Jack Abramoff’s Black Hat

If you ask me, they all got it wrong. He did not wear the hat to look more pious.

Decades ago, the head of a large group within American Orthodoxy faced extremely serious charges of nursing home impropriety. Although he did not identify with the haredi world, this figure turned to America’s greatest halachic expert, Rav Moshe Feinstein zt”l for guidance. He asked Rav Moshe how he should appear in court, with scores of television cameras trained on him. Should he keep his yarmulke on, or remove it? Rav Moshe advised the latter, to prevent or diminish the chilul Hashem (desecration of G-d’s Name) that would result from millions of people associating his bekippahed (I just made up the word) head with the scope of his crimes. He did not follow the advice.

I suspect that Jack Abramoff attempted much the same. He did not want to remove the yarmulke that he usually wore, expecially at an emotionally trying time. On the other hand, he did not want to make a bad thing even worse by further tarnishing the image of Orthodox Jews. The hat was meant to hide the yarmulke.

Like most attempts at pushing a chilul Hashem genie back in the bottle, Abramoff’s attempt did not work. The media are buzzing with talk of Abramoff’s Orthodoxy. The damage cannot be undone. Too many people have a real need to reject G-d and religion, and pounce on every excuse they are afforded. Perhaps this is part of the reason that the Gemara (Yoma 86A) considers chilul Hashem the most severe of all transgressions.

If I am correct, Abramoff intuited more about the severity of chilul Hashem than my friend David Klinghoffer in his debate with Rabbi Eliyahu Stern. Klinghoffer has made several attempts to put Abramoff and others loosely connected to him in the best possible light. Some will be cynical, but I attribute this to his loyalty and fairmindedness – admirable qualities. But he goes too far when he writes

Stern calls Jack Abramoff an “embarrassment to Orthodox Jews.” Why should we be embarrassed? Are we supposed to be so naive and childish as to think that no one wearing a kippah will ever act in an unethical manner and end up in the news columns for it? Am I supposed to be embarrassed that Orthodox Jews are human too?

I am embarrassed that he is not embarrassed. Of course we should be stung, pained, embarrassed when the activities of any Jew tarnish the reputation of the Ribbono Shel Olam Himself! This is the essence of chilul Hashem: diminishing the image of G-d’s greatness through the misadventures of those who, like it or not, are seen as His ambassadors. The world expects more of observant Jews, and rightfully so. We claim to live by His Word. When that Word seems to be insufficient to prevent mischief, G-d Himself is seen as inadequate, c”v. Being human is a reality, but not an excuse. The world expects more of us, but so does Hashem. He gave us a Torah to allow us to transcend our weaknesses. When we fail to utilize the tools that He gave us to rise above our coarser selves, we have only ourselves to blame, not our humanity.

Is there more to be said about Abramoff’s failure, beyond the observation that as long as people have a yetzer hora (evil inclination) and free will, many will make mistakes? I believe there is.

My good friend and colleague Rabbi Shaya Karlinsky, Rosh Yeshiva of Darchei Noam/ Shapell’s, has often complained to me about the trajectory of many returnees to observance. Outward behavior is addressed and changed, but not the inner person. Many Teshuva mills grind out people with the external appurtenances of committed observance, but without touching the core. Call it what you want – mussar, reaching the penimiyus, remaking the personality – some yeshivos for baalei teshuva just don’t get around to doing the work. They pride themselves in numbers – and then react in horror when some of their products have failed marriages and at-risk kids, because they never really transformed themselves in years of observance. Take a person with bad middos and put him through a program of Torah study, and you do not automatically produce a saint. Sometimes, you just produce person with bad middos with tefillin marks on his arm.

This does not take away from the legions of baalei teshuvah who are so inspired and committed that they put the rest of us to shame. But they are not alone. We need to take a harder look at how we help people become frum.

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23 Responses

  1. alan says:

    Dear Cross-Currents,

    It is simply true but regretable nevertheless that there will always be those who
    ‘pray’ to The One Above in the morning and upon leaving shul ‘prey’ upon their fellow man thereafter throughout the course of the day.

    I am,

    Very Sincerely yours,

    Alan D. Busch

  2. Joshua says:

    “My good friend and colleague Rabbi Shaya Karlinsky, Rosh Yeshiva of Darchei Noam/ Shapell’s, has often complained to me about the trajectory of many returnees to observance. Outward behavior is addressed and changed, but not the inner person”

    I think we have this problem because we over emphasize the outer trappings too much. The first question people ask does he wear a hat etc. I thank God and my parents that they brought me up with the right values that it is not important what a person wears. They also sent me to yeshivahs wear the concern was for the person and not so much how a person goes dressed. There is a problem in our so called Charedi world that we are so concerned with dress and the important things fall by the way side. My father Z’L used said it is easy to put on a hat and jacket and talk about learning but it is much harder to learn. I think it is important that we get our values and priorities straighten out and then we will see improvement amongst ourselves and our children. I have more respect for people who do not wear the so called charedi uniform but very are very diligent and exacting in their observance of mitzvos. These people do not make value judgments as to what a person wears. I hope and pray that I will be able to instill my children with the proper values and now as they are getting older Hashem should help me that I will make a wise decision where to send them. On that note I live in Yerushalyim does anyone have a good school they can recommend for boys?

  3. Jonathan Rosenblum says:

    As a friend and neighbor of Rabbi Karlinsky, I have often heard his comments on the unfinished work with ba’alei teshuvah. But Shaya’s observations have little specifically to do with Jack Abramoff’s actions. There are thousands of “frum” Jews in American prisons, and the vast majority grew up in the system, and did not enter from the outside. And while I would guess that there is a slightly higher rate of divorce and at-risk kids among ba’alei teshuva (the two phenomena are not necessarily unrelated), there are plenty enough of both to go around, as anyone familiar with the statistics for early divorces in Lakewood or Kiryat Sefer could tell you. The marital and parental failures of ba’alei teshuva are attributable to many causes. In most of the cases I am familiar with, it had little to do with them remaining the same ba’alei ta’avah with tefillin straps.

  4. ron mann says:

    Impressive. Somehow you manage to ignore all of the frum from birth criminals that have graced the front page of the New York Times over the past years and lay the blame at the feet of the baal teshuva yeshivas. One “baal teshuva” somehow outweighs the legions of felons from Brooklyn, New Square and other locales sitting in Club Fed.

    In classic closed-minded fashion, you take this Abramoff scandal and use it as evidence of the failure of Baal Teshuva institutions.

    I am curious, aside from your prejudice, do you have any other reason to believe that failed marriages or kids-at-risk plague the BT community in greater proportion than your beloved FFB community?

  5. ben meir says:

    I am confused – is Abramoff a Baal Teshuva? What is the connection between your well argued piece on the horrible Chillul Hashem and the inadequacy of our teshuva process? I think you just got yourself in trouble

  6. Steve Brizel says:

    Yasher Koach on addressing an issue that deserves more attention. Take a look at a blog called Beyond Teshivah that discusses
    many issues facing BTS.With all respect to R Stern, I am sure that both Abramoff’s conduct and R Stern’s rationalization will cause at least one person, FFB or BT, to go off the derech. Neither the conduct nor the rationale should be viewed as proper. At the risk of sounding presumptuous, too many BTs are given a set of “answers” that are presented as the only acceptable Modus Operandi in hashkafa, etc without being told that there are numerous approaches all within the Mesorah
    that are valid that they should explore if they are uncomfortable with appears to be a party line approach of “my way or the highway”, especially on issues of hashkafah. In my opinion, the BT yeshiva world needs to focus as much on empahsizing textual
    literacy in the basic texts of Torah Judasim , presenting a Kiddsush HaShem at all times and availing itself of mental health
    experts when a healthy attitude towards proper observance becomes a manifestation of an obessive-comulsive disorder.

  7. shmuel says:

    Unfortunately, people like to point out Orthodox Jews who are found guilty of ethical or moral failings and jump at the opportunity to scream “hypocrit” and create a chillul Hashem. As Orthodox Jews we accept upon ourselves a commitment to the Torah and halachah. The Torah details laws concerning the entire spectrum of human behavior including moral, and ethical lapses. One who sins in an ethical issue is no more (or less) a hypocrit than someone who one morning is too lazy to put on his tefilin. Hashem is the bochen levavos and knows who is sincere but only too human and who is in fact a hypocrit. As for the rest of us, we’d be better off making sure that our own hashkafos are in order and when dealing with anyone keep in mind the dictum “kadehu v’chashdehu”.

  8. Steve Brizel says:

    In my last post, I criticized R Stern when I should have taken issue with Mr. Klimghoffer’s point of view. With all due respect,perhaps Mr. Klinghoffer and others with his view should undertake an in depth study of the relevant Talmudic passages and halachos re Kiddush and Chillul HaShem.

    I think that we all should admit that failed marriages, kids at risk, and going off the derech exists across the hashkafic spectrum for a variety of reasons. With all due respect to R Jonathan Rosenblum’s post, we cannot dismiss the fact that while the Torah community has achieved much in the last 50 years, there is an underside of early divorce, kids at risk , abuse,etc that exists across the spectrum and in all communities from the most Charedi to the most modern communities .One cannot deny the fact that one of these factors is that there are many people who appear to be ritually observant and yet are not truly religious role models.

    On the other hand, as R Jonathan Rosenblum mentioned in one of his columns, the spike in young divorces in Lakewood and Kiryat Sefer may revolve around a more basic issue-money and where and if a young husband is able to join a kollel.

  9. Mark Frankel says:

    Rabbi Adlerstein, I am a little concerned about your negative comments regarding Baalei Teshuva as a group. Let’s try rewriting your incrimating paragraph as follows:

    A good friend of mine has often complained to me about the trajectory of many people who were born Frum. Outwardly some may have the title of Rabbi, but what really goes on inside? Many of the top Yeshivas across the Orthodox spectrum grind out people with the external appurtenances of committed observance, but without touching the core. Call it what you want – mussar, reaching the penimiyus, remaking the personality – some yeshivos just don’t get around to doing the work. They pride themselves in numbers and quality – and then react in horror when some of their products have failed or not reached true greatness, because they never really transformed themselves in years of observance. Take any person with taavah and gaavah (according to Chazal, we all have them) and put them through a program of Torah study, and you do not automatically produce a saint. Sometimes, you just produce a person who still has much taavah and gaavah with tefillin marks on his arm.

    I don’t think that’s what you meant, but that’s how it sounds. Words are powerful instruments, please be careful with them.

  10. Bob Miller says:

    If we don’t know specifically what makes Jack Abramoff tick, we have no way to do a proper analysis of his problem, and certainly no license to speculate in public. Seeing his predicament should make each individual Jew take stock of his/her own contradictions. We ought to have pretty good information about ourselves.

  11. Stephen Hirsch says:

    Yasher Koach on a good post. I’m the guy who wrote the Salon article…there is no end to the Chillul Hashem of this affair. Plus, as always, Mr. Abramoff has given a very powerful weapon to many, many Yetzerim Hara’im (sp?). A Shande fur di Goyim, fur di Yidden, un fur di Eybishter.

  12. Lumpy Rutherford says:

    >I think we have this problem because we over emphasize the outer trappings too much.

    Not only that, but it comes from people who should know better. In my town, the head of one of the local kiruv organizations proudly stated that he called the Orthodox boys school to complain about a person who was giving a farher (oral test) to a group of boys that included his sons. What did this “rosh yeshiva” find to be so objectionable? The rabbi giving the farher wore a kipa seruga (a knitted yarmulke). “There’s no way my kids are going to be farhered by someone wearing a kippa seruga“, he added. With attitudes like these, it’s not surprising that most people in my town choose to wear the “right” yarmulke.

  13. S. says:

    >There are thousands of “frum” Jews in American prisons

    “Thousands?” Methinks you made that statistic up.

  14. Steve Brizel says:

    Joshua-you asked about a school in Jerusalem for boys? Maarava and a school that was profiled in Mishpacha seem like two
    excellent choices if you are ok with a Charedi orientation.

  15. YM says:

    I don’t agree that the issue of frum Jews committing crimes or acting against halacha is related to Baalei Teshuva. I think it is more prevelant in the FFB world. I remember when a BT friend of mine was ripped off by someone and was amazed and flabbergasted that a frum Jew could do something like that.

    As Berel Wein (and probably others) have said “Don’t judge Judaism by the Jews”

  16. mycroft says:

    As I believe the Rancanti said the 2 luchot-tablets- that God gave us appear to be 2 luchot in reality they are only one
    because both the laws dealing bein adam ladam-laws between men and laws bein adam lamakom-ritual laws involving God
    -are in reality one. The problem in my sociological observation-I’m not a sociologist- is that it appears modern day Jewish eduction pays comparatively too much emphasis on praying, kashruth and other ritual laws
    rather than on laws dealing in how we treat people. See recent blogs on the toleration of cruelty by students
    against weaker students.

  17. Joshua says:


    I am looking for a grade school. Which school did Mishpacha profile?



  18. Michoel says:

    “Call it what you want – mussar, reaching the penimiyus, remaking the personality”
    Rabbi Adlerstein, Ironically, I would say that a stress on “mussar” and “reaching the penimiyus” is actually one of the major problems of the baalei t’suvah yeshivos. The stress should be on being responsible, being a nice person, self-sufficiency, honesty. Meaning, there should be a de-emphasis on couching everything in the language of mussar. Concepts should be conveyed in terms that baalei t’shuvah know and fully understand already. As is known, one can learn mussar and be a baal gayvah for doing so. We should try to help baalei t’shuvah to not lose themselves. Let them put down Mesilas Yesharim for a few years, and focus on Gateway to Self Knowledge.

  19. Steve Brizel says:

    Joshua- The school that Mishpacha profiled was a grade school. I have also heard wonderful things about a school for boys(? known as Rappaport’s ( the principal’s zeide was R Moshe Feinstein ZTL).

  20. Moshe Feldman says:


    I have heard many good things about Rapaport and about Steinsaltz’s yeshiva. Feel free to contact me at moshe.feldman at gmail.com

    Kol tuv,

  21. Joshua says:

    Thank you I will check them out although we live har nof and those schools are quite a distance perhaps there are others
    who send there from here and there by he would have friends from the neighborhood. I write you here in the hope they are other who share the same ideas and have the same issues.

    Kol tov

    Shabbat Shalom and Gut Shabbos,


  22. evets says:

    As a BT I automatically assume when one of these embarassing Orthodox scandals arises that it must involve an FFB; it seems a disproportionate number do (such as the nursing home scandal). The ad hoc nature of Rabbi Adlersteins’ aspersion doesn’t speak well of the FFB value system he’s promoting. Let’s not forget that Jack Abramoff has lived as a religious Jew for many decades. His actions no longer necessarily reflect behavior imported from outside the fold.

  23. manny says:

    Dear Rav Adlerstein,
    As many have already noted the negative appearance of your post re BTs, and as I think I know your thoughts on the matter reasonably well (AND as you discuss in your subsequent post), I would like to focus on the truth of your comments (and the the truth of Rav Karlinsky’s claims). It is clearly and unfotunately true that some kiruv operations kinf of drop the ball once the feshly inspired BT is in the door. Focusing on the next step (no pun intended) is a non-issue. Worse still, these fresh newbies are sometimes asked to serve as role models (read Shabbos dinner hosts) for no-yet frum Yidden. The over-reliance on the parallel between the intermarriage crisis to triage centers for major trauma has resulted in the underfrumification (I just made up that word) of the many. However, I write to not only complain, but to offer a thought. In October 2001, Rabbi Yakov Horowitz, rabbi Shlomo Goldberg and others convened a day-long conference in Passaic entitled “Life After Teshuvah.” The tape series that came out out of this symposium is invaluable and has been sadly undermarketed (non-marketed?) for lack of serious funding. There’s a website blog recently created as a follow-up entitled http://www.beyondbt.com. Perhaps interested readers can gain from it.

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