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Blood Libel

      In what sounds like a blast from the 18th century, a Swedish journalist in a Swedish magazine published last week the bizarre allegations that Israeli soldiers routinely kill Palestinian Arabs in order to harvest their organs – even citing the recent case in Brooklyn in which a “religious” Jew stands accused of selling organs (and at a profit of 1600%). Given the number of times that brain-dead Israeli victims of Arab terror donated their organs to save Arab lives, this is a particularly despicable blood libel.

The Swedish allegations are based exclusively on the “eyewitness” testimony of local Arabs, who have never been known either for their keen connection to reality or an acute sense of integrity (see under “Jenin Massacre” and several dozen other outright falsifications). No other evidence was adduced, and even the reporter subsequently stated that he doubts the veracity of what he wrote. But he wrote it, and although the Swedish Ambassador to Israel properly apologized, the magazine has refused to retract and the Swedish government refuses to apologize for, or even criticize, the report, citing the cherished Swedish value of “freedom of expression.”

     That would sound like a principled stand, but for two reasons: firstly, “freedom of expression” certainly allows for critiques, renunciations or denunciations of other expressions – that itself is part of the freedom. They could well have said that he has a right to print what he wants, but we repudiate this Jew-hating drivel because it is wholly fictitious. They did not.

     Secondly, and more tellingly, when a Danish cartoonist published caricatures of Mohammed in 2005, thereby provoking murderous riots from easily-provoked Muslims, the same Swedish government that now wraps its sanctimony in “freedom of expression” led the world in apologizing to and genuflecting before the Muslim world for this offense to the peaceful religion of Islam and pledging its future vigilance against any further offenses of this nature. (Hmm… didn’t the Danish cartoonist also have rights of free expression ? Indeed, the concurrent shame to the pusillanimous Swedes is the cowardice of Yale University Press, which is refusing to publish a book on the Danish cartoon controversy because the author insists, naturally and reasonably, that a scholarly account of that affair should include the cartoons themselves so the reader can judge whether they indeed offend.) So why were the Swedes so craven to the Muslims and so dismissive of the Jews ?

     The simple answer is: Jews do not riot, would not attack Swedish embassies across the world, will not issue fatwas calling for the death of the author and anyone who has ever dined with him, and will not explode themselves in the presence of innocents. The same cannot be same of Muslims, suggesting a macabre paraphrase of the old saw that “the squeaky wheel gets the grease,” or more accurately stated in this context, “the more volatile religion gets the apology.”

    But there is more to the Swedish hypocrisy than appears at first glance. For Sweden to apologize would require that Sweden actually respect the sovereignty and integrity of the Jewish state. Clearly, they do not, nor do they see any down side in refusing the Israeli demand for a formal apology.

     But why should Sweden show Israel any respect, when Israel – by any standard definition of statecraft – continually evinces a lack of any self-respect ? Israel has been maneuvered into a situation – partly through its own mismanagement – in which the conventional wisdom is that the “settlements” are obstacles to peace and the only remaining impediment to peace. Israel has countenanced this attack on its sovereignty and historic/religious claims to its land, and even fostered it under recent governments. It certainly has not told the world (read: the United States and Europe) to butt out of its internal affairs, nor has it railed against the obvious injustice which precludes Jews from living in a historically Jewish territory – in a land named by it and for it (Judea) simply because they are Jews.         

      International respect needs to be earned, or rights are easily trampled   and sensitivities brushed aside. President Obama’s speech in Cairo, critiqued here (rabbipruzansky.com/category/current-eventspage/3/) referenced the Holocaust as the sole reason for Israel’s existence, offending many Jews (including me). But how does that square with Israel’s obsession in taking every foreign visitor to Yad Vashem ? Does not that foster the same conclusion that Obama came to – that the Holocaust is Israel’s raison d’être, and if all the Jews care about is security, then outsiders can send Marines, Mounties, bobbies and (in PM Rabin’s formula) the Palestinian Authority police to guarantee Israel’s security, and then peace will break out ? That lack of self-respect evokes a lack of mutual respect from other nations. A nation that negotiates with foreign governments its rights to its own land and its own legitimacy, and/or a nation that is hesitant to allow its own citizens to live on land it conquered warding off the aggression of its sworn enemies and begs, cajoles, or pleads for a crumb of respect, and/or a nation that cannot or will not say “no” when its vital interests are endangered, will not deserve even that.

     So the Swedes are the Swedes – but we can only expect the same measure of dignity from others that we have for ourselves. Jews, thankfully, will not blow ourselves up just to make a point; but we can insist that those who represent Jews – in Israel and in America – speak with Jewish knowledge, commitment, pride and resolve. Perhaps some of the nations will then fear us, as the Torah promised, but all of them will respect us.

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Modiin Journal #3 – Gridlock

This entry also dates from my mini-sabbatical in Israel two years ago, which was also a sabbatical year (2007-2008). It is still timely !

     If living in Israel is complicated and eating in Israel is more complicated, then eating in Israel during a Shmitta year is almost an impenetrable maze. In general, the multitude of local Rabbinates, many with standards of Kashrut than are unacceptable to one accustomed to RCBC or OU standards, make kashrut (and shopping or eating out) a treacherous minefield. It is not merely a question of glatt vs. non-glatt; there are even different standards of glatt, different standards of mehadrin – and even a familiarity with Yoreh Deah is not always conclusive. But shmitta adds a dimension that exalts life here – with a constant reminder of the sanctity of the land of Israel – and also confounds, mystifies and bewilders.

First, the good news. The fundamental obligation of Shmitta is to allow one’s land to lie fallow – not to do any work that does more than maintain the land for future use. We administer a small plot of land outside our home, roughly half the size of a basketball foul lane, and I hate gardening. In fact, I am willing to let my land lie fallow for this entire year and for the next six years as well (on the small chance that they have the wrong date for Shmitta). So I have found that aspect of Shmitta to be one of the easier mitzvot in the Torah to fulfill.

But one has to eat too, and therein lay the perplexities. The Torah declares a moratorium on private ownership of the land of Israel every seven years. Theoretically, any person is entitled to walk onto a field and grab enough produce for a day’s meal. On a practical level, two issues arise relating to fruits, vegetables and other produce: first, they have to be treated with Kedushat Shvi’it (meaning consumed in their usual way and not squandered or thrown in the trash). Every shmitta observant home contains a special receptacle to store peels and leftover produce until they decay, at which point they can be discarded. Of course, there is a special significance in consuming Peirot Shvi’it properly, as it is a mitzva in its own right and affords an additional awareness of what it means to be dwelling in a holy and blessed land.

The second issue, though, is where the majority of complications set in: it is forbidden to commercially sell Peirot Shvi’it. So, in a modern economy, how can the producer get the product to the consumer in a way that does not violate the laws of Shmitta ? On this point, there is no agreement, much disagreement (some of it vehement), and whatever method one chooses attracts both support and opposition.

There are three main methods: to purchase produce from an Otzar Bet Din, to purchase what is called Yevul Nochri (non-Jewish produce, either Arab or European), or rely on the famous Heter Mechira, the “sale” of the land to Arabs in order to allow Jewish workers to work their fields (slightly differently than in the other years) and then sell their produce to Jews.

The Otzar Bet Din is, by far, the preferred arrangement. Effectively, a communal body assumes control of Jewish fields and their produce, pays the farmers a sum of money to do the work on behalf of the Bet Din, and then sells the produce – proceeds to the Bet Din – at certain designated stores. This process is mentioned in a Tosefta, and was endorsed by the Chazon Ish, thereby carrying a lot of weight in these parts. But the Rambam doesn’t cite this as a halachic possibility, many authorities don’t accept it, and many farmers (probably for financial reasons) do not wish to be part of the Otzar Bet Din system.

Non-Jewish produce poses the fewest halachic problems, especially if it comes from outside the land of Israel entirely. (The Chazon Ish, for example, ruled that even Arab-owned produce in the land of Israel has to be treated with Kedushat Shvii’it.) But the notion of buying produce from Arabs does not sit well with many people, it is especially abhorrent and repugnant to purchase it from the new “owners” of the hothouses of the former Gush Katif (at least the ones they didn’t ransack), and it is widely assumed that such purchases underwrite terror. Yet, it is the preferred method for Charedim, and has – again –  unleashed torrents of abuse against them. One writer (in classic Israeli understated fashion) termed them “Palestinians l’mehadrin.”

Much of the criticism, to me at least, seems misdirected. It is hard to accept that the government of Israel can turn over the Palestinians $60,000,000 in cash – and that “will not fund terror” – but if one wants to observe the law of the Torah and buy a cucumber for a shekel from an Arab, then that is “funding terror.” And for the other six years of the cycle, Israel and the Palestinian occupied territories are each other’s largest importers and exporters – so, then, is it only during shmitta that this becomes a concern ?

Of course, who can verify that it is actually Arab produce ? There were cases in the past of Israeli farmers unscrupulously selling their produce to an Arab “middleman” who then re-sold it as yevul nochri. In the Arab shuk, a few weeks ago, I saw Israeli tomatoes being wheeled to some unknown destination. So who really knows what it is ? (They have tried to compensate for this by sending in mashgichim to Arab-occupied areas with security escorts, but who really knows ?)

The third method is the most controversial – the sale of the land of Israel to an Arab. It is a tactic that is now well over a century old that was endorsed by many gedolim in the past (and opposed by many as well). Rav Kook, in 1904, endorsed its use temporarily, as “an emergency measure to prevent starvation.” Undoubtedly, in the context of his time, he was correct. But no one will starve today, and it is more a question of loss of farmer’s income than anything else. But yet, every shmitta cycle, the “sale” is carried out, with fewer and fewer straight faces.

Some have falsely analogized this sale to the ‘sale of chametz‘ before Pesach, but, in fact, their functions are completely opposite. We sell the chametz in order to fulfill the Torah’s requirement that we not own chametz on Pesach. We don’t want the chametz on Pesach – and so we divest ourselves – we only want to possess it after Pesach. The “sale” of Eretz Yisrael has the exact opposite effect; it is an attempt to circumvent the Torah’s proscription of not working the land during shmitta. The analogy would be apt if a person “sold” his chametz on Pesach, and then transacted business with it.

The substance of the heter mechira, you will surely recall, we studied in depth on Shavuot night in 1999, so I will not re-hash it here while it is still fresh in your minds. But a few points to ponder: What is actually being sold ? (I was told just the topsoil.) So, is there a mitzva of aliya this year, as the land is owned by Arabs ? Will all residents hold two-days Yom Tov ? Is there reward for walking four amot in the land, since one walks on the topsoil ? How does one sell a country anyway ? (Actually, that happens too). I am being half-facetious.

And here is the greatest irony: the proponents of selling the land to an Arab are the group in society most adamantly opposed to surrendering any land to the Arabs, not only on security grounds but also based on the Torah’s prohibition of Lo Techanem (not providing any non-Jew with permanent real estate in Israel). Furthermore, the Religious Zionists – the ones most engaged in implementing the Torah in a modern Jewish state – are essentially conceding through use of the heter that this part of the Torah – observance of Shmitta – is incompatible with a modern state; while those who are not Zionists at all – and not averse to receiving handouts, which sustains the many frum farmers who observe shmitta completely – are in the position of arguing that the Torah – in all its categories and laws – is compatible with a modern Jewish state. Go figure. Of course, keep in mind that the great advantage of the heter is that it supports Jewish farmers, and that itself is an important mitzva.

Add to this the fact that the Chief Rabbinate has been lukewarm in its endorsement of the heter, that many jurisdictions have prohibited use of the heter, that the Rabbanut has been ordered by the High Court of Justice to implement the heter (!) and that a new Rabbinical organization named Tzohar has offered its own hashgacha using the heter and breaking the Rabbanut’s kashrut monopoly in the process – what we have is a major league balagan. Personally, we try to avoid use of the heter, patronize the Otzar Bet Din and mehadrin shmitta stores – but even what mehadrin means is hard to know for sure.  Every question has an answer, and every answer generates new questions. Perhaps the balagan was meant to be.

A few weeks ago, we were driving on the Ayalon Highway from north to south Tel Aviv. To be more accurate, we were really sitting in traffic on the Ayalon Highway, and not moving at all. As we entered and were stopped dead in our tracks, the road-sign above read “P’kahk ad Kibbutz Galuyot“, or “Gridlock until the ‘Kibbutz Galuyot’ Exit” (the last Tel Aviv exit on the highway). As I sat there (with little else to do), I contemplated the sign, and saw the deeper message: indeed, there is gridlock – spiritual gridlock – and there will be, until all the exiles come home and until Moshiach arrives. Only then will all these questions be answered, all these problems resolved, and as Torah Jews we will speak with one voice in acknowledging the Torah that comes from Zion, and the word of G-d that comes from Yerushalayim.

Until then, as the old joke ends, the minhag is to fight about it. Until then… which we pray comes speedily and in our time.         

Just say NO

The American request that Israel “freeze’ construction in “settlements” permanently, for one year, for six months, or for six days is insulting, disrespectful, ill-fated and a smokescreen that Israel should forcefully and immediately reject – for a number of reasons.

Recall Nancy Reagan’s campaign in the mid-1980’s to discourage children from recreational drug use, entitled: “Just Say No.” Well, the allure of ‘peace” is also a narcotic that dulls the mind and precludes rational thinking – and this request (demand?) deserves the same response. There are several critical reasons why such a rejection – phrased in as diplomatic but unequivocal language as possible – is both warranted and appropriate.

Firstly, Israel has long resisted such a step at every stage of the interminable negotiations over Mideast peace. Now it is posited that Israel should make this good-will gesture (www.jewishpress.com/pagerroute.do/38306) in order to induce the Arabs to make similar gestures, such as a “commitment to fight terror.” Hmm…does that sound familiar ? In other words, Israel should make another tangible concession in exchange for another Arab concession to stop killing innocent Jews ? It is the same rug being sold again by these bizarre merchants, who assume that Jews have no historical memory. The approach itself is laughable in the extreme, and only the extremely foolish would even consider it.

Secondly, the request – which, if acceded to, will never be withdrawn – is a direct attack on Israel’s sovereign decision-making power and prejudges the outcome of negotiations by effectively delegitimizing Israel’s claims in Judea and Samaria. But Israel’s claim there – as the only sovereign nation in the vicinity with “rights,” rights obtained when it conquered the land from the previous sovereign – Jordan – in a defensive war – is compelling and lawful, even if it is politically unpopular with Israel’s enemies and those who seek to curry favor with them.

Thirdly, the request is unenforceable and will be the source of unending tension between Israel and the United States. How does one inform a family that the world will not allow you to add a bedroom or a den to one’s own home ? Or that Jews – only Jews, of course – are barred from building on Jewish-owned land in the land of Israel, of all places ? When Menachem Begin agreed to such a freeze at Jimmy Carter’s insistence, relations between the two countries were strained when Begin contended that the freeze was for several months only, and not permanently as Carter maintained. To allow the world to micromanage Israeli home-building would be a grievous insult, and to a large extent would imply our acquiescence to the world’s denial of any Jewish rights in the region. It is tantamount to an admission that building in the Jewish heartland is wrong, and that Jews should feel guilty about doing it. And Israel should eschew the diplomatic cleverness implicit in finding language that both sides will accept but interpret in different ways. Honesty is the best policy.

And how ironic is it that Jews are being told they cannot build in…Judea ? We are only called “Jews” because of our roots in Judea, “Jew” being a shortened form of “Judean.” This nomenclature is most clear in Hebrew – we are “Yehudim” because our roots are in “Yehuda.” Indeed, Israel should market to the American people its objections to Obama’s ultimatum with such slogans: “No Jews in Judea is like no New Yorkers in New York,” or “Judea for Jews” or something similar. Nothing would point out more the absurdity of this dictate. And the current “let my people grow” campaign is also attractive.

Fourthly, it is a smokescreen, a red herring, a deliberate attempt to weaken Israel that will not advance the moribund (and farcical) “peace process” one centimeter. As Congressman Eric Cantor noted today in Jerusalem, President Obama is focused too much on settlements and too little on Iran. Certainly if Israel intends to retain most settlements in any final agreement, then what difference can it possibly make if it continues to build in those settlements ? To stop – even momentarily – is to signal weakness, denigrate Jewish rights in the area, and whet the Arab appetite for even more concessions from Israel. So even from a diplomatic perspective, such a move is illogical.

Finally, a polite but firm “no” to Obama is something to which he has become accustomed. Since taking office, his requests on a variety of matters have been rebuffed by the G-8 and the G-20, the Russians, the Arabs, the Chinese and a host of other countries. Obama, a true believer in diminishing the projection of American power globally, has succeeded remarkably well, and in his quest to be liked by everyone (especially America’s recent foes like Venezuela, North Korea, and the Arab world) is respected or feared by no one. It is entirely clear that the price Obama is willing to pay for improved relations with a billion Muslims is detaching the United States from its traditional alliance with Israel. The legacy of “shared values” between the two countries does not amount to much, in Obama’s estimation, because he is not at all impressed with America’s traditional values. In fact, he is attempting to denigrate and escape from them.

So the President is intent on strengthening America’s ties with the Arab world while weakening Israel, but as a skilled politician and rhetorician, he recognizes that he cannot be perceived as doing same. Several weeks ago he enlisted the help of more than a dozen “Jewish leaders” to discuss Israel’s policies and his efforts to impose a solution (i.e., Israel’s surrender of its vital interests), and to solicit their support – while excluding, in true liberal fashion, Jews who hold more right-wing views. Media reports, and statements from the participants, indicated that the meeting was a love fest, with none of the leaders present even attempting to defend Israel’s policies or voice support for the right of Jewish settlement throughout the land of Israel, and reluctant even to disagree with President Obama on his demand that Israel stop building in Jerusalem.

If those reports are true, then that meeting with the highest elected officials in the land represented the sorriest display of obsequiousness and uselessness by American Jewish “leaders” since the Holocaust. And, if capable of shame, they should be ashamed of themselves. They chose to rally around Obama at the expense of the people of Israel, revealing once again the distressing truism of the politics of American Jews – who have long preferred safe abortions to a safe Israel. (American Jews, more liberal than any other ethnic group, will not vote for a candidate who is overtly anti-Israel but will vote for an anti-Israel candidate who mouths the right clichés and platitudes, as long he supports abortion rights.) Or, to judge some favorably, the lure of the presidential photo op is too enticing to risk not being invited to the next sit-down.

As President Bush once said to me, America and Israel share a friendship even more than an alliance. But neither a friendship nor an alliance imply symmetrical views on all issues. There were crucial times in the past when Israel defied America (declaring statehood in 1948, launching a pre-emptive war in 1967, bombing the Iraqi nuclear reactor in 1981, and, most pertinent here, building Har Homa in southern Jerusalem in 1996 – now a community of more than 6,000 residents) and not only lived to talk about it but was also vindicated in its decisions. Each of those times required courageous leadership – leaders of values and vision – to look beyond the politics of the moment and see the eternal interests of the Jewish people.

Indeed, relations between the United States and Israel are so strained that it would behoove Israel to seek a goodwill gesture from the Americans – even before considering a discussion of a freeze. Israel can make demands as well; in fact, weak countries often make demands, a negotiating tool familiar in the Middle East. Perhaps, finally, a pardon for Jonathan Pollard ? That would show some good will, not as a quid pro quo, but simply as a humanitarian gesture to smooth fences. Israel can then agree to freeze construction in all settlements one day a week (Shabbat).

     And while making demands, Israel should not shy away from ruling out any negotiations with Syria until the Sultan Yaakov prisoners (Baumol, Katz and Feldman) are accounted for – after 27 years (!), and any relaxation on the Gaza embargo until Gilad Shalit is freed – and in exchange for…nothing. Arabs can be pressured too, and Jewish life is too precious to acquiesce in the mistreatment of its prisoners, again.

    But a rejection of a settlement freeze is a no-brainer. To agree to even a momentary freeze undermines Israel’s negotiating position and gravely weakens Prime Minister Netanyahu’s political standing in Israel (that also an American interest, apparently). That concession is lose-lose – a loss on the substance and a loss on the politics. So however pleasantly it can be said – perhaps with a smile, a wistful embrace or even over a beer – there is only one response justified to this American dictate: Just Say No. And the earth will continue to spin on its axis, the sun will rise and set on the day after, and new politicians and diplomats will meet to find some other way to keep the “process” going, and going, and going.

Crisis in Orthodoxy ? Perhaps Not

   The recent arrests of several New Jersey Rabbis, coming on the heels of a variety of other scandals in Jewish life that also resulted in prominent arrests, have led many to conclude that Orthodoxy is in crisis and its entire world view under siege and perhaps unsustainable. Some have asked: “what is the value of Torah study and Mitzvot – like Shabbat, prayer, kashrut, tzniut – if the human product is no more ethical or moral than one who eschews those divine commandments and just lives a life of integrity ?” Others have decried the “overemphasis” on certain Mitzvot to the exclusion, or at least the minimization, of other Mitzvot.

    All valid questions, to be sure, but they also miss the point, and in their justified concern for the reputations of G-d, His Torah and the Jewish people, they overlook one essential dimension of Torah, and fail to put this tragic waywardness in perspective. 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. And to the extent they do not, well, that is why there are courts, laws, prosecutions and public opprobrium.

     The phenomenon of “religious sin” or the “sins of the religious” is quite ancient. The genre of “how could they, of all people?” questions might well have been asked of Korach, Datan, Aviram and a host of others who stood at Sinai. The prophets were well aware of people who performed Mitzvot by rote, who did not seem to be on the inside what they looked like on the outside. The personality, in one context, is referred to as the “ish navuv” – the “hollow man” (Iyov 11:12), what Rav Shimon Schwab there called “a person with a righteous façade who has a hollow interior.” In another context, it was the subject of Sinclair Lewis’ acclaimed 1927 novel “Elmer Gantry” about a hypocritical, womanizing preacher – a book that created such a furor (much like the one in our world today) that it was literally banned in Boston.

     But none of this is new, and neither are the challenges of ethical behavior while living in the non-Jewish world (or living in Israel, for that matter) only a contemporary phenomenon either. There is a passage from the SMA”G (Sefer Mitzvot Gadol, a compendium of the 613 commandments written in the early 13th century of Rav Moshe of Coucy, France), pointed out to me by my colleague Rav Shaul Robinson of NYC, that is both frightening and, oddly, comforting. In Mitzvat Aseh 74 – the laws of returning lost objects, which technically only apply to Jews – he states:

      “I have already expounded to the exiles of Jrusalem who are in Spain and to the other exiles of Edom that now that the exile has been prolonged, we must separate ourselves from the corrupt values of the world and grasp the seal of Hashem, which is truth. We are not to lie either to Jews or to non-Jews, nor to cause them to err in any matter, but rather to sanctify ourselves through what is permissible. As the verse says (Tzefania 2:13): “The remnant of Israel shall do no crookedness, not speak falsehood, and not have any deceit in their mouths.” And when Hashem comes to redeem us, they (the nations) will then say, ‘G-d acted justly [in redeeming them], because they are people of truth, and the Torah of truth is in their mouths.’”

     “But, if we treat the nations with trickery and deceitfulness, they will say instead, ‘Look what G-d has done, choosing for His portion in the world a nation of thieves and swindlers…’  And, indeed, G-d scattered us about the globe so that we should attract converts, but as long as we deal with the nations with deceit, who will want to cleave to us ? We see [from the story of the flood] that G-d was concerned even about stealing from the wicked.”

     “And the Yerushalmi (Bava Metzia 5:5) teaches that distinguished Rabbis once purchased a kor of wheat from non-Jews, and in the bushel of wheat they found a purse filled with money, and they returned it to the non-Jews who exclaimed, “Blessed is the G-d of the Jews.” There are many similar stories that discuss returning the lost object of non-Jews and the sanctification of G-d’s name that resulted.”

      That passage is frightening because it was written approximately 800 years ago, and so, apparently, Orthodoxy was in “crisis” then as well. But it is also comforting when we recognize that nothing is new, and that, indeed, there is no “crisis.” Money is money, temptation is temptation, and people are people. No one is perfectly good or perfectly evil, but rather hybrids of good and bad conduct. We hope that most people are mostly good, and that the rough edges that we all have can be smoothed by the ameliorating effects of the Torah. We all struggle with different elements of our nature. Different parts of the Torah challenge each of us – some are challenged by issues of personal modesty and others by arrogance, some by money (most of us, Chazal say in Bava Batra 165a) and others by Shabbat. No two people are alike, and what is asked of each of us is to control those parts of our nature that are unruly. That is the “Kabbalat Ol Malchut Shamayim” – acceptance of the yoke of G-d’s kingship – that we are obligated to experience twice a day. Our Sages therefore asserted, in loose translation (Sukka 52a) that “the greater the person (i.e., the more desires he has under control), the greater the temptation” (in those remaining areas). 

     We all understand intellectually that no one is perfect, and yet are surprised when we see any imperfections in certain people. Undoubtedly, King David (even Moshe himself) would have been vilified by our society. But spiritual greatness is not defined by an unreachable perfection, but by the spiritual giant’s capacity to overcome sin, to accept responsibility for misdeeds, and to aspire to perfection. One should no more be inclined to abandon a life of Torah (or not embrace one) because of a few alleged evildoers than one would stop eating food altogether because a few people suffer food poisoning. “For these [mitzvot] are our lives and the length of our days.” They are commandments, not suggestions. We are responsible for all our actions before G-d, and the mitzvot in totality are designed to produce a human being who strives for perfection and is answerable for any failings. No one Mitzva can guarantee perfection, because each mitzva targets a different dimension of the human personality. But pull one thread out, and the entire garment will unravel. The study of musar, and an understanding of Mitzvot, can inculcate how all mitzvot – Shabbat, kashrut, tefila, etc. – ideally make us better people, and if they do not in an individual case, we can still learn where we went wrong and what we can do to rectify it.

     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. As Rav Zundel Salanter reputedly said, “we should check the origin of our money to the same extent we check the origin of our food.” But we should also recognize that, for most of us, it is easier to serve G-d through Shabbat, Kashrut, tefila and Talmud Torah than it is through exhibiting – at all times – ethical behavior and decent conduct – whether in how we drive our cars or how we earn our money. And the latter is a more substantive definition of who we are as servants of G-d, and a greater challenge today and perhaps always, and therefore, as the SMA”G indicated, the route to redemption as well.

     Crisis in Orthodoxy ? I think not. It is just life, people and their challenges – and it has existed since time immemorial. 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 not wait for the FBI or their informants to expose us). And then we will truly become servants of G-d, a nation renowned for its virtue and piety, and a people worthy of redemption.

Madoff vs. Dweck: Steal Cage Match

 

Who is more despicable – Bernie Madoff or Solomon Dweck ? On the surface, Madoff would seem to prevail in this match of caged stealers. After all, Madoff, the disgraced financier and “investor,” stole tens of billions of dollars, single-handedly bankrupted elderly people and ruined charitable foundations – and all to support a lavish lifestyle that he knew for years would some day come crashing down on him.

By comparison, who is Dweck ? He stole “only” $25,000,000, and his claim to infamy rests on his informing on several New Jersey politicians who took hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of his bribes and laundering hundreds of thousands of dollars of other ill-gotten gains with several Rabbis – all, allegedly, of course. The amount of money Madoff stole is staggering, and perhaps may never be equaled in history; Dweck’s loot, by contrast, is a relative pittance. So where is the comparison ?

Look beneath the surface. Both Madoff and Dweck preyed on people who trusted them – Madoff for social reasons, Dweck because of his religious and ethnic ties. Both caused a massive Chilul Hashem, not least because both held positions of prominence in various Jewish communal organizations. Both appear to lack any moral scruples whatsoever, notwithstanding that Madoff issued an “apology” to his victims before being sentenced. Both have names that lend themselves to permanent ignominy – Madoff “made off” with people’s money, and Dweck rhymes with… well, Syrian Jews don’t speak Yiddish.

But on a crucial point, Dweck exceeds the venality of even Bernie Madoff. Madoff pleaded guilty, admitting everything and incriminating no one else. He did not seek a deal with the prosecution, he did not look to lure others into his criminal orbit, and he protected his family – wife and sons by taking the fall himself (assuming, of course, that there was something from which he had to shield them).

On that score, Solomon Dweck merits a special place in purgatory. Nothing excuses the alleged criminal conduct of Rabbis, but it hard to conjure a betrayal of trust greater than a Rabbi’s son, yeshiva president, and fellow Syrian-Jew (in a very tight-knit community) ensnaring others in his criminal web by wearing a wire and inducing criminal behavior – all in the hope of getting a reduced sentence.

Dweck was no whistle-blower, no crusader for justice, and no avatar of righteousness – but a lowly thief, an informant, a canary, a fink, a rat, a snitch, a stool pigeon, and a contemptible moser. The latter, an especially heinous characterization in Jewish life, is predicated on the assumption that Dweck’s criminal dealings with the Rabbis (allegedly, of course) post-dated, and not pre-dated, his arrest. If they had engaged in joint swindles before his most recent arrest, then, there is indeed no honor among thieves, and he is arguably not even a moser – saving himself by turning in his fellow larcenists. And shame on the Rabbis (alleged shame, of course) both for their criminal behavior and for not being sophisticated enough to recognize that a federal bandit out on bond, whose trial has been delayed and delayed, is likely turning state’s evidence.

But if Dweck never had criminal dealings with these Rabbis before, and solicited their involvement in his schemes to save himself, to provide the prosecution with bigger fish to fry (religious and secular) – using whatever justification necessary – then there is no honor among thieves, but also no honor among Jews. If that happened, then we are no longer an am – a people, a nation, a brotherhood who can count on each other in the crunch. It is every man for himself (and women too) and what a sad day for the Jewish people and for that community in Deal.

Imagine, for a moment, that someone in your vicinity wore a wire throughout the day – your seatmate in shul (well, you shouldn’t be talking anyway), your spouse, your best friend, your business partner – not necessarily to reveal your criminal behavior (that you shouldn’t engage in anyway) but to reveal your every personal thought – your comments about the people closest to you (and their failings, as you perceive them), or your customers (and how you really feel about some of them). Imagine if every thought you had was broadcast to an unknown audience – who then confronted you on them. The perpetrators of such intrusions of privacy are beneath contempt.

On that score, Dweck sinks to a lower level than even Bernie Madoff. Both betrayed the trust of people close to them – one for money and one for his own liberty (and money), but both have shattered the expectation that Jews can trust Jews. And can anything be more depressing than that, especially during the Nine Days ?

Nothing here should be construed as a defense of the Rabbis’ (alleged) wrongdoing, or in any way a rationalization of tax evasion, corner cutting, finagling, keeping separate books, money laundering or any other possible financial diablerie. They are wrong, wrong, wrong (allegedly). Their crimes (alleged) should be punished. Neither Talmud Torah nor tzedaka is a justification for stealing. But let us not sweep aside the ramifications of having potential informants in our midst – to drive a wedge between Jews and to destroy any semblance of mutual trust.

And the greatest musar from this moser, for all of us ? Whatever we do, whatever we say, and whatever we think – there always is Someone looking and listening. “Know what is above you: an eye sees, an ear hears, and all your deeds are recorded in a book” (Avot II:1). The deterrent to criminal or venal conduct should be our inner sense of right and wrong born of being Torah Jews who stand at all times before G-d, bound by His Torah. Period.

So who is worse, Madoff or Dweck ? They are both bad, in different ways. Madoff stole money, Dweck may have stolen something more valuable. But I lean slightly to Madoff as the prime villain, but slightly.

Laundering during the Nine Days

The most shocking aspect of today’s mass arrests of New Jersey politicians, Rabbis, bureaucrats and other scoundrels is that there is nothing that shocking about it at all. These types of shenanigans have become so commonplace – especially in New Jersey, dubbed the “Soprano State” for good reason (in a book by that name) – that they constitute the norm of public life here, and the politician who is not corrupt stands out, and usually by his inability to win elections. The corruption is so rampant and pervasive – in almost every township and in every level of office, from public works to the governor’s office– that anyone with sense has despaired of ever changing it. It is ingrained, and considered a normal part of doing business in New Jersey. No organ of government is uncompromised.

And I think we no longer need to ask how Rabbis can become ensnared in these sordid affairs. (Of course, I show all due deference and respect to the presumption of innocence, and if innocent, I hope they are all acquitted and their reputations restored.) But I know that these individuals – from Brooklyn and New Jersey – are not the first so indicted, and I sense that they will not be the last. The lure of money is extraordinarily powerful, and the good news (small comfort, to be sure) is that this lust apparently transcends the ethnic, religious and racial barriers that seem so insurmountable in the rest of society. Jews allegedly collaborated with non-Jews, Italians and Irish, whites and blacks – a melting pot of vice, a mosaic of sleaze. America truly is the land of opportunity.

How can people succumb to dishonesty and avarice, so chillingly and blatantly ? We miss the point if we highlight the high cost of living Jewishly, the desire to be charitable, the need to underwrite yeshivot and other worthy institutions, the necessity to fund shidduchim, etc. The Torah prohibits Jews – and non-Jews – from stealing, and quite explicitly; one doesn’t need to delve into Rashi and Ramban’s commentary to understand the prohibition. Evidently, the desire for money is extensive and uncontrollable. Money is a sublimated form of desire – it is valueless in itself; its real value lies in its capacity to purchase other things. When it remains as cash, it provides no pleasure at all except for two things: the fantasy of unlimited future pleasures and the reality of an enhanced social status. And the latter, in today’s world, is the real passion, even if thieves usually live well.

As long as we continue to glorify money and its holders – as long as we give prominence to those who have it (and regardless how they attained it) – we will continue to suffer from this malady. The prophet Yeshayahu said, quite tellingly (and in this week’s haftara, of all things): “Your princes are corrupt and associates of thieves; all of them love bribery and pursue illegal gains” (1:23). Undoubtedly, many of the accused are quite stringent about not laundering clothing during the Nine Days. Would that they have been similarly concerned with laundering dollars the rest of the year. We are advised not to enter litigation with non-Jews during the Nine Days, days of misfortune. Perhaps the FBI was briefed on that too ? That would take “cooperating with the authorities” to a new level.

The ethnic hodgepodge of the accused demonstrates that Jews are really no better than anyone else, but we are supposed to be. We were entrusted by G-d with one gift: His moral code. And that we squander, dissipate and abuse – and for what ? Money. How sad…how tragic…how so appropriate for days of mourning, days that remind us that, for all our supposed piety and tearful protestations, we are really quite far from rebuilding the ruins of Yerushalayim, and from building a society based on justice and righteousness. Perhaps this will be a wake-up call ? Perhaps. Until the next one.