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 worldview under siege and perhaps unsustainable.
Some have asked, What is the value of Torah study and mitzvot if the human product that results 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 God, His Torah and the Jewish people, those who ask them 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 some perfect world of the past – where all Jews, especially rabbis, were decent, honest, ethical and upright – stems from a fantasy. 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 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. “How could they, of all people?” 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. That type of person, in one context, is referred to as the “ish navuv” – the “hollow man” (Iyov 11:12), what Rav Shimon Schwab called “a person with a righteous fa?ade who has a hollow interior.”
So none of this is new. There is a passage from the SMA”G (Sefer Mitzvot Gadol, a compendium of the 613 commandments written in the early 13th century by Rav Moshe of Coucy, France), pointed out to me by my colleague Rav Shaul Robinson, that is both frightening and, oddly, comforting. In Mitzvat Aseh 74 – the laws of returning lost objects, he states:
I have already expounded to the exiles of Jerusalem 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, “God 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 God has done, choosing for His portion in the world a nation of thieves and swindlers . ” And, indeed, God 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 God 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 God of the Jews.” There are many similar stories that discuss returning the lost object of non-Jews and the sanctification of God’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 most people are mostly good, and that the rough edges we all have can be smoothed by the ameliorating effects of 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 God’s kingship – we are obligated to experience twice a day. Our Sages therefore asserted, in loose translation (Sukkah 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 Rabbeinu himself) would have been vilified by our society. Spiritual greatness is not, however, 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 should 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 God, and the mitzvot in totality are designed to produce a human being who strives for perfection and is answerable for any failings.
No one mitzvah can guarantee perfection, because each mitzvah targets a different dimension of the human personality. But pull one thread out, and the entire garment will unravel. The study of mussar, and an understanding of mitzvot, can inculcate how all mitzvot – Shabbat, kashrut, tefillah, 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 na?ve about human nature or simplistic about the Torah’s commandments. Let us continue to demand of ourselves the highest standards of fidelity to God’s law. As Rav Zundel Salanter is reported to have 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 God through Shabbat, kashrut, tefillah, etc., than it is through exhibiting – at all times – ethical behavior and decent conduct, from how we drive our cars to how we earn our money. And the latter is a more substantive definition of who we are as servants of God – 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 from time immemorial. The Torah is perfect – but no one ever claimed all its practitioners are.
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 its informants to expose us). And then we will truly become servants of God, a nation renowned for its virtue and piety, and a people worthy of redemption.
Rabbi Steven Pruzansky is the spiritual leader of Congregation Bnai Yeshurun in Teaneck, New Jersey, and the author most recently of “Judges for Our Time: Contemporary Lessons from the Book of Shoftim” (Gefen Publishing House, 2009). He writes at Rabbipruzansky.com.