Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Change We Can't Believe In

So in yesterday's rant, I made a passing reference to the recently indicted Spinka Rebbe, and how I found the idea that one of the goals of the symposium was " learn to distinguish between conduct that conforms with dina d’malchusa and conduct that does not," to be evidence of their disingenuousness in truly addressing the systemic problem in their community. After all, it’s not as if the Spinka Rebbe doesn’t know the halachos!

I also mentioned about how I thought it was ludicrous that one of their keynote speakers at the event was going to be a man who has proven to be a ruthless and dishonest thug. Well, leave it to the Agudah to outdo themselves. Not only did they have that fellow speak to the crowd, but they also had the Spinka Rebbe himself! Yes, barely two weeks after pleading guilty to a decade-long tax fraud and money laundering scheme, Rabbi Naftali Tzi Weisz is being presented as the opening speaker at an event meant to tackle the problem of fraud and corruption!

Now, I’m sure there are many people who will argue that this is not as bad it seems, and that he’s actually an appropriate choice, because firstly, he's done teshuva, and secondly, someone who has been guilty of such a crime is the best person to speak to the community of the problem, kind of like how convicted gang members talk to inner city high school kids. Yeah, well, sorry, but I don’t think it’s the same thing. He was up there on the dais as a respected leader of the community, not as a convicted felon. The unspoken message to that crowd was that you can commit these crimes but we will still respect and honor you as if nothing happened. Which we all know is par for the course - as far as I know, there hasn't been a single op-ed or article in the chareidi press criticizing the man for his indiscretions. And more importantly, if you look at what he said, it shows that he actually hasn’t owned up to the problem. From the Forward article:
Weisz spoke in great detail about the compliance program that the Spinka board has entered with the government and he said, "Our community, baruch hashem, is not lacking in smart experienced lawyers and accountants that are willing to teach the tzibur [community], how to conduct their communal affairs in a manner that is in compliance with the law in all respects."
And from the VIN article:
The Spinka Rebbe told the audience about a new organization founded with the help of prominent askonim. Members include experienced attorneys, accountants and other professionals. “A lot of effort has gone into this matter and the staff can help people set up tzedaka and chessed organizations. Little by little more and more mosdos are joining the program and we’re hoping that in the coming years there will no longer be any organizations that don’t keep proper accounting records.”
Please! What a bunch of unadulterated bulls#*it! He’s making it sound as if, nebach!, we just didn’t really understand that what we were doing was wrong. But thankfully, now we have people who will teach us how to do things right! He isn’t in the least bit owning up to what he did! Just like how Zwiebel explained the asifah, not as a moment of true self-reflection and an opportunity to acknowledge their misdeeds, but rather as a chance for people to learn right from wrong! Suuuure... it’s just a matter of educating people! As if no one really intended to cheat, deceive, and steal from the government (and the taxpayer)! Even Braffman, one of the attorneys who spoke, made it sound like these things are innocent mistakes (from VIN):
Later in his talk Atty. Braffman touched on day-to-day affairs. "People don’t learn how to run their day-to-day lives after getting married, when they’ll have to report income. You have to know how to write checks, how to buy a home. When today’s generation grows up we’ll be in a much bigger mess because young people know nothing about how to run their day-to-day lives. You have no idea how careful you have to be to avoid chilul Hashem."
What a bunch of horses#%t! This is not a mea culpa! This isn’t admitting wrongdoing! This is exactly the opposite! Focusing on people's (supposed) ignorance is not how you take responsibility!

This is why I think the Agudah and all the frum people who are talking about ‘addressing the issue’ are so full of crap. They aren’t really interested in looking at themselves in a mirror and admitting to any real wrongdoing. Instead, they’ll point to ‘flaws in the system’ that contributed to the problem. Already, we are seeing people pointing to the fact that secular education in the frum world is so poor as a cause for these kinds of problems. Yeah, it’s true, their secular education does suck, and that cultivates an environment where people are lacking skills to support themselves, which can often lead to such shady activities, but that’s not the real problem!!! Nor is the problem - as everyone seems to be focused on - because these sort of things cause a chillul hashem!

These are just side issues to deflect from the real issue that no one wants to face, that for the past few decades the chareidi world and its leaders have turned a blind eye to the widespread financial impropriety that is commonplace in their society. They don’t want to face the real issue that they have been complicit in cultivating this attitude, that its ok to take advantage of any loophole (legal or not) they can come up with, if the goal is to support their mosdos and their frum lifestyle. They don’t want to acknowledge the many shmuezzen and divrei torah from their rabbonim, roshei yeshiva, and gedolim, which have subtly (and sometimes explicitly) sent the message that the only rules in life that matter are the torah rules and what the goyim say and think doesn’t really matter at all. Anyone who had been in yeshiva has heard a shmuez or two where the rabbi stands up at the podium and thunderously exclaims to his flock, "It’s only wrong because the torah says it’s wrong!" Any proper yeshiva bochur knows that the whole notion of being an ethical person really doesn't matter at all to a torah yid. All that matters to such a person is being a halachic person. And while many will point out that according to halacha all these things are forbidden (well, according to some opinions), it doesn’t really matter. Because once you’ve disregarded the notion of ethics, and put all of life into the box of halacha, all it takes is one clever gemara-kup to come up with a legal loophole, or to find some obscure psak, or figure out some rationale as to why it’s not a problem according to halacha, and the frum people will do whatever the hell they want.

How many more incidents is it going to take before they acknowledge the real underlying issues? In fact, in the past 24 hours, two more incidents have come to light - one of a couple in Monsey that were arrested on welfare fraud, and another of two young guys stealing checks from people’s mailboxes. A few months ago a Monsey guy pled guilty to wire fraud. Before that it was Leib Pinter (an Artscroll author) getting busted for a $44 million fraud. Last year it was a Lakewood bochur scamming elderly people. These are all symptoms of a very deep and disturbing issue.

Like so many other problems in chareidi society (lack of education, poverty, sexual abuse, violence, and more), this is one more travesty that they themselves can proudly take credit for creating. I’m not saying that everyone in the chareidi world is a criminal. Absolutely not. Just like not every chareidi person is a sexual abuser. But just like with the problem of sexual abuse, the community as a whole has knowingly fostered an environment where this sort of thing is not just tolerated, but is allowed to flourish. They chose to look the other way when it went on in front of them, thereby allowing the problem to get ever worse. And as was so amply demonstrated last night, they have chosen to hastily forgive the misdeeds of those who have been guilty of these crimes.

If these people ever own up to the detrimental attitudes that are endemic to their value system, there may be hope for real improvement. But as long as they refuse to face the real issues, and instead distract themselves with every excuse they can come up with, I’m quite confident that nothing more than superficial changes will come of all this.

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

A Moment of Reflection

So, it seems that the Agudah is having an asifa (a communal gathering) to address the recent scandals that have come to light. Here’s the letter that got sent out by Chaim Zwiebel, the Agudah’s VP:
The asifa, which is being sponsored by community askonim, will be focusing on the timeless (but also all too timely) theme of "Vi’asisa hayashar vi’hatov." It will feature two distinguished rabbonim - Harav Avrohom Schorr, shlita, and Harav Dovid Ozieri, shlita; as well as two respected legal experts - Benjamin Brafman, Esq. and Jacob Laufer, Esq. I will be serving as the evening’s chairman. We will start with Mincha at 7:15 and then proceed with the program.

Introspection about how to better live our lives in consonance with Torah ideals is always timely. It is particularly timely during the days leading up to Tisha B’Av, when we mourn the fact that we remain in Golus, and the reasons why.

And in the wake of recent headlines and front-page photographs that made every feeling Jewish heart ache, it is even more timely for us to take a good, hard look at our obligations to our fellows, to our society, to our government.

I don’t think I can adequately convey how compelling this gathering should be to us all. But I am confident that you realize how vital it is that we hear words of mussar and chizuk, and that we learn to distinguish between conduct that conforms with dina d’malchusa and conduct that does not. I am also confident that you understand how important it is to demonstrate to the wider world how heartfelt and determined Jews respond to news like the tragic tidings of recent days. Tomorrow night’s symposium and our attendance are an important part of that response.
This is without a doubt the biggest load of crap I've heard since Shafran's contemptible defense of Madoff. "To distinguish between conduct that conforms with dina d’malchusa and conduct that does not?!" What the hell does that even mean? It sounds like he's saying that because people don't realize that these things are actually assur (forbidden) due to dina d'malchusa, unfortunately some bad mistakes have happened. Riiiiight... because without knowing that dina d'malchusa forbids it, it's understandable that someone would find it acceptable to cheat the government, launder millions through charities, bribe officials, and engage in illegal organ trafficking! (Not to mention sexually molest children, grant special treatment to prisoners, defend abusive parents, smuggle drugs, abuse immigrant workers, violently riot because of a parking lot opening on shabbos, and protect pedophiles - just some of the recent crimes that have been perpetrated by ultra-orthodox people in the past few months.) Sure, it's a lesson in conforming to dina d'malchusa dina that people need - people like the Spinka Rebbe, who was busted this past year for money laundering and tax evasion. If only he had known the halacha!

The hypocrisy of these people is utterly astounding! They can’t even acknowledge the problem they claim they want to address! Why can't they just say it like it is?! To admit what everyone knows is really going on?! Wouldn’t it be amazing if someone at the Agudah actually said the following: "We need to take a close look where it is we've gone wrong if every other week another rav or frum person is being busted with crime after crime. We need to consider how the view that we've promoted throughout the last few decades (sometimes subtly, sometimes overtly) - that the goyim don't really matter and that it's ok to disregard them, cheat them, and lie to them, as long as we don't get caught and cause a chillul hashem - might actually be responsible for all this awful behavior. We need to acknowledge that the fact that the Otisville prison looks like a heimishe bungalow colony says something very disturbing about our society. And that few frum people seem to be bothered by this is even more disturbing. We need to admit the painful, ugly truth, that - to paraphrase Shakespeare - something is truly, very rotten in the state of Chareidistan."

Of course, this would never be said in a million years. Why not? Because the attitudes and behaviors that have produced this dysfunctional rot have been taught to scores of frum people as part of the one True Torah Derech (TM). I guarantee you that every person who commits one of these crimes, or defends those who have done so, can find some rav or halachic source to justify his behavior. Just look at the recent debacle over R' Dovid Cohen's statement that it's ok to cheat on one's taxes. Although many in the MO world spoke up against this, the chareidi world was mostly silent, and in fact most of the discussion that I saw from those quarters was defending him. The fact that the Agudah doesn't even have the guts to openly refer to the problems which need addressing just proves how disingenuous they are about actually fixing them. The simple, yet disturbing, truth about all this is that they won't ever really address these issues because so many of their constituents, and their leaders, don't really see these attitudes as problematic.

And let's not forget this little gem:
I am also confident that you understand how important it is to demonstrate to the wider world how heartfelt and determined Jews respond to news like the tragic tidings of recent days.
Hahahahahaha! What a freaking joke! Yes, we have to make sure that the goyim know we’re very upset about all this. Damage control! We wouldn't want them to draw any conclusions from this tragedy about the disregard that our society has viewed them with these past few decades! You know, Rabbi Zwiebel, it's funny you should mention how Jews respond to these things, because until this week, whenever I heard a frum guy share with his yeshiva or shul buddies some ethically questionable shtick that would save them some money, all I heard in response was admiration of his clever yiddishe kup! (Who in the frum world hasn't knowingly winked at the ingenuity of the camp administrator who bussed in loads of kids on the day the inspectors were coming for a visit?) Where was the chareidi community's moral outrage when their criminals weren't being paraded in front of the whole world?

As usual, they profess an earnest sense of remorse and self-reflection:
Introspection about how to better live our lives in consonance with Torah ideals is always timely. It is particularly timely during the days leading up to Tisha B’Av, when we mourn the fact that we remain in Golus, and the reasons why.
As DovBear so eloquently put it, the reason the Temple was destroyed was because the leaders of Jerusalem were pious frauds, who used the Temple to justify their selfish behavior.... In the language of the Prophet, they did not "Seek justice, encourage the oppressed, defend the cause of the fatherless, [or] plead the case of the widow." They didn't protect the vulnerable or defend the rights of the innocent. Instead they just kept showing up on the Temple Mount, day after day, with their fat bulls and incense. While vulnerable people went exploited and unprotected, the leaders of Jerusalem gathered on a mountaintop to pay lip service to God.

They say they want to take a close look at themselves. Well, how about taking a look at this? One of the featured speakers at this asifah, Rabbi Avrohom Schorr, is one of the fundie nut jobs behind a lot of the banning thuggery that goes on in the chareidi community! Yes, the man who unjustly caused damages in excess of $500,000, and tried to ruin an innocent man’s reputation is going to lecture to them on the theme of "Vi’asisa hayashar vi’hatov!" The person who publicly humiliated Lipa Schmeltzer by rushing the stage at a wedding and grabbing the microphone away from the singer is going to speak "words of mussar and chizuk" to the community!

On Tuesday, these god-fearing people will gather to, in their words, "take a good, hard look at our obligations to our fellows, to our society, to our government."

I honestly can not wait to see what they discover.

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Ulterior Motives

We were sitting at a sidewalk cafe, casually reminiscing on the frivolities of our lives, when my friend suddenly leaned over the table, and like a seedy peddler in a back alley, held his jacket slightly open, and said to me conspiratorially, "Hey, check it out."

My interest sufficiently piqued, I watched as he reached into his inside pocket and withdrew a highly polished pen of unique design. Holding it out in the palm of his hand, he looked at me expectantly, clearly wanting me to let him know how impressed I was.

"Ok," I said nonchalantly, refusing to play along, "So you got yourself a nice pen. What's the big deal? Why all the fuss?"

"No, no, " he said to me, nodding his head disapprovingly. "This isn't just any pen. It's a Mont Blanc. Retail price $700." His mangled attempt to pronounce it with the French accent made him appear pathetically condescending.

"Seriously?" I said, mildly impressed, despite myself. "How'd you get your hands on that?" There was no way my friend could afford anything that extravagant, let alone a mere pen.

"Hmmmm..." he replied mysteriously, pleased that I had taken the bait. "That isn't important. I've been using it for a week now. I love having this thing. It writes amazingly. Such an incredible piece of craftsmanship."

His pretentiousness was starting to grate on me. "Really?" I retorted sarcastically. "It writes so amazingly? That's why you enjoy carrying it around? For some reason, I suspect there might be some other motivation at work."

"What do you mean?" he answered defensively. "This really is one of the finest writing instruments ever produced. When writing with it, it smoothly flows along the paper. It sits perfectly balanced in your hand. It's elegantly sculpted. There's no doubt in my mind that this is a superior pen to the crap that everyone else uses!"

"Yeah, that may be true," I replied. "But it's still not why you enjoy using it. The real reason you like it is because it's a status symbol. It gives you cache. People look at you differently when they know you have a Mont Blanc. It may indeed be a far superior pen, but that's irrelevant to why you like using it."

Naturally, he vehemently disputed my allegations, insisting that it was the exceptional quality which earned the pen his unabashed adulation, but the begrudging tone in his voice told me I had indeed hit upon a sore point.

We kept going back and forth on this inane triviality until he insisted he had to take off, and left me alone to ruminate on our petty squabble. But even after he had been gone half an hour, the conversation was still repeating itself in my head. There was something oddly familiar about it to me, and I couldn't seem to put my finger on exactly why it felt that way. Finally, it came to me! I had had this conversation once before, a few weeks earlier! Only then I wasn't talking about luxury pens, but rather, about religion.

You see, every time there's something in the media about people leaving frumkeit (and lately there has been quite a bit about that topic - articles, books, movies, custody battles, documentaries, and more) people talk about the issue more and more. And inevitably I am approached by someone - a friend, a co-worker, a relative - and get asked the million dollar question: Why do people leave frumkeit?

There's many ways to approach this issue, but when the question is posed by a chareidi person, the conversation usually takes a very predictable turn. Chareidi people are ostensibly very bothered by this phenomenon, and when they ask it, they aren't just inquiring out of sheer curiosity, but rather because it's an immensely troubling issue to them. They ask because (so they say) they want to understand the issue better, and by better understanding it, they can work on figuring out a solution to what they see as a serious problem.

So in responding to their inquiry, I usually flip the question back around and ask my interlocutor to explain to me why people are frum. A variety of answers are usually presented in response, but the main one given is simply that... It's the truth! Frum people believe that god has revealed to them the proper way to live, he explains simply, and so observing those rules is the most correct and true lifestyle one can follow.

However, I always dispute that point. Yes, I fully acknowledge that they believe it's the truth. But I don't believe that this belief is the reason why they are frum. I maintain that most people are frum because it serves their own interests, and not because of some lofty devotion to truth. I don't dispute that they believe it. They can still believe it is true, and at the same time, they can be primarily motivated by something other than that truth. Just like my friend with the pen, he honestly believed that it was a truly superior pen (and was probably correct about that), but despite his claim to the contrary, that superiority was not really why he liked the pen so much. His real motivation in using that Mont Blanc was the fact that it brought some tangible benefit to his life (the newfound respect with which people viewed him). And it's the same thing with frumkeit, I say. Whether or not people believe it is true, that's not really why they're frum. They are frum primarily because it brings some tangible benefit to their life. The truth is mostly irrelevant.

Unsurprisingly, frum people staunchly resist attributing their motivations to such self-serving forces. They much prefer the notion that they are frum because they are fervent devotees of the truth and they therefore follow what they believe to be the truth of god's revealed word.

It doesn't bother me that they think this. I honestly don't have any interest in arguing with frum people about it, nor in trying to convince them that my perspective is correct. If my advice on how they can better solve their problem is too difficult for them to accept, I'm not going to force it on them. But despite their resistance, I oftentimes can't help bringing it up in discussion because I feel it satisfactorily resolves a question that is repeatedly raised by frum people in response to a very frequent occurrence, that of the pronouncement by someone (typically an ex-frum person) who, in response to some indiscretion, corruption or criminal activity by a visibly religious figure, will loudly exclaim, "You see?! That's why I am not religious! If that's how religious people behave, I don't want any part in it!"

Whenever they hear someone say this, chareidi people immediately reject it out of hand with what, at first glance, seems to be a very logical reply. "But that doesn't make any sense! Just because some people aren't behaving properly, doesn't disprove the truth of the religion! Their indiscretions do not invalidate God's truth! Why would you throw away something good and true just because of a few rotten apples?" It's a logical reply because they're absolutely right in making their point. Witnessing a religious person behave unethically doesn't have any bearing whatsoever on the truth of the religion. But nonetheless, it always frustrates me when I hear frum people responding this way, because they are entirely misunderstanding the subtext of what one is expressing when making that angry accusation!

When a person passionately declares that seeing a prominent religious figure act inappropriately makes him want to stop being frum, he's not saying that the religion per se has now been disproven. Rather, the primary incentive for him being religious has now been demonstrably refuted. Until that moment he believed that being religious improved the "quality" of a person, or that it genuinely enhanced one's morals somehow. But faced with this spiritual fraud, he now recognizes that religion, in fact, falls far short of achieving that goal. This, then, is what is being expressed in that moment of rejection. Not a statement about the truth of religion, but simply a newfound appreciation for what frumkeit can and can not do for a person's life. He understands now that the benefits he was hoping to accrue from frumkeit will not necessarily be granted to him. And if he isn't going to obtain those rewards, then why bother with it at all?

This is what I keep trying to make frum people understand, but they seem unwilling to accept it: Most people stop being frum for the same reason they choose to remain frum - because of how much they are or aren't benefiting from it. As long as they feel they are tangibly benefiting somehow, either because they genuinely enjoy torah and mitzvos, or because they trust that being frum somehow protects them from the evils of the outside world, or because they think it will guarantee them eternal reward, or because they think it ensures them a moral life, or because they think that they have a better chance at a happy life following those rules, or even simply because they enjoy the social aspects of frum life - for whatever reason it might be, as long as they feel they are prospering in some way from it, they will want to stay frum.

But as soon as the benefit is reduced sufficiently, either because the person doesn't get any significant enjoyment from it anymore, or because torah and mitzvos have become more of a burden, or because the promise of a world to come seems less certain, or because he sees that being frum doesn't guarantee a more moral life, or because he has come to realize that it doesn't shelter him from criminals, corruption, and the dangerous elements of 'the outside world', or for any of a variety of other reasons, then he will stop caring about being frum.

This mental calculus, which more often than not is an unconscious thought process, has very little to do with how much one believes in the truth of Judaism. It is almost entirely self-serving. No doubt on some level they genuinely believe in the truth of Judaism. But again, that belief plays only a very minor role in why they are frum.

Admittedly, if a person truly believes, with a firm conviction, that Judaism is true, he probably won't stop being religious even if he no longer benefits from it, but this is a moot point. The vast majority of frum people do not possess any such conviction. Their 'belief' in Judaism's truth, if it can even be called that, is a barely sustainable faith built upon a hodge-podge of gedolim stories, midrashim, gematrias, some degree of trust in their rabbinic leaders, a whole lot of superstitions, and a few poorly constructed arguments that they might have once heard from a kiruv rabbi. (Additionally, if a person really has a firm conviction that Judaism is true, then he presumably still believes in olam haba, so in effect, he still DOES believe that he is benefiting by being frum.)

"Why are so many people leaving yiddishkeit?", the frum world constantly asks. They can ask it as often as they want. They can hold conferences devoted to the topic, and every month print op-ed's in their publications about it. They can seek the advice of gedolim on the topic and hold tehillim gatherings for siyata d'shmaya in solving it. But all their efforts simply won't amount to much at all. Because until they put aside their inflated sense of spiritual devotion, and acknowledge the mundane truth of their society's self-interested motivations, they will never even begin to truly understand why so many people choose to leave that world behind.