A Light Unto the Nations, or a Cautionary Tale?


By Moshe Rosenberg

Published July 29, 2009, issue of August 07, 2009.
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The news that a slew of rabbis and politicians have been caught in a web of money laundering, corruption and even organ trafficking is providing grist for rabbis’ sermons across the country. It is taking its place in our synagogues among the things we mourn this Tisha B’Av.

And understandably so. Even if some of the charges ultimately prove to be untrue — and in America we must grant the presumption of innocence even when things look blackest — think of the damage this scandal has already done. Think of the negative stereotypes it will bolster: Jews manipulating politicians. Jews motivated by money lust. Jews literally trafficking in a pound of flesh.

Imagine taking tzedakah, the vehicle of redemption, and turning it into a façade for a criminal enterprise. According to the Mishnah, one who says “I shall sin, but Yom Kippur will atone” forfeits the atonement afforded by the holy day. When the very instrument of atonement becomes the pretext for sin, it loses its capacity for kappara, for atonement. Heaven help us if people like these strip the charitable work of the Jewish people of its redemptive power. Imagine God, with His hand reaching for the first brick of a new Temple — pulling it back.

Yet the usual hand-wringing is already in evidence, as are the standard excuses: All communities have their bad apples, etc. Will we hide behind noble condemnations and craven rationalizations until the next scandal starts the cycle again?

Unfortunately, unethical and even illegal behavior too often does not face serious censure in our communities. I’m reminded of a hilarious YouTube video that made the rounds last year. It featured a rabbi taking a call from someone inquiring about a young woman from his congregation for match-making purposes. The satirical script, meant to highlight the ridiculous lengths to which some circles go in such background checks and our community’s sometimes misplaced values, had the caller ask, “Has anyone in the family ever been convicted of anything other than a white-collar crime?” The rabbi responds, “Only white-collar, and the sentences were all done in federal, minimum-security places, with Daf Yomi, minyanim, glatt kosher chasidishe shechita.” While the video was a spoof, it conveyed an underlying truth.

If we want to avoid future scandals, we must be clear in our condemnations of unethical behavior. Orthodox leaders use the harsh language and terminology of taboo when we discuss intermarriage, and as a result intermarriage is rare in our communities. We cannot leave any doubt whatsoever that dishonest and illegal business practices are strictly taboo.

I remember how the synagogue in which I was raised, to its eternal credit, removed the dedication plaque of a prominent member who was implicated in a nursing home scandal in the 1970s. Those convicted of white-collar crimes should be outcasts in the community, pariahs, at least from the time they are found guilty until the time they leave prison. Anything in our communities named after a felon — rooms, buildings, programs — must be stripped of that association. The message must be: You are disowned. We want no part of you.

Children need to be taught in school that engaging in disreputable activities endangers the entire Jewish people and subverts our mission to be a “light unto the nations.” They must be told not only that such behavior is utterly forbidden by Jewish law but that those who engage in it will be abandoned by the Jewish community.

Are we worse than other ethnic groups when it comes to white-collar crime? No, but we are obligated to be much better — the commandment “You shall love the Lord, your God” is explained by the Talmud to mean, “The name of heaven must be made beloved through you.” We are called upon to be the gold standard of ethics. That means that even if we have to sacrifice financially to avoid being put in awkward situations which have the potential to lead to a chilul Hashem — a desecration of God’s name — we must do so.

And our religious leaders must take the lead in being circumspect, since their behavior is the most likely to be magnified in the media. To them the words “Be innocent in the eyes of both God and man” were said with greatest emphasis. They must not engage in any business dealings that are less than glatt kosher with nothing questionable whatsoever adhering to them.

One way of combating chilul Hashem is with kiddush Hashem, the active sanctification of God’s name. An example of this is the push from various quarters, and in various stages of development and implementation, to grant special certification to kosher food providers that meet ethical standards beyond those of kashrut. This is an important starting point in the struggle to make sure that our community upholds the highest ethical standards in all spheres of life. By honoring our ethical traditions and living up to our religious responsibilities, we can reclaim the moral high ground and serve as role models, rather than cautionary tales, to the people of the world.

Rabbi Moshe Rosenberg serves as spiritual leader of Congregation Etz Chaim of Kew Gardens Hills, N.Y.

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