First they exposed the hypocrisy of the born-again televangelists. But I wasn’t an Evangelical Protestant, so when the likes of Jimmy Swaggart and Tammy Faye and Jim Bakker were held up for public humiliation, I smirked and said nothing. Then they exposed an epidemic of pedophilia among Catholic priests. But I wasn’t a Catholic, so when prominent Archbishops — ferchrissakes! — were shown to have been abusers and enablers, I said nothing. When they then exposed the seamy affairs of Republican and Democratic moralists displaying their public Christianity as some sort of credential, I said “a plague on both your houses” and turned the page of the paper.
But then they nabbed Gov. Spitzer; and then they blew Bernie Madoff’s cover; and then they busted Rubashkin. And then they stung Jersey’s Haredi kidney shadchan. And this past December, they fingered Rabbi Leib Tropper.
As you may recall, he is the founder of the “Eternal Jewish Family,” an organization specializing in the conversion of non-Jewish spouses of intermarried Jews. A halachic strict constructionist, his hard line on conversion criteria is allegedly softened, on occasion, for select female candidates in return for certain favors. You can hear one of his telephone-counseling sessions on YouTube and follow the posts on the blog Failedmessiah.com if you want to make up your own mind.
And, if all this were not enough, we read in The Forward of Jan. 15, 2010, of a Rubashkin in-law facing charges of molesting children in, of all places, the mikvah!
Now what is there for anyone to say, but: Feh!
None of us, I suppose, is so naïve anymore as to assume that Jews are exempt from the moral flaws that afflict humanity as a whole. Anyone who pays any attention at all to Yom Kippur’s Al Het is well-instructed in the perversity of the human heart in its Jewish incarnation. But lately, it seems, we are having our noses rubbed into the exposed perversity of people who, before their exposure, were held up as symbols of Jewish spiritual achievement in America.
It’s not a question of a shande far di goyim. There will always be Gentiles who seize upon any excuse to malign Jews. Even if all of us were righteous and learned and steeped in Torah and good deeds, some would hate us just because we exist in “defiance of the laws of history.” For these people, the exposure of the Jewish dimension of any scandal simply confirms a larger worldview. And I’m not interested in that problem just this minute.
My concern about the drumbeat of scandals that have recently been exposed in the Jewish world is not “What will Gentiles think,” but, “What will Jews think?” As a Jew who circulates in the orbit of Orthodoxy, I fear the consequences for my community of the unmasking of publicly acclaimed “Torah personalities” as sexual predators, exploiters of the economically vulnerable, and traffickers in illegal drugs and contraband vital organs.
How should we respond when Jews who publicly hold themselves to the “higher standard of Torah” exploit that standard to conceal ongoing and long-standing private desecrations of all that Torah stands for?
Anger and profound disappointment are appropriate. But not surprise. After all, the suspicion that ostentatious piety might provide hypocrisy with a refuge is a theme of rabbinic ethical thought from the times of the early Tannaim until the Mussar movement of more recent times. Jews often resent the New Testament’s depiction of Pharisaic piety as hypocritical self-display. But, in fact, the anti-Pharisaic rant of say, the author of the Gospel of Matthew, has a very kosher genealogy. Look no further than the Mishna’s Tractate Sotah, which numbers “the self-flagellations of the Pharisees” among its list of behaviors that “destroy the world” (M. Sotah 3:4, cited in Bavli Sotah 20a and with Rashi’s explanation at 22b).
It is easy, in the face of recent scandals involving Orthodox leaders, to retreat to cynicism and despair. But for those of us who long ago concluded that “Jewish secularism” is a dead-end recipe for the perpetuation of a meaningful Jewish peoplehood, what’s there to say in the face of the scandals involving the very stream of Judaism that supplies so many of our Orthodox Torah educators?
The trust between Orthodox rabbinic leadership and its laity has been profoundly tested by recent events. The situation is not beyond solution, but any solution must come from a concerted effort of Orthodox rabbinic leadership to “own” the scandalous behavior of a small, but visible, minority with frank honesty.
It is too facile to denounce fraud and sexual coercion as “violations of the Torah.” Is that any news? The real issue is: What’s going on in the culture of frumkeit that tolerates such behavior and provides it with an encouraging environment? Denial and shifting responsibility to the “corrupt influence of society” or, worse yet, “the anti-Semitic press,” will convince no one.
Jews who place their trust in rabbinic leadership for authentic guidance in the life of Torah and commandments, are entitled to nothing less than a public accounting from responsible rabbis.
Purim is in two weeks. Can Pesach be far behind? A perfect time for a little communal biur hametz!