The Morality Crisis in Orthodox Judaism

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?

EB: I think that's a loaded question, Jeffrey, and I suspect this has more to do with avarice than race or religion. I think every minority is suspect of the majority culture, largely because there is a history of marginalization and persecution that virtually every minority suffers to some extent in a majority culture. That is certainly true of Jews, and we don't have to look far back in time to appreciate that Jews may be suspect of non-Jewish motives and behaviors. A look at Jews in medieval Christendom is a real awakening if you've never studied that period of history. Even today, without persecution, victimization may consist largely of feeling ontologically unworthy in the eyes of the other. Look at the whole Gates debate.

JG: I often feel ontologically unworthy. Especially next to you. It's a bit of a loaded question, but not much. In my own experience writing about the Orthodox communities of New York, I noticed a tendency on the part of some people to treat the federal government, or their local governments, as variants of the Czar's government. Which is to say, they transferred their attitudes from Europe to here, never contemplating for a moment that government here is fundamentally different. In any case, tell me what's being done in Orthodox circles to address these sorts of moral and reputational catastrophes.

EB: Jeffrey, you are ontologically worthy, of course. Now enough about you. I think what you say is very true. In non-democratic countries, or at times that pre-date citizenship for Jews throughout Europe, Jews often had an unpredictable relationship with the monarchy or ruling power and sought both appeasement, on the one hand, and circuitous routes to achieve particular ends, on the other, especially in the financial arena. If you don't give people an easy route to be good or accepted, then they often look for loopholes, special dispensations, black market dealings, etc. This begs the question of why today, when we live with material ease and under the freedoms that we do, that we are all not more ethically upright and scrupulous in all of our dealings.

The incident in New Jersey shows a level of disrespect for the law, a posture of disdain, a certain condescension toward normative legal behaviors that's deeply troubling. It used to be that scholarship and piety were status symbols in the Jewish community. For centuries that was the case. In our society, prestige is determined largely by money, and we're seeing the ugly result of that change of orientation. Morality is not a natural and assumed set of values, and we make a mistake as leaders or parents if we think that our charges will know how to do right and why on their own. Isaiah, in the very first chapter of "his" book says: "Learn to do good. Devote yourselves to justice. Aid the wronged. Uphold the rights of the orphan; defend the cause of the widow." Isaiah makes no assumptions. He tells us straight-out - learn to do good. And so we must.

JG: So Erica, do you feel that you need to do something about this problem personally? What I mean to say is, if you feel that all of these controversies reflect poorly on Judaism, what can a Jew do to make it better?

EB: I feel an enormous responsible as an educator, writer and parent to speak to these issues directly. For a while, I thought one of the biggest challenges facing the Jewish community was boredom. So I tackled it last year and in a few weeks my book, Spiritual Boredom, will be out (Jewish Lights). But this year's series of crimes with Jews at their center has showed me that some of us may be bored and some of us have turned to transgressive behavior to relieve the boredom. I could use a little less excitement myself. I'm currently working on a new book -- When Jews Do Bad Things -- because we need to think about collective shame and strengthening our ethical base. I hope that will be some small contribution to facing these ethical challenges more authentically. As a group, I believe that the best way to combat the ethical morass that's landed on our doorstep as a minority is to go out of our way to articulate our own distance from this behavior and to go out of our way to do acts of kindness for others that show us to be a moral light in the world.