Wednesday, July 29, 2009

When rabbis become criminals

Every day it seems we hear of prominent rabbis and others in our community arrested for serious crimes - tax fraud, money laundering, drug trafficking and so on. It happens so often that we've become inured to the massive Hillul Hashem involved. Even so, last week's news was over the top. Solomon "Shtick Dreck" Dwek, a bigwig in the Syrian community, was caught in an alleged 50 million dollar bad check scheme, and was "flipped" by the FBI to become a cooperating witness. Posing as a criminal with tainted money to be laundered, he exposed massive criminality reaching to the top of our communal structure, up to and including trafficking in human organs. The timing of the story - two days before Shabbat Hazon, is excruciatingly apropos. I don't want to repeat what was already said ad nauseam on other blogs, and I hope that what I say here actually adds something.

We've been told to look into ourselves, that all of us have failings that have to be corrected. True enough. But what transpired last week is not a simple matter of individuals giving in to their yetzer hara, which we all do on occasion. For one thing, these were not mere individuals. They are among the most highly placed in the community; one of them was the Chief Rabbi of the Syrian community in Brooklyn. Nor can such conduct be excused because the money went to communal institutions. Institutions that can only exist on criminal money do not deserve to exist. And why was the fabulously wealthy Syrian community most deeply involved - do they have to turn to crime to support their mosdot? Nor was this a spur-of-the-moment surrender to a yetzer hara, like eating a candy bar that didn't have a proper hekhsher, something these rabbis would not have dreamed of doing. We're talking about a massive criminal enterprise, worthy of the Mafia, that has apparently been going on for years. Anybody can go to Atlantic City on occasion and shoot craps, but a professional dice player, i.e. someone who makes a living playing dice (mesahek b'kubiya) is disqualified from testifying in a Jewish court (pasul l'edut). We've been told to go to minyan more often. That completely misses the point of the haftara we read. God does not want our minyanim. He has no use for our ritual observance when we pervert justice and make cheating and stealing a way of life. How in blazes have we sunk so low? Look into ourselves, sure, but it has nothing to do with going to minyan. We have to look into our dealings with others, and with the government. If we are employees, do we chat on the phone on company time? If we are employers, are we late with our workers' wages (hint, hint, yeshiva administrators)? If we are tenants, are we late with the rent? If we are landlords, do we skimp on essential services? Complying with the law is the bare minimum here; we are expected to go lifnim meshurat ha-din. If our buildings are not warm enough in winter for our grandmothers, then they aren't warm enough for anybody else's. Do we give up our seats on the train for older people, of any race, color or creed, even when we're tired? Ever notice how trains and buses in New York have signs saying "Won't you please give this seat to the elderly and disabled?," while those evil Zionist Egged buses in Israel, where women are beaten for refusing to move to the back of the bus, post the pasuk "Mipne seiva takum?" And I'm using the first person plural because I'm guilty too. Are our yeshivot teaching our children in no uncertain terms that it is absolutely assur to cheat and steal from anybody, Jew or Gentile, or from the government? Do we tolerate rabbis who tell us that it's okay to defraud the government as long as you're clever enough not to get caught? Guess what - the goyim aren't as stupid as you think they are. Not American goyim. And certainly not American goyim (and Jews, who are thoroughly disgusted with what they see "religious" Jews doing) who work for the FBI and the IRS. You confirm all the tired old stereotypes about the greedy money-grubbing Jews. Mr. Dwek is not the only "shtick dreck" in this whole sorry mess.

In the absence of prophecy, God communicates to us through Torah and nature. He hasn't had much success with Torah, and it looks like he might be trying nature instead. God sometimes "gives mussar" in the form of unusual natural phenomena, e.g. the plague of hail in Egypt and rain out of season in Israel (see the haftara for Korah). We in New York have been experiencing unheard-of weather these last few days. The sun shines brightly, and in a matter of minutes a dark cloud appears and lets loose with a heavy downpour - with the sun still shining! I don't mean sunshowers - light rain from a cumulus cloud in the midst of bright sunshine. Those are common, and running through them is among the simple pleasures that make summer my favorite time of year. What we've been having are torrentrial downpours, complete with lightning that nearly killed a man a stone's throw from where I live in Brooklyn, all while the sun is shining! This might be normal in Florida, but it's unheard-of in Brooklyn. Is there a message here? The world exists, in some unprovable and metaphysical sense, so that God's people can observe His Torah. When supposed "men of religion" make a mockery of Torah on a grand scale, the world loses its reason for being, and God returns it to tohu va-vohu, primeval chaos and confusion.

Glimmers of recognition are starting to appear. Haredi yeshivot have made a virtue of neglecting secular studies, to the point where young haredi men (men more than women, who are expected to support their husbands in learning) cannot get jobs because they lack basic communication and computational skills. And when people cannot get honest jobs they sometimes turn to crime. That is nothing new. Hazal told us long ago that a man who does not teach his son a useful occupation teaches him to steal. The question is will the community wake up in time, and will they be able and willing to correct the problem once they do? I am not optimistic.

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