and our behavior speaks volumes about the efficacy of Torah in shaping us to be good, moral, kind and religious people.  Judaism and God are very much judged by the Jews and how we behave, and that is an awesome responsibility.

However, at the same time, we cannot allow the scandals in the “frum” community to influence our religious identity and growth.  Like Yosef Ha’Tzadik, we are best served by embracing the truth and the Torah, despite, not because of some of its other so called adherents.

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