Another Stumble

       “In short, there is no crisis; there is only…life, people and human frailty. The nostalgia for the perfect world of the past, where all Jews, especially Rabbis, were decent, honest, ethical and upright, is a fantasy, and a dangerous fantasy. Human nature remains human nature, and as a people we are defined by the majority, not by the exceptions, even if the exceptions grab the media spotlight. And the majority of religious Jews – and Rabbis – are decent, honest, ethical and upright people, and even among the accused wrongdoers, the overwhelming majority of their actions also reflect the values that they profess.” I wrote that last August in response to a number of scandals in Jewish life, and once again it is, sadly, timely. (…xy-perhaps-not/).

     News reports have revealed the lurid details of a Monsey Rabbi who allegedly abused his position as prominent converter of non-Jews to take advantage of the women who came into his orbit. Until last week, the individual in question headed a right-wing Orthodox agency called Eternal Jewish Family (endorsed by many Gedolei Torah across the world) that was created ostensibly to foster universally-acceptable standards for conversion to Judaism. I do hope that allegedly trading sexual favors for conversion are not the “universally-acceptable standards” he, or the organization, had in mind.

     This is no attempt to glorify myself or anyone else at the expense of the perpetrator. Anyone mature enough to understand human nature will recognize that what distinguishes people are not the desires or tendencies that we have but only our ability to control them, and to pursue them licitly. What varies from person to person is the level of self-control we maintain. What moves me to write is that the Chilul Hashem is, again, breath-taking, and “in the place where there is desecration of G-d’s name we do not defer to the honor ordinarily due Rabbis.” It is simultaneously embarrassing to the Jewish community but not shocking, another brutal reminder that “there is no guardian against sexual immorality.” Any person can succumb, and the Talmud itself has a number of cases to prove the point, wherein chaste, virtuous people succumbed, or nearly succumbed, to this passion. Elmer Gantry rides again. In the last fifteen years, such miscreants have emerged from the left, center and right wings of Orthodoxy (and from the non-Orthodox movement, and from the non-Jewish world), putting the lie to the perception of many in each group that their particular wing is the repository of all virtue and goodness and all others the domicile of the impure and the promiscuous. There is good and less-than-good in each group.

    What makes this case especially egregious was that the alleged offender in question was instrumental in stirring up the “conversion” tumult that has rocked America and Israel in the last few years – questioning past conversions, besmirching or belittling current Batei Din, and generally sending shock waves throughout the system that have not yet died down. I do not know the individual but have met him; I even participated – at his invitation – at an EJF convention that I found to be both over-hyped and underwhelming. It was much ado about very little, and at one kind-hearted and well-meaning person’s expense flew in Rabbis from all over the world (including myself) to a luxury hotel to hear restatements of the obvious in both obvious and quasi-threatening ways. I serve on the Bet Din L’Giyur of Bergen County, faithful and successful adherents to the GPS guidelines promulgated by the Rabbinical Council of America and the Beth Din of America. The thought of using the conversion process in order to obtain money or other favors is abhorrent, as despicable as preying on people who are spiritual searchers and therefore somewhat vulnerable to the charms of their teacher or mentor. In these matters, self-control should be a prerequisite, an absolute.

     There are some important general lessons to be derived from this mess. I am always suspicious of people who rail against the failings of others, and by name, and who make every dispute (I mean, EVERY dispute) personal. The Talmud (Kiddushin 70b) said wisely that, generally speaking, “he who delegitimizes others does so with something illegitimate about himself.” People stigmatize others with their own blemishes –perhaps to avoid exposure themselves, perhaps in an effort to deal with the internal conflict and guilt they must feel. Readers know that I have strong feelings on a variety of issues (like EVERY issue) but I try never to personalize the dispute, but rather to disagree forcefully but agreeably. Just because someone disagrees with me does not necessarily mean they are wrong, and even someone who is wrong is not necessarily a bad person. People should never to be defined by one issue, position, or deed, I always assume that the motivations of my antagonists are sincere, and there is much good in them that transcends our areas of disagreement. I wish that were the norm in religious life.

      Those who obsess over the failings of any particular wing in Orthodoxy (or, for that matter, Jews generally) should recognize how little these intramural wars of the Jews matter to our enemies. Perhaps they should matter less to us as well. I am often stunned by the vituperative reactions in each group – left, right and center – to any criticism, and the glee that erupts when they find new ammunition to fire at their foes who are, after all, their brothers and sisters. We should rise above that.

       One other question intrigues: the individual in question had the ear (and support) of Gedolim throughout the world. How is it possible that they were fooled, that – even if the allegations are false – they did not reckon with the reality that such allegations could be raised against this person? After all, these are the great leaders and thinkers of our time.

     This is confirmation of something that I have witnessed myself over the years. Gedolei Torah – and most Rabbis – are incapable of recognizing true evil and hypocrisy. Call it the “Yitzchak Avinu and Esav Syndrome.” I have been in the presence of Gedolim, and they live on a plane of purity and saintliness where such incidents – while theoretically possible; after all, the Tanach is filled with stories of the foibles of great people – are not considered practical possibilities. Most never encounter salaciousness, degradation, and the dark side of man. (Fortunately – or unfortunately – I worked as a criminal defense lawyer for 13 years, and so I am permanently spared of such illusions.) To see this alleged scoundrel in the company of great people – even some who guided him and supported him – is not to see their failings but, paradoxically, to see their greatness. Certainly they can – and do – err, and certainly they should do their due diligence in these matters as best as possible, but the bottom line is this type of misconduct is not part of their world view. They know on some level that it exists, but it is as real to them as the prospect of eating a cheeseburger on Yom Kippur. In the long run perhaps they are better off, even if there is price that is occasionally paid for this propriety.

     As I concluded in August: “So let us not rationalize nefarious conduct – but let us also not be naïve about human nature or simplistic about the Torah’s commandments. Let us continue to demand of ourselves the highest standards of fidelity to G-d’s law… The Torah is perfect; no one ever claimed all of its practitioners were also perfect. Rather than cast aspersions on others and make sweeping and smug generalizations, we should instead look in the mirror and confront our own failings…  And then we will truly become servants of G-d, a nation renowned for its virtue and piety, and a people worthy of redemption.”

10 responses to “Another Stumble

  1. I enjoy your writings, as a fellow lawyer and (non-practicing) rabbi. I appreciate this post as well, and agree with all of it – except the last three paragraphs. The answer to your question -how can the Gedolim miss this? – is simply that the premise of the question is mistaken. That is to say, the very concept of “Gedolim” is illusory.

    Your question only begins if one attributes some sort of super ability to men known as “Gedolim.” You can then ask how its possible such men, with their super abilities, didnt pick up on the “open and notorious” problems with Tropper and his organization. I wont belabor the post with a dissertation on the subject, but suffice to say, many of us dont share the same viewpoint about men others refer to as “Gedoilim”. Thus, it’s no burning question as to how they missed the signals: they made a big mistake, as they – just like all of us – have made big mistakes before. They are no different than you and me.

    • Well, they are different than you and me. Human, to be sure, but on a different plane of existence. That usually is an advantage – and sometimes not. They can have misjudgments. I do believe they will be fewer than others, and, unfortunately, quite noticeable when they happen.

  2. Rabbi Pruzansky, thank you for this most enlightening article. Where are the voices of these gedolim now condemning the actions of this man who they gleefully referred to as “HaGaon”? Why was there no outcry from these same gedolim when he was going around the world causing such great pain to geirim? I maintain that he is more dangerous now than he was in his position where he could have easily been dismissed. Now the EJF will take the flawed framework that he put in place and continue to use it to denigrate geirim throughout the world and cause them further pain be uprooting the geirus of valid geirim (as they all but stated they would do in their press release).

  3. I think you have very eloquently put an appropriate frame on this mess. Thank you for providing a bit of clarity in what has otherwise become a very muddled discussion of the ongoing scandal and investigation.

  4. Your point about gedolim not being able to sense such duplicity and disregard for torah values is disturbing. How can we trust our leaders if they are so far removed from the ability to sense the reality of the world they and their communities live in? And if they are such gedolim, then how are they able to make such poor judgments based on the duplicity of their advisers? Does this not call the whole institution of ‘gadlus’ into serious question?

    • Read my comment above.
      I do believe they have a keener insight than others. When they err, it is usually because they do not have all the facts. The “filters” who provide them with information are sometimes flawed themselves. Decisions are only as good as the data used to make them; when the data is flawed, the decisions will be as well. And it is certainly possible than they can have all the facts and still err, in a misjudgment. So can doctors, lawyers, teachers, etc. – and yet we would not reject those disciplines.
      Even an exceptional human being is still a human being.

  5. Thank you for your post. As a Jew who tries to be Shomer Torah v’mitzvos, this has been a very upsetting affair.

    You are providing chizuk and guidance for us.

  6. Actions speak louder than words, and yarmulkas and TzitTzit worn outside.

  7. Re “Yitzchak Avinu and Esav Syndrome”, R’ Chaim Volozhiner disagrees. In Nefesh Hachaim he makes the point that any talmid chacham studying “migo” (for example) must be able to put himself in the position of an evil person and figure out what lies and deceptions are possible in a given situation.

  8. I think you make my point. A talmid chacham can “put himself in the position of an evil person” – in a case of “migo” – by trying to mimic the thought-pattern of a rasha. But that is an intellectual exercise, and not the same as the actual experience.
    It reminds me of the anecdote of the Rebbe who was quite proficient in teaching Yoreh Deah, but did not recognize an animal lung when it was presented to him at his shtender.
    Theory and reality are not always the same.
    Lest people be confused – when I wrote of the “Yitzchak Avinu and Esav Syndrome,” I meant to praise the gedolim, not to criticize them. There is a value in being other-worldly, even if occasionally there are drawbacks.