Since I became observant in high school, I’ve been asked, “How can religious people act that way?” by non-Orthodox friends and family more than I would like to remember — and they are asking a good question.
I have had the privilege of spending the decade after high school in full-time learning in two of the largest yeshivas in the world, one in Lakewood, New Jersey, and one in Jerusalem. Sitting in a room with 800 other young men, learning, speaking and breathing the texts that have been part of our tradition for 3,500 years, the Torah looks alive and very well.
Yesterday I saw several of those young men being arrested by the FBI for fraud. We were taught to be Talmidei Chachamim — practitioners of the Torah’s wisdom. The goal was to minimize, and ideally eliminate, the space between the ideal Torah-centric life and the actual way we live our lives.
Unfortunately, the void between the two is vast and painfully disappointing, and continues to widen. The world and our communities are changing, perhaps faster than ever, but spiritual practice is often frozen in time. There is complex tension between innovation and tradition that requires collective rabbinic skill to address. But instead of being present for the holy labor of asking what God expects from us now, the pause button was pressed and the need for updated answers avoided.
The Torah has tragically been placed in a rabbinically induced solipsistic coma at the very times that we need it to be awakened. It’s hard to know the exact year that represents the golden era of the government being the enemy that the yeshiva community is operating in, but based on the posture in our community toward women, I would guess before 1920. Having never seen Hebrew grammar or the Prophets on the syllabi of any yeshivas speaks to the range of post-enlightenment education that is lacking in our schools.
I have heard stories of young couples giving money to an uncle, with a different last name, to use as a down payment on a house. Then the couple would live there while the government (taxpayers) were paying their mortgage. Rumors of second-party checks being used as currency had made their way to the coffee rooms in Israel. Still, I was not prepared for the dominant culture of Lakewood.
My first encounter with the systemic corruption was, sadly, at the local Jewish bookstore. The rabbi rang up the books, but the price changed when I took out my debit card. Unfamiliar with the custom of the city, I asked, “Is it a different price for cash and credit?” “No,” he said, “I just need to charge you tax if there is a record of it.” Unfortunately, this was only the beginning.
The system is broken and it starts at the top. I tell the following story with a very heavy heart. It involves a rabbi that was kind to me. He inspired me and honored us with naming our son. This Rav once told me that people are like borer, the act of separating on Shabbat: You have to take the good from the bad. It is with that intention that I share this reflection because there is so much good in Lakewood.
I opened the frum, religious, gym at 5:30 a.m. and was a personal trainer before yeshiva started for the day. When I got the job, the owner asked me how I wanted to be paid. “The 1st and 15th?” I answered, not really understanding the question. “No. Do you want me to pre-tithe it for you?” He then explained how there was a wonderful outreach organization that would give him back 90% of a monthly “donation” he made to them in cash. He would get a deduction, no one would have to pay taxes or declare it as income, the organization could continue its “holy work” and I wouldn’t have to tithe it (give 10% of it to charity).
I was silent with disgust, and then it got worse. “Ask a shilah,” he said. “Everyone does it.” Out of curiosity, I called my local posek, or decisor. “Cheat!” he ruled with enthusiasm, as if it were a mitzvah.
I did not. It is the Torah, God and the world that are being cheated. How can the choice to be ethical _or___ to follow the rabbis even exist at all?
When dat, the opinion of, Torah is said by rabbis who are living in a time and among people who do not acknowledge the reality of the world that the rest of us experience, they are answering a question rather than the person. It could be that the answer is the correct one, if asked under unrecognizably different circumstances in a time and land far, far away.
I later asked the Mashgiach Shlit’a how it is that those not in yeshivah, and even those who don’t have a spiritual practice, seem to be doing a much better job at the things that we are meant to take most seriously.
Until the Torah gets to respond, in present tense, the question will always be better than the answer.