Last week saw another eruption of alleged immorality in the American Orthodox Jewish community. Five rabbis were arrested as part of an investigation into political corruption in New Jersey. Is it just a coincidence that Orthodox Jews keep showing up in handcuffs on the evening news? Is there an ethics crisis in the most religiously observant corner of American Jewry? I called my friend Erica Brown to ask these questions. Erica is one of the leading Jewish thinkers in America today. She runs the adult education branch of the Partnership Jewish Life and Learning in Washington, and she's wicked smart. So to speak.
Jeffrey Goldberg: Is there a crisis of morality in the Orthodox Jewish community today?
Erica Brown: I don't believe that there is a moral crisis specifically in the Orthodox community. I believe that there is a crisis in the Jewish community at large that reflects a larger moral vacuum in society. And here I would make a critical distinction. Judaism upholds certain ethical values grounded in the book of Deuteronomy -- "And you shall do what is just and good in the eyes of God" -- that some Jews choose to ignore. That's a human problem, not a faith problem. In other words, there are Jews and there is Judaism, and they are not the same thing.
The fact that observant Jews can turn away from the Talmudic dictum that the "law of the government is our law," namely, that we are bound by the jurisdiction of whatever country we are in, shows a moral failing on their part. As you know, Jeffrey, I grew up in Deal, New Jersey. I feel ulceritic at what I read and saw yesterday. As my daughter said loudly when she heard, "How can the paper report that they're Orthodox? There is nothing Orthodox about them."
JG: I'm not going to let you off that easily. Your daughter is right, of course -- there's nothing Orthodox about them (assuming, of course, that the charges are true). But what is the failure in Orthodox education, or in the Orthodox rabbinate, that lets this happen over and over again. From a non-Orthodox perspective, I would hazard a guess and say that insularity combined with a hyper-legalistic approach to life -- i.e. I eat kosher, and I observe the manifold laws of the Sabbath, so therefore I'm right with God -- might lead to these kinds of moral failures. I'm not arguing against legalism, but can observing the ritual so fastidiously blind someone to the fact that there are a whole set of other laws governing the way we're supposed toward our fellow man?
EB: Ideally, legal nuances make people more fastidious in their observance of the bigger moral picture. I think it has in my own life. For example, I would venture to say that traditional Jews are more scrupulous about returning a lost object than others may be because Jewish law demands diligence in this area. However, I think you're right that for some, strict adherence to law without an underlying spiritual compass can result in forgetting what the law is there to enforce. Maimonides had unkind words for such individuals. He called them scoundrels within the framework of the law.
JG: Is the problem we're seeing getting worse, or is it just that we remember, for obvious reasons, photographs on the front page of The New York Times of Orthodox Jews being led away in handcuffs. I mean, just in the last year, we've had the scandal of Agriprocessors, and the Madoff scandal (admittedly, he wasn't leading even the facsimile of an Orthodox life, but the scandal has involved some prominent Orthodox Jews and institutions) and now this. Not to mention the famous story of the Bar Mitzvah party held in a New York jail a couple of months ago. Is there a crisis?
EB: There is a crisis and the images of the black frock against the black newsprint have understandable staying power. The Orthodox community and the Jewish community in general -- remember, Bernie Madoff is not an Orthodox Jew -- have to do their own spiritual reckoning. There is a collective chest beating that must take place. The idea that many prisons have daily minyanim is not a statement of pride for us. It's a statement of shame. There must be more personal and collective accountability.
JG: What is about Orthodox or ultra-Orthodox culture that has convinced or that has led some people to have contempt for non-Jews? Or am I imagining that there is a lack of respect for the non-Jewish majority (or the non-Orthodox Jewish majority) among the Orthodox, or at the very least, the ultra-Orthodox?