Two weeks ago, we released “The Sound of Silence,” and hundreds of thousands of Jews across the internet were on a high. Our world is too constantly connected. People do need some time to unplug. Observant Jews have the secret to a healthy tech-life balance. “Tears, chills, and touched hearts” were reported in comment after comment, and pride in the riches of a Torah observant life was palpable.
Then Monday morning came, and the mood switched to shame as images emerged from Lakewood, NJ, of Orthodox Jews in handcuffs for allegedly defrauding the government. As I write this, a new scandal in the Orthodox community, not connected to the Lakewood arrests, has been reported. We know not the extent of the problem, what the evidence bears out in respect to these allegations, and as always, a person should be tried in a court of law and not on social media. But what we do know is that there is some amount of corruption in the Orthodox Jewish community, and to whatever extent it exists it is wrong.
How bad is it? Depends on who you ask. The hopeful ones will tell you it’s just a few bad apples. The cynical ones will tell you it’s widespread. This is not my community, so I can’t speak from personal experience, and since no study has ever been conducted I imagine that the truth, as with most things in life, lies somewhere in the middle. No matter what the numbers are, we must ask ourselves: is the system encouraging it in any way? And if it is, what can we do about it?
The Torah clearly commands us to “distance yourself from a dishonest thing,” and the Talmud tells us that the first question we’ll be asked when we arrive in the World to Come is if we were honest in our business dealings. But with governments throughout history often treating Jews discriminatorily, an exception was made for payment of taxes to those types of corrupt governments. Though justice in the US is, by and large, fair and impartial, the old mentality, unfortunately, persists for some. For example, one ex-hasidic woman I spoke to told me of a scam she knew of where a shul pretended to be a homeless shelter to help people illegally qualify for Section-8 housing.
What about the leaders of the ultra-Orthodox world? Have they made the importance of the value of honesty known? I spoke about this to both the spokesperson of Agudath Israel, Rabbi Avi Shafran, and a member of Project Makom. Not surprisingly, Rabbi Shafran cited a positive example of leadership doing the right thing, while the member of our group (who has had bad experiences in the charedi world) said the opposite. According to the Makom member, “I don’t recall if the rabbonim actually told people to do it [commit fraud], but they never took a heavy stance against it.”
Rabbi Shafran, on the other hand, explained that a number of years ago, the dean of Yeshiva Torah Vodaath and member of Agudath Israel’s highest rabbinic body, Rabbi Avrohom Pam, zt”l, at the last Agudath Israel national convention of his life, was too ill to attend in person but videotaped his address beforehand so that his words could be shared with the thousands who were present. Rav Pam explained that it makes no difference whether one is acting as an individual or on behalf of an institution, or whether one is dealing with a Jew, non-Jew or government. “Meticulous honesty,” he explained, is the mandate of every Jew, and must be “the hallmark of every observant Jew.”
In terms of adult education, Rabbi Shafran explained that the Agudah has worked hard over the years to organize numerous conferences and seminars for yeshivos, gemachs and shuls on an assortment of legal topics. Honesty in financial dealings and respect for the law have been covered at Agudath Israel national convention sessions as well. And it has been a major track of each of the “Halacha Conferences” they have organized over the years.
He also noted that a few years back, the Agudah sponsored several large gatherings where financial scandals were addressed bluntly and in terrifying terms. One of the speakers was famed criminal defense attorney Ben Brafman, who described the wrongness of cutting corners when dealing with government programs and the excruciating toll that misdeeds in that area have taken on families whose breadwinners are in jail. It left the audience visibly anguished, Rabbi Shafran recalled. “I can’t imagine,” he told me, “that it didn’t have an effect on all those present.” But, he continued, “not every Jewish citizen, unfortunately, was present.”
As an ex-Yeshivish man I spoke to noted, while his rabbis were clear about being scrupulous in business dealings, when Jewish buildings are named after crooks and shuls give honor to known lawbreakers, a mixed message is sent. Rabbi Shafran shared some additional thoughts on the matter, “I can’t speak to any current accusations, simply because there must be a presumption of innocence until all the relevant information is disclosed and the legal process has run its course. But there have been cases in the past where, tragically, illegal acts have been committed by otherwise observant Jews, where frumkeit – observance like keeping Shabbos, eating kosher, etc. – has not been accompanied by ehrlichkeit, meticulous honesty in all one’s dealings. I suspect that a major factor in what leads some people to not realize that ehrlichkeit is in fact essential to true frumkeit is the unhealthy influence of broader society’s focus on “having things.” What were once considered luxuries, sadly, have become “necessities” – at least in the minds of some. But they’re not. Driving an old car and living in a modest home and forgoing elaborate celebrations and summers in the mountains should not be seen as comprising some mark of shame. A modest lifestyle, when that is what one can afford, is a badge of dignity. Jews shouldn’t be status seekers, and shouldn’t value themselves by what they own.”
I believe there is another point that needs to be mentioned. Orthodox life has the potential to be beautiful, meaningful and fulfilling. After all, to share the beauty of my Orthodox life is exactly why I founded Jew in the City almost ten years ago, but it is generally an expensive life. And it can get especially tricky to pay for if you are lacking the education to get a job to support your family. While higher education is not a guarantee of a higher pay check, it is often a very useful piece to the puzzle. Higher education is less common in the ultra-Orthodox world than in other parts of the Orthodox community, and in some circles it is actively opposed. Thankfully, there are more programs than ever before where a charedi Jew can attain a degree that can lead to a more lucrative career, but as we have seen first-hand through Project Makom, there are challenges in getting there.
This scandal has been palpably painful throughout the Jewish world, and I hope it will be a wake-up call for everyone to be more scrupulous than ever in all of their dealings, live more simply if need be, and obtain the education they need so that everyone can live up to the meticulous standards of honesty our Torah calls for.