January 31, 2008
Last week I wrote about scandals involving Orthodox Jews and the complicated reaction they provoke among the non-Orthodox. There’s glee, there’s rue, and above all a sense that, as the most visibly Jewish Jews, the Orthodox bear a burden and responsibility for the rest of us. The street term is “representing.”
A number of readers were grateful that I described Orthodox-bashing for what it is: bigotry, plain and simple. But apparently neither plain nor simple, according to a number of other readers. They felt I failed to account for attitudes in the Orthodox community that can lead to disdain for secular law, and for fellow Jews.
Here’s an excerpt from perhaps the mildest of these replies, from a non-Orthodox rabbi:
I just read your editorial about Orthodox wrongdoing, and while I largely agree with your point as it applies to modern Orthodox Jews, I think you missed a point as the issue applies to at least some Haredi [fervently Orthodox] Jews. Part of that world actively teaches that dina d’malkhuta dina, the principle that requires Jews to follow secular law unless it is evil in nature, need not be followed in the United States at least in regard to certain kinds of civil proprieties. Furthermore, part of that world teaches an active contempt for Jews who are not members of their sub-community. These two factors result in at least tacit encouragement of some kinds of fraud.
Other letters in this vein noted a current news story that I didn’t mention in my article: the Spinka affair. Rabbi Naftali Tzi Weisz, one of the grand rabbis of the Spinka hasidic movement, faces a 37-count federal indictment for conspiracy, mail fraud, and money laundering. Weisz and five other Spinka adherents pleaded not guilty this month to charges that they arranged and profited from inflated charitable donations.
The case is a sensation in Los Angeles, where four of the defendants lived. And it’s taken a peculiar, and perhaps peculiarly Orthodox, twist: The case is based on tips from a Spinka insider. This act of mesira — the injunction against informing on Jewish misbehavior to secular authorities — has apparently scandalized the LA Orthodox community as much if not more than the allegations themselves.
“People are very shell-shocked about the whole thing on many levels,” Rabbi Daniel Korobkin, a West Coast representative of the Orthodox Union, told the Forward. “Number one, that our neighbors and friends are implicated, and number two, that an act of mesira on this level was perpetrated by one of our own.”
As a matter of Jewish law, mesira reflects the fear — well-founded in Jewish history — that informing to the secular authorities will only shame the Jews, and worse. But critics suggest it can be used as a way to cover up wrongdoing. One of the angriest responses I received came from a writer who was educated in Orthodox schools. He railed against a religious system “which openly disdains western civilization and the rule of law, and which settles its own disputes through corrupt courts that lack all transparency.”
If this were only the criticism of a few disgruntled outsiders, I would hesitate to print or discuss it. But there’s no use pretending that this is not a debate within Orthodoxy itself. Important rabbis regularly ask whether the community has the ability to investigate charges of child abuse. In discussing the rise of Chabad-Lubavitch, Orthodox thinkers ask whether God’s will is best served in inward-looking communities, or in “outreach” to the non-Orthodox masses.
And some Orthodox Jews are warning against insularity among the fervently Orthodox. At the Web site Cross-Currents, written by Orthodox rabbis and activists, Yitzchok Adlerstein, director of interfaith affairs for the Simon Wiesenthal Center, says this about the Spinka scandal:
Insularity has its merits, but it seems to come at a price as well. Part of that price is living in a time warp, where little has changed from hundreds of years ago, and all non-Jews are assumed to be cut of the same cloth. Those who promote insularity as a hedge against dilution of spiritual energy had better come up with a way of injecting a bit of an update in attitudes towards non-Jews and non-Jewish governments, or scandals such as the present one will continue to plague the community. If anything, we can expect to see an increase in them, as the secular authorities have trained their sights on what they see as pockets of corruption….
The bottom line is that if your children are absorbing inappropriate conceptions about the worthlessness of everything in the non-Jewish world, you had better modify their instruction. If not, you may be visiting them in prison some day.
Adlerstein’s essay is a surprising example of public Orthodox self-criticism. But Orthodox readers who commented on his article seemed relieved the topic was out in the open. Nearly all applauded his honesty and seconded his call for teachers and rabbis to speak about “the need to reexamine issues of personal honesty and integrity.”
I still think too many Jews bash the Orthodox out of malice and their own insecurity. It’s clear, however, that there are few among us who wouldn’t benefit from heshbon nefesh — a spiritual accounting — and a pledge to live up to the ideals of Judaism, however we wish to express them.