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Menachem Stark and God’s Missing Cliff Notes

Amid the torrent of ink spilled over the murder of Menachem Stark — some of it callous, some of it defensive, much of it self-righteous — one of the smartest pieces appeared Monday on the website of the Jewish Press, the Orthodox Brooklyn weekly.

Written by the paper’s online editor and columnist, the irreplaceable Yori Yanover, it managed to strike a very difficult balance between sensitivity toward the family’s grief and acknowledgment of the serious allegations against Stark, together with some serious and learned thoughts on sin and repentance.

Unfortunately, you can’t read it there. It was taken down for some reason, just hours after it went up. If you click on the link you get an error message. I’m guessing that probably speaks volumes about the mood in the Orthodox community right now.

Fortunately, I saved some of the text before it went down, thinking I would use some of it for a blog post and refer readers to the original. I didn’t save Yori’s detailed summary of Stark’s reputed misdeeds, but you can get it in the original Post article that Yori drew from, to hear what investigators knew and thought about the deceased.

Among many other things, the episode, and the news coverage, offers a reminder of the sharp difference between the bottom-feeding, destructive instincts of the Post’s editors (and of the larger Rupert Murdoch-News Corp.-Fox culture within which they dwell) and the serious, professional work of the reporters and journalists who fill the inside of that paper.

It should also be a wakeup call to those conservatives who like to get their news from Murdoch properties, print and broadcast alike, because they don’t like what the “liberal” media tell them about Israel. Before all else, the News Corp. culture is one of salacious, divisive, demagogic and race-baiting sensationalism. You know how it goes—they smeared blacks, but I didn’t protest because I’m not black. They smeared Muslims, but I didn’t … etc. Then they come around to you. It’s hurtful.

Anyhow, here’s what I salvaged of Yori’s article:

Death of a ‘Slumlord’ an Opportunity for Contemplation

God is the greatest educator, although His teachings don’t come with cliff notes.

It’s crucial that we meditate on the fate of Menachem Stark ZL in a manner that goes beyond the sensationalist treatment in the media (in this case the NY Post). Jewish tradition has something to say about everything, and about religious Jews meeting an unusual death it says plenty. God is the greatest educator, although His teachings don’t come with cliff notes.

For decades, one of the less appealing traditions of the New York City media has been the Village Voice’s New York’s Ten Worst Landlords. It was hard to read because of the sheer suffering and callousness these people spread wherever they went; and it was embarrassing to read because of the fact that so many of them were Jewish, and even religious Jews.

I checked out the list for this article and discovered to my relief that only three distinctly Jewish names are on it this year. Sadly, the list opens with a Jewish guy, which means that many readers who won’t bother to read further would miss out on the Italian, Hispanic, African American and Japanese slumlords who are also on display.

It’s hard to understand what it takes for a man to see his property overrun by rats, cockroaches, drug addicts, leaky pipes, broken windows—all the components of urban misery—and to proceed to collect the rents and walk away in a hurry to make it home in time for Shabbes. …

Yori described Stark’s generosity and the love of his family and community. He noted that the various accusations against him had never been brought to court, and continued:

True enough, but Jewish tradition speaks of two kind of courts, the one “down here” and the one “up there.” We believe that, should the earthly court fail to bring a man to justice, the heavenly court will. Granted, when a person’s case is taken up by the higher court, we believe that it considers his or her merits, in addition to their sins. In the end, we believe that the punishment we receive is meant to help us atone for our sins, as well as teach us and the people around us a lesson.

God is the greatest educator, although His teachings don’t come with cliff notes. We must study them, according to our own understanding.

In that context, Jewish tradition regards mitta meshuna—unusual punishment [lit. death under unusual circumstances – JJG] to require special contemplation. I believe Menachem Stark ZL suffered an unusual death, and therefore we would all benefit from meditating on it in our own ways.

Speaking of which, Doreen Ellen Bell-Dotan asked angrily why we ran Stark’s name in the picture caption with the addendum ZL—of blessed memory [Heb. Zichrono Levracha]. “Why the ZL after his name?” she demanded. “Do you know what that stands for or are you just writing things mindlessly?”

Well, while we are occasionally given to mindless writing, this time we decided on the ZL after serious consideration. First, we assumed most publications would not use it, and so this was an opportunity to act as a traditional Jewish website. Second, our tradition teaches that death atones for a person’s sins, and so, after they die, they deserve all the honoraria befitting the blameless departed.

Our sages taught (AZ 17a) [Bab. Talmud tractate Avoda Zara p.17a]: It was said of R[abbi] Eleazar b[en] Dordia that he did not leave out any harlot in the world without coming to her. Once, on hearing that there was a certain harlot in one of the towns by the sea who accepted a purse of denarii for her hire, he took a purse of denarii and crossed seven rivers for her sake. As he was with her, she blew forth breath and said: As this blown breath will not return to its place, so will Eleazar b. Dordia never be received in repentance. To cut a long story short, he was crushed by it, placed his head between his knees, and wept aloud until his soul departed. Then a voice came down from heaven proclaiming: “Rabbi Eleazar b. Dordai is destined for the life of the world to come!”

When Rabbi Yehuda Hanassi heard this, he said: Repentants are not only accepted, they are even called “Rabbi”!

Even though it appears from the story that R. Eleazar b. Dordia spent more time than Reb Menachem Stark ZL contemplating his deeds, we believe that the divine court decided in both their cases that atonement was conditioned on their giving up their souls. Once that’s done, we don’t hold grudges. They are both of blessed memory. Live with it.

Blessed is the Judge of Truth.

If you don’t follow Yori Yanover regularly, you’re missing something. He’s sometimes infuriating, and I probably disagree with him more often than I agree with him, but I always learn something from him and besides there’s the pure pleasure of his writing.


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