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Thursday, July 30, 2009

The Morality Crisis in Orthodox Judaism

My friend Gil Elon Amminadav pointed out an interview, The Morality Crisis in Orthodox Judaism.

I.

There, inter alia, we read:
Jeffrey Goldberg: ... [W]hat is the failure in Orthodox education, or in the Orthodox rabbinate, that lets this happen over and over again[?]. From a non-Orthodox perspective, I would hazard a guess and say that insularity combined with a hyper-legalistic approach to life -- i.e. I eat kosher, and I observe the manifold laws of the Sabbath, so therefore I'm right with God -- might lead to these kinds of moral failures. I'm not arguing against legalism, but can observing the ritual so fastidiously blind someone to the fact that there are a whole set of other laws governing the way we're supposed toward our fellow man?

Erica Brown: Ideally, legal nuances make people more fastidious in their observance of the bigger moral picture. I think it has in my own life. For example, I would venture to say that traditional Jews are more scrupulous about returning a lost object than others may be because Jewish law demands diligence in this area. However, I think you're right that for some, strict adherence to law without an underlying spiritual compass can result in forgetting what the law is there to enforce. Maimonides [sic: should be Nachmanides] had unkind words for such individuals. He called them scoundrels within the framework of the law.


I later saw that Ilana-Davita also cites (here) this same exchange between Goldberg and Brown. There, she (viz. Ilana-Davita) also cites words by David Feldman that aptly summarize the view of Nachmanides alluded to by Brown:
[T]hat mitzvah comes to express a fundamental truth of Jewish living. If one comes to the conclusion that his actions are permitted by the Torah even if they lack in basic decency, even if they are not good or upright, then that person is by definition mistaken. It is fundamentally impossible for lack of yashrus to coincide with the Torah’s vision.
Or, as Rabbi Yehuda Amital says here,
Many of the fundamental values of the Torah which are based on the general commandments of "You shall be holy" (Vayikra 19:2) and "You shall do what is upright and good in the eyes of God" (Devarim 6:18), which were not given formal, operative formulation, have not only lost some of their status, but they have also lost their validity in the eyes of a public that regards itself as committed to Halakha.
Therefore, Professor Marc Shapiro adds,
I believe that the "halakho-centrism" that Amital criticizes has another pernicious influence, and that is the overpopulation of "halakhic" Jews who have been involved in all sorts of illegal activities. A major problem we have is that it is often the case that all sorts of halakhic justifications can be offered for these illegal activities. One whose only focus in on halakhah, without any interest in the broad ethical underpinnings of Judaism, and the Ramban's [Ramban = Nachmanides] conception of Kedoshim Tihyu, can entirely lose his bearings and turn into a "scoundrel with Torah license."


II.

Returning to Goldberg and Brown, Gil Amminadav responded
I think that a major aspect of this problem is Orthodox Jewish identity itself, a religious identity unfounded in the history, literature, or law of the Jewish people. As Mr. Goldberg half-jokingly mentions, the privileging of observing kashruth (dietary law) and Shabbath (the Sabbath) over the observance of other laws (such as not stealing from or in any way mistreating other people, making a hillul ha-shem, etc) has given these "observant" Jews a distorted idea of what is expected of them by the law. By extension, as the law is meant to inform and shape our categories of right and wrong, as Jews, these "observant" Jews wind up with a very distorted idea of what is right and wrong - a much bigger problem than a few handcuffed "rabbis"!

I disagree with Ms. Brown about the need for a "spiritual compass" to remind us what the law "is there to enforce." What failed these crooks was not their lack of a "spiritual compass" but rather their belief that there are some laws - kashruth and Shabbath - that are more important than others. When a religious identity is founded entirely on the "observance" of those particular laws, then it can only be expected that such religionists would come to neglect the observance of the other laws.

I do not see the problem as either "the fastidious observance of ritual" or the absence of an "underlying spiritual compass." I see the problem as a Jewish religious identity that arbitrarily determines Jewish norms of behavior irrespective of the outline provided by the Tora.


Personally, I don't think there's a big difference between the "spiritual compass" explanation by Brown, and the distorted understanding of ritual mitzvot according to Amminadav. In truth, I think they are both the same phenomenon. That is, if one misunderstands the respective purposes and values of mitzvot bein adam l'havero (ethical and social mitzvot) and mitzvot bein adam la-makom (ritual mitzvot), then one's spiritual compass is awry. So I agree with both Brown and Amminadav, because i think they're saying the same thing.

So what these crooks are lacking is precisely the spiritual compass that informs them of what the purpose of the law is. If one believes - as the Haver (Rabbi) in the Kuzari appears to hold in 2:48 - that the sine qua non of Jewishness is korbanot (sacrifices) and tefillah (prayer) and Shabbat and kashrut, then one will of course believe, as Goldberg puts it, "I eat kosher, and I observe the manifold laws of the Sabbath, so therefore I'm right with God." In the times of the prophets, many Jews were similar to today's many (not all) ethically-challenged hyper-legalHaredim; the prophets blasted them for believing that offering the korbanot and keeping Shabbat somehow substituted for proper treatment of the widow and orphan. These prophetic-era Haredim held that being God's chosen people and keeping His ritual mitzvot made one right by Him, and that He would protect His people from any disaster, no matter how ethically corrupt His people was.

On the other hand, if one holds - like the Kuzar King in Kuzari 2:47 - that the sine qua non of Jewishness is ethical behavior and social justice, then one's perspective will be entirely different. Indeed, to the Haredim of the prophetic period, Micha said, "Oh man, G-d has told you what is good: to do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly with your God." Jeremiah said, "Let not the wise man glory in his wisdom, nor the mighty man in his might, nor the rich man in his riches. But he who glories, let him glory in this: that he knows Me, that I desire righteousness and justice, for in these I delight." Regarding Avraham Avinu, God said, "Shall I keep from him that which I have decided to do with Sodom? Have not I known him in order that he teach his household and his children after him to guard the way of God, to do righteousness and justice?". Rabbi Akiva of course said that loving one's fellow is the summation of all of Judaism, and ben Zoma similarly held that "This is the book of man" is the summation of Judaism.

Rabbi Yom Tov Schwarz (Eyes to See, Urim Publications) points out that in Beitza, Hazal question the Jewish pedigree of anyone who is not merciful or kind, and the Rambam and Shulhan Arukh take this quite literally, declaring marriage to someone unkind or unmerciful as violating the prohibition of marrying a gentile. However, notes Rabbi Schwarz, Hazal never say this of anyone who violates Shabbat or kashrut; such a sinner is a Jewish sinner, whereas an unkind person isn't even a Jew in the first place.

And who can forget how much more severe the punishment for bein adam l'havero (social and ethical mitzvot) is (viz. a flood and universal destruction and death) over the punishment for bein adam la-makom (ritual mitzvot) (viz. a dispersion, with everyone surviving in his new home)? And G-d said regarding the idolatrous prophetic-era Ephramites, "Ephraim is at one; let him be." Even idolatry is forgiven when it is accompanied by unity and brotherly harmony.

If one understands all this, then one's spiritual compass is in order, and one will understand what G-d desires. But if one does not understand this, then he will be one of the many (not all) ethically-challenged hyper-legalHaredim, not so very different than those criticized in the Tanakh.

III.

Brown makes another good point:
Morality is not a natural and assumed set of values, and we make a mistake as leaders or parents if we think that our charges will know how to do right and why on their own. Isaiah, in the very first chapter of "his" book says: "Learn to do good. Devote yourselves to justice. Aid the wronged. Uphold the rights of the orphan; defend the cause of the widow." Isaiah makes no assumptions. He tells us straight-out - learn to do good. And so we must.
To this, I reply: Orthodoxy, Then and Now, by Dr. Yitzchok Levine.

IV.

Brown makes one point, however, with which I must disagree; she says
[H]ere I would make a critical distinction. Judaism upholds certain ethical values grounded in the book of Deuteronomy -- "And you shall do what is just and good in the eyes of God" -- that some Jews choose to ignore. That's a human problem, not a faith problem. In other words, there are Jews and there is Judaism, and they are not the same thing.

The fact that [individual] observant Jews can turn away from the Talmudic dictum that the "law of the government is our law," namely, that we are bound by the jurisdiction of whatever country we are in, shows a moral failing on their [individual] part. As you know, Jeffrey, I grew up in Deal, New Jersey. I feel ulceritic at what I read and saw yesterday. As my daughter said loudly when she heard, "How can the paper report that they're Orthodox? There is nothing Orthodox about them."
My reply is simply a quotation of Rabbi Hillel Goldberg, from "Religious Zionism Revisited: A Symposium", in Tradition 28:4 (1994):
At Emory University in 1978, a colleague taught a course on the interaction of religions. He asked me to sit in as a "J udaica expert" on that part of the course devoted to the interaction of Judaism and Christianity. As it turned out, I did not need to answer the toughest question. My relief, it is clear in retrospect, was premature.

A graduate student at Emory's Candler School of Theology, preparing for the Christian ministry, addressed me without animus, with genuine conviction-which only made his question all the more frightening. He asked: "How can you blame the Church for the Crusades? The Crusaders were not Christian. They did not represent true Christianity. They were distorting true Christianity. Let the Jews stop laying a trip on the Church for the likes of the Crusades."

I was stunned. This was no rabid anti-Semite. This was a sincere, educated man in his late twenties, with some experience in life. Before I had a chance to fumble for an appropriately pointed yet cool answer, my colleague, a decent man of Christian heritage from Mississippi, took the question naturally, without missing a beat, answering out of years of self-scrutiny, answering undefensively, with learning and simplicity. His response had an authority that only a person of his background could bring. He spoke to this effect: "The distinction between a supposedly pure, ethereal Church-some per fect Church somewhere in the sky-and the brutal acts undertaken in the name of the Church on this earth, has been a favorite technique in parts of the Church for avoiding its real, historical responsibility for the brutalities it has perpetrated against the Jews."

I wanted to bend over and kiss my colleague.

Now I want to cry.

Then I was elated not only because my colleague's words got me out of a tough spot, but because they issued from painful acknowledgement of historical truths, from difficult self-scrutiny. Especially in the context of the Holocaust, the Jewish people has come to take it for grated that it is a collective Christian obligation to confront its own hateful history, to accept the moral category of collective responsibilty, to weed out theological rot, to condem perpetrators and bystanders, even when they are embodiments of sacred Christian tradition. We have a right to expect all this, but all the more must we expect it our ourselves-Go d's chosen people-if we fail, even if our failing is hardly comparable to the anti-Semitic monstrosities of Christian history.
One must realize: even if Judaism disagrees with what some Jews are doing, the fact remains that these Jews are Orthodox, and therefore, Judaism either made them what they are today, or tacitly allowed them to so become. Either way, whether they act they way they do because of Judaism or despite Judaism, either way, Judaism has failed.

V.

Earlier, I briefly quoted Rabbi Yehuda Amital, that,
Many of the fundamental values of the Torah which are based on the general commandments of "You shall be holy" (Vayikra 19:2) and "You shall do what is upright and good in the eyes of God" (Devarim 6:18), which were not given formal, operative formulation, have not only lost some of their status, but they have also lost their validity in the eyes of a public that regards itself as committed to Halakha.
I also quoted what Professor Marc Shapiro adds, that,
I believe that the "halakho-centrism" that Amital criticizes has another pernicious influence, and that is the overpopulation of "halakhic" Jews who have been involved in all sorts of illegal activities. A major problem we have is that it is often the case that all sorts of halakhic justifications can be offered for these illegal activities. One whose only focus in on halakhah, without any interest in the broad ethical underpinnings of Judaism, and the Ramban's [Ramban = Nachmanides] conception of Kedoshim Tihyu, can entirely lose his bearings and turn into a "scoundrel with Torah license."


Let us now quote Rabbi Amital and Profesor Shapiro more fully (from here; all bolding is mine.):
5. In recent years a few volumes from the writings of R. Yehudah Amital have been translated into English, allowing many new people to be exposed to his thoughts. Here is a provocative passage from his newest volume, Commitment and Complexity: Jewish Wisdom in an Age of Upheaval, p. 48:
We live in an era in which educated religious circles like to emphasize the centrality of Halakha, and commitment to it, in Judaism. I can say that in my youth in pre-Holocaust Hungary, I didn't hear people talking all the time about "Halakha." People conducted themselves In the tradition of their forefathers, and where any halakhic problems arose, they consulted a rabbi. Reliance on Halakha and unconditional commitment to it mean, for many people, a stable anchor whose purpose is to maintain the purity of Judaism, even within the modern world. To my mind, this excessive emphasis of Halakha has exacted a high cost. The impression created is that there is nothing in Torah but that which exists in Halakha, and that in any confrontation with the new problems that arise in modern society, answers should be sought exclusively in books of Halakha. Many of the fundamental values of the Torah which are based on the general commandments of "You shall be holy" (Vayikra 19:2) and "You shall do what is upright and good in the eyes of God" (Devarim 6:18), which were not given formal, operative formulation, have not only lost some of their status, but they have also lost their validity in the eyes of a public that regards itself as committed to Halakha.
This reminds me of the quip attributed to Heschel that unfortunately Orthodox Jews are not in awe of God, but in awe of the Shulhan Arukh. In truth, Heschel's point is good hasidic teaching, and R. Jacob Leiner of Izbica notes that one can even make idols out of mitzvot. (Beit Yaakov, vol. 2, p. 256.) He points out that the Second Commandment states that one is prohibited from making an image of what is in the heavens. R. Jacob claims that what the Torah refers to as being in the heavens is none other than the Sabbath. The Torah is telling us that we must not turn it into an idol. In this regard, R. Jacob cites the Talmud: "One does not revere the Sabbath but Him who ordered the observance of the Sabbath." (Yevamot 6b)

I believe that the "halakho-centrism" that Amital criticizes has another pernicious influence, and that is the overpopulation of "halakhic" Jews who have been involved in all sorts of illegal activities. A major problem we have is that it is often the case that all sorts of halakhic justifications can be offered for these illegal activities. One whose only focus in on halakhah, without any interest in the broad ethical underpinnings of Judaism, and the Ramban's conception of Kedoshim Tihyu, can entirely lose his bearings and turn into a "scoundrel with Torah license." The Rav long ago commented that halakhah is the floor, not the ceiling. One starts with halakhah and moves up from there. Contrary to what so many feel today, halakhah, while required, is not all there is to being a Jew, and contrary to what so many Orthodox apologists claim, halakhah does not have "all the answers." One of the most important themes in Weinberg's writings is the fact that there are people in the Orthodox community who, while completely halakhic, are ethically challenged.

Since I already mentioned Rabbi Rakov, let me tell a story that illustrates this. I went to Gateshead to interview him about his relationship with [Rabbi Yehiel Yaakov] Weinberg. When I got there I had a few hours until our meeting so I paid a visit to the local seforim store. I found a book I wanted and asked the owner how much it cost. He gave me a price, and then added that if I was a yeshiva student there was a discount. When I later met with Rakov I asked him if it would have been OK for me to ask one of the yeshiva students to buy the book at discount, and then I could pay him for it. He replied that there was certainly no halakhic problem involved. After all, the first student acquires the book through a kinyan and then I buy it from him. But he then added: "Yet it would not be ethical."

[Rabbi Yehiel Yaakov] Weinberg's concerns in this area were not merely motivated by the distressing phenomenon of halakhically observant people who showed a lack of ethical sensitivity. His problem was much deeper in that he feared that this lack of sensitivity was tied into the halakhic system itself. In other words, he worried that halakhah, as generally practiced, sometimes led to a dulling of ethical sensitivity. Weinberg saw a way out of this for the enlightened souls, those who could walk the middle path between particularist and universal values. Yet in his darkest moments he despaired that the community as a whole could ever reach this point. This explains why he esteemed certain Reform and other non-Orthodox figures. Much like R. Kook saw the non-Orthodox as providing the necessary quality of physicality which was lacking among the Orthodox, Weinberg appreciated the refined nature of some of the non-Orthodox he knew and lamented that his own community was lacking in this area. It was precisely because of his own high standards that he had so little tolerance for ethical failures in the Orthodox community. Weinberg's sentiments, which focused on inner-Orthodox behavior, were not motivated by fear of hillul ha-shem. It was simply an issue of Jews living the way they are supposed to. (I think an important point, which I have not seen anyone make, is that the entire concept of hillul ha-shem has basically disappeared in the United States. This perhaps has had some impact on Orthodox misconduct. What I mean is that in years past people were held back from doing things because of a fear of how it would look to the non-Jewish world, i.e., it would lead to Jews and Judaism being degraded in their eyes. Today, very few Jews think like that. We live in a great country. If a Jew, or an Orthodox Jew, does something illegal, even if he is on the front page of the newspaper, the typical non-Jew does not take this as a reflection on Jews as a whole or on the religion – and we have had many examples to illustrate the empirical truth of this statement. People know that there are scoundrels in every religious group, and one should not judge another person or religion based on the actions of individuals. When we have reached this wonderful point, what room is there for hillul ha-shem as a motivating factor?)


P.S.: Rabbi Amital said, "Reliance on Halakha and unconditional commitment to it mean, for many people, a stable anchor whose purpose is to maintain the purity of Judaism, even within the modern world." Cf. what Shimshonit writes here, inter alia:
It seems to me that there are Jews who are looking for more things to do to keep themselves occupied. Many of these things involve focusing on women’s (real or perceived) sexuality. In my opinion, these people live in fear. I, on the other hand, do not.
That that, I reply:
It seems like almost a form of OCD. They so desperately want to be in control of their environments, that they invent new humrot to keep themselves busy.

Moreover, Professor Haym Soloveitchik in Rupture and Reconstruction notes that it is a result of a psychological need to be the “other.” Traditionally, Jews were quite clearly an ostracized minority, living their own distinct lives in their own distinct social bubble. But following the Emancipation and the migration to Western Europe (socio-economic Western Europe, not geographic), Jews ceased to be such a distinct minority. Professor Soloveitchik says the acculturation can be in such things as subtle as the way your body subconsciously beats to music. Therefore, the Haredim are struggling to find ways to distinguish themselves from society, because they have a desperate psychological need to be an oppressed ostracized outcast minority.

I’m reminded of something I read from Rabbi Dr. David Berger:
[T]here are many Jews who are very uncomfortable saying anything good about non-Jewish attitudes toward Jews. It somehow becomes an article of faith that all Christians have to hate us, that Esav sonei es Yaakov is some sort of necessary, metaphysical reality, and that it’s somehow un-Jewish to limit it in any way. It’s a very strange Jewish characteristic; Jews become uneasy if you tell them that it’s not the case that every non-Jew has always hated all Jews. Somehow it makes Jews happy to hear that they have always been hated by everybody, which is not a good sign in terms of Jewish psychology.
(See the rest of Berger’s article there as well; it’s worth the read.)
Shimshonit (op. cit.) further says,
I think it’s good for men and women to be around each other enough for them to be used to seeing the other as humans, not just sex objects.
To this I reply (op. cit.)
That’s why I love what Rabbi Yuval Cherlow said, that ideally, men and women would be so inured to each other in social settings, that sexual tension would be absent, and the laws of tzeniut would be irrelevant. This ideal is perhaps impossible to achieve, but it is nevertheless the ideal, and the closer we get to it, the better.

And see The Ten Curses of Eve where the author quotes Rav Kook that ideally, the mitzvah of v’ahavta l’reakha kamokha would have men and women interacting in society without segregation. Rav Kook, however, says that unfortunately, sexual attraction and the laws of modesty demand that the mitzvah of v’ahavta be put aside for a different mitzvah. However, the author of that piece then notes that in any curse from G-d – whether pain in childbirth or growing crops by the sweat of your brow – is something for us to overcome with human ingenuity. The logical implication is that it is our task to overcome the “curse” of men and women not being able to properly fulfill the mitzvah of v’ahavta with each other.

7 comments:

ilanadavita said...

Very good post Michael. I also wrote on this topic but in fewer words in my parshah post:

http://ilanadavita.wordpress.com/2009/07/28/parashat-va-etchanan/

ilanadavita said...

Very good post Michael. I also wrote on this topic but in fewer words in my parshah post:

http://ilanadavita.wordpress.com/2009/07/28/parashat-va-etchanan/

MYG said...

"But if one does not understand this, then he will be a Haredi, not so very different than those criticized in the Tanakh."

As far as I'm concerned, Michael, unless I'm very much misunderstanding you, this is a disgusting slur on your part. Not all Haredi Jews have low ethical standards - on the contrary, the vast majority of them have very high standards indeed. You unfairly stereotype and denigrate an entire group, possibly because you disagree with their way of life/hashkafah. Is that ethical?

Mikewind Dale said...

MYG,

You might be right, and I realized this as I wrote what I did.

Nevertheless, I've seen so many reports of crimes by Orthodox Jews, with the Haredim saying nothing. If they say anything at all, it is usually that the Orthodox criminal in question actually did nothing wrong. And look at how many are opposing laws against child abuse in NYC!

But you're probably right that my brush is too wide; I have emended my words accordingly.

MYG said...

Thanks for amending - it's a bit better now. Realize, Michael, that part of the reason why you see so many reports about Orthodox Jews is because of http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Man_bites_dog_%28journalism%29

MYG said...

Let's do that link again: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Man_bites_dog_(journalism)

Mikewind Dale said...

Ilana-Davita,

I have now cited your blog, and I also expanded this entry of mine. See particularly my quotation of Rabbi Hillel Golberg at the end.

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