Random Thoughts on the Latest Scandal

Whenever some scandal breaks involving Orthodox Jews, as happened with a vengeance last Erev Shabbos, I’m reminded of a story about Rabbi Yaakov Kaminetsky. When Reb Yaakov was Rosh Yeshiva in Torah Vodaath, a high school student was caught helping another student on the state-sponsored regents exams. Reb Yaakov immediately expelled him. Decades later that former student was involved in a major financial scandal, which made front-page headlines.

At that time, Reb Yaakov expressed his bitterness at other institutions that had been quick to take in the expelled student. Had they not been so quick to forgive his cheating, Reb Yaakov felt, the student might have come to realize that cheating is a serious matter. Instead it became a way of life for him.

Reb Yaakov did not make exceptions for cheating on secular subjects. He knew that dishonesty is habit-forming. He also knew that children must learn early that actions have consequences, sometimes very serious ones, and that those consequences cannot always be wiped away by saying, “I’m sorry.”

Rabbi Chaim Kanievsky delivered a similar message recently to a yeshiva bochur who sought his blessing prior to his trial for driving without a licence. The bochur in question had hit a wall while driving. (A few weeks earlier, another chareidi teenager severely injured an infant whom he struck while driving without a license.) After Reb Chaim found out what the trial was about, he refused to give his blessing that the bochur not receive a prison sentence, “You are mamash a muderer. Adaraba, let them put you in prison,” Reb Chaim told the shocked young man.

Nor did Reb Chaim accept the idea that secular laws meant to protect the safety and smooth-functioning of society are to be treated as nuisances. To the bochur’s protestation that he knows how to drive well, Reb Chaim responded that there is no such thing as “knowing” how to drive without having passed the driver’s tests. To the young man’s continued pleas, Reb Chaim’s responded, “The best thing for you is to sit in prison and learn not to be a murderer.” In other words, hopefully the prison sentence will help you realize the seriousness of what you did so that you don’t actually kill someone while driving.

LIKE ATTITUDES TOWARDS CHEATING and unsafe behavior, a sensitivity to the impact of one’s actions on the image of Torah Jews and Judaism tends to be formed early. As in everything else connected to middos development, that sensitivity is formed through small everyday actions. Rabbi Avraham Birnbaum recently wrote a column in the American Yated Ne’eman in which he described the fellow in front of him in a checkout line who was talking loudly on his cellphone the entire time he waited in line. He continued to do so, even as he threw down his credit card on the counter and signed his receipt, without even glancing at the cashier. When Avraham reached the checkout counter, he smiled and asked the cashier, “How are you today?”

The cashier was surprised by the question and asked, “I hope you don’t mind my question, but is there a reason why so many of ‘you people’ are so rude and don’t seem to acknowledge my presence?” Fortunately, I read Rabbi Birnbaum’s piece the same day another email arrived about the Waterbury Yeshiva and how it obtained a favorable long-term lease on a former campus of the University of Connecticut.

The elderly mother of the mayor of Waterbury lived adjacent to the yeshiva, and she frequently told her son how impressed she was with the quality of the students in the yeshiva. The latter, it seems, always rolled her large garbage cans to the street for the local garbage pick up. The mayor arranged a visit to the yeshiva, and was so impressed with the Rosh Yeshiva and the bochurim that he arranged for the yeshiva to lease the campus.

I don’t know anything about the fellow who preceded Rabbi Birnbaum in the checkout line or the backgrounds of the bochurim in Waterbury Yeshiva. Nor are any of us just a product of our upbringing; we all have free will. But a refinement of middos is very much a function of the messages and models to which one is exposed. Certain homes and certain yeshivos are distinguished by the refinement of their products. Those who grow up with an emphasis on Kiddush Hashem tend to make better representatives of HaKadosh Baruch Hu.

WHILE ALL AREAS OF MIDDOS DEVELOPMENT require constant reinforcement throughout life, in no area is this so much the case as in the development of one’s emunah. The issues that may trouble a teenager or an adult are not likely to occur to a child. And the answers given to a child of five or six will often not suffice for an older person. Thus there is a need for continually more sophisticated treatment of the basic issues of emunah. But even with respect to emunah one cannot overstate the importance of instilling in our children a deep awareness of Hashem’s presence and concern for us.

Last week, I happened to pass on the street, an elderly lady who has come to our home collecting for nearly a quarter of a century. When I asked her how she was, she burst into tears. “I’ve been looking for you for nearly six months,” she told me, “but you and your wife are never home.” It seems, the last time she was in our home she had not enough change. I told her that I was mochel the change and to forget it. But she could not. For six months, she told me, she was sure she was going to come back as a gilgul because she had failed to give me five shekels.

I felt shamed by the depth of her emunah expressed in her tears of joy in finally having the chance to pay back five shekels, not to mention her sensitivity to the slightest trace of gezeilah (theft).

With just a touch more of Sarah’s emunah or her abhorence at having in her possession money that does not properly belong to her, it is doubtful we would have been treated to last week’s scenes of religious Jews being frog-marched by the FBI.

This article was originally published in Mishpacha.

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20 Responses

  1. L. Oberstein says:

    Last night I met a young man at a wedding who used to teach in a yeshiva ketana in New York and now teaches in a New York Public School. Contrary to popular opinion, he said his fifth graders in public school are well behaved and that he has all the tools he needs. He told me that a 3rd grader that he taught in the yeshiva once told him “my father could get you fired”. The teacher reported this to the principal who said that it was absolutely true. He said that the boy had a very good year and wasn’t even a bad kid, he just was letting the teacher know the score.

    This is all too true in many private schools and rich kids learn bad midos from their parents who have bad midos. Thus, some of these kids are very surprized when they show up at a certain yeshiva high school in this city and find out that they can indeed get kicked out . Is this school the exception ?

  2. Jewish Observer says:

    “Reb Yaakov did not make exceptions for cheating on secular subjects. He knew that dishonesty is habit-forming”

    – and what if it wouldn’t be habit forming? Is a bad thing OK if you do it once in a while? Would we ever say “we have to crack down on eating chazir, because it is habit forming”?

  3. Ori says:

    Jewish Observer, the question isn’t whether something is bad, but how bad is it and what kind of punishment is merited.

    I think Reb Yaakov wouldn’t have expelled a student for a single instance of lashon hara, for example. OTOH, a single instance of violence would be an cause of expelling a student. The question is whether cheating on an exam should be in the first group or second, not whether it is acceptable or not.

  4. Raymond says:

    I had a very similar experience as described by L Oberstein, when I was a substitute teacher at a certain private school. When I dared to reprimand a student for his terribly direspectful behavior, he told me that he would get his parents to fire me. And so he did. I have had other negative experiences from other private schools as well, some of whom were not only Jewish, but Orthodox. Some of those involved, may even be reading what I am writing here. And so I no longer teach in private schools.

    Yes, my teaching experiences in public schools were far, far worse, but that does not excuse the awful treatment I received from some private schools I taught at. I actually have the nerve to think that I do have a teacher in me that is virtually screaming to express itself, but unfortunately teachers are apparently the last profession that anybody has any respect for anymore.

  5. Nathan says:

    In the first paragraph of the article by Jonathan Rosenblum, we learn that when Rabbi Yaakov Kaminetsky was Rosh Yeshivah of Torah Vodaath, he immediately expelled a high school student who cheated on a test.

    So why can’t our synagogues make a public announcment that all crooks and criminals are banned from our synagogues?

    This would send a message to our children and millions of our Gentile neighbors that Bernard Madoff and those like him are merely a disease on the body of the Jewish people, not the body of the Jewish people itself.

  6. LazerA says:

    Nathan’s suggestion that all of “our synagogues make a public announcement that all crooks and criminals are banned from our synagogues” represents a well-intentioned, idealistic, but ultimately naive understanding of the reality of the Jewish world.

    First of all, there is no single organization that controls all synagogues. In fact, most synagogues are not members of ANY broader organization whatsoever – let alone an organization that can dictate behavior.

    So any such decision would require each individual synagogue making its own decision in isolation, knowing that, in all likelihood, most other synagogues in the neighborhood will not be joining them.

    Moreover, even if we could get past the practical difficulty of getting all synagogues to join in this campaign, there remains a second difficulty. At what point is a person “banned” from the synagogue? When he is accused? When he is convicted? When he has a “reputation”? What if the members of a synagogue sincerely believe that the person was falsely accused and convicted? At what point is a “banned” individual to be allowed back in the fold? If, after conviction, the accused person publicly states that he regrets his actions, is this enough?

    The fact is that there are no consistent policies on unacceptable behavior that are followed by most Orthodox synagogues. Most shuls will not expel members even if they are m’chalel Shabbos b’farhesya, where we know for a fact that the person is a sinner. How is a synagogue to establish a policy about behavior which is hidden from the public?

  7. L. Oberstein says:

    There is a difference between someone who is a Sabbath violator in a community where that is unfortunately the norm and someone who is found guilty of criminal behavior, which is universally condemned. The case that comes to mind is excluding someone who refuses to give his wife a get from all shuls in a town. Unfortuntely, it doesn’t work anymore because there is always some shul that will accept the man. Even in a city that has achdus like Baltimore, there are minyanim where an “oisvorf”, someone who should be shunned and about whom the Vaad Harabbanim has publicly so declared ,can still daven. The sitution is further complicated if “everyone does it”, e.g money laundering. The only sin for some of these people is that they got caught.

  8. Nathan says:

    Dear Lazer A,

    I know that “there is no single organization that controls all synagogues.”

    Even if only ONE SHUL would make a very public international announcement that:

    “crooks and criminals and con men are totally banned from our synagogue,”

    then that might be enough to partially reduce the Chillul HaShem of the past two years.

    And if two shuls did this, then that would be twice as good.

    This effort would be worthwhile even if no two synagogues would agree exactly on who to ban. The important part is that our children and Gentile neighbors see us disassociate from crooks and criminals, which would help to neutralize recent Chillul HaShem by showing that Bernard Madoff and other Jewish crooks are merely diseases on the body of the Jewish people, not the body itself.

  9. Miriam says:

    “What if the members of a synagogue sincerely believe that the person was falsely accused and convicted?”

    And what if the Rabbi supports the position that these secular laws are indeed nuisances and the accused and convicted is really “just trying to help people”?

  10. CJ Srullowitz says:

    Reb Yonasan, the only objection I have, lulei demistafina, to your typically beautiful essay is its title. I don’t believe these thoughts are at all “random.” They are pointed and poignant.

    Recently a major magazine (I unfortunately forgot which) interviewed supermarket checkout attendants. Far and away their biggest complaint was shoppers who ignore them while chatting on their cell phones. Alas, this doesn’t appear to be a “frum” problem. Perhaps, however, by continuing to promote middos development in our camp, we can create a “frum” solution.

  11. DF says:

    I was shocked when I read the account several weeks ago concerning R. Chaim Kanevsky, and frankly, I still do not believe the precise details of the story are reported accurately. Could R. Kanivsky really have been that callous to the plight of a very young man – a teenager, it was – sentenced to prison because of an accident? Is that young man truly a “murderer”, as the report quotes R. Chaim?

    We are all in favor of responsibility, and had the student simply been faced with a suspended license, it would have been one thing. Or if he had struck someone while driving drunk, an (appropriate) sentence would have been expected. But I canot believe R. Chaim sees nothing amiss about prison time merely for driving without a license, and would further allow his comments to be printed publicly. In all of our calls for ethics reform, we cannot allow it to get lost that prison is a horrifically awful place, a concept utterly foreign to the Torah. [And up until about 100 years ago, long prison sentences were also foreign, generally speaking, to all of human civilization.] God Himself is described as a Mattir Assurim, and that description is given without qualification. Let’s not forget that.

  12. Barzilai says:

    Often, the first time we sin we try to rationalize our action: everybody does it, it’s not one of the cardinal sins, G-d will understand, peer pressure, and so forth. None of these self serving excuses pardon the action, of course, but at least one tells oneself that he did not do an out and out wicked deed. He may have done a bad thing, but he is not inherently bad. When Reb Yakov said that dishonesty is habit forming, he meant that it is a stain upon the soul that will continues to spread. No excuse will stop consequences that are immediate and inexorable.

    Secondly; forgive me, but this talk of public school children that are better behaved than yeshiva boys is tiresome. Tell me, where is there a greater incidence of vandalism, unwanted pregnancy, and assault? I have a modest proposal: there might be a difference between misdemeanor and felony.

  13. another Nathan says:

    Once a convicted crook has served his time in “cheder,” is he still banned from shuls? Let’s say further, that someone you know from the past, that has a criminal record starts attending the shul you’re now part of, and every one thinks he’s a very nice guy, are you obliged to tell other people that he’s served hard time for serious criminal activity?

    A friend of mine told me how a Jew tried to molest his daughter. My friend called the police, and reported the crime. The Rav of the man’s shul asked my friend to drop the complaint, because the man was an important member of the shul.

  14. mitch morrison says:

    The meforshim seem to be unambiguous that the higher you area (or what you represent) the less amount of rope you have to grip. my full opinions exceed the scope of this post but i came across a beautiful vort from last week’s parsha by R. Avrohom Korman, tz’l. Why does the Torah precede with the laws of the Navi Sheker before a Navi Emet?
    Korman offers that where are at greater risk of deviating off the derekh, therefore we first need admonition against what is wrong.
    I see many who are learned but who in their yeshivot – whether Modern or more Charidei — who have not been taught explicity right from wrong. they know the text but don’t know how to assimilate it into their very essence. it’s a major challenge. Rav Kaminetsky understood that challenge and bore little tolerance for such egregious omissions.

  15. tuviah says:

    i am not orthodox — but i have orthodox family. we do fight sometimes about how the orthodox come across — i can’t help but wonder what is being taught — or somehow transmitted, in terms of middos — to the younger generation (and the older I guess).

    I am always at a crossroads on orthodox behavior — i tend to basically expect more scandals. I was amazed that the child-molestation scandal led to Rav Twersky throwing his hands up at quitting the committee due to threats against him. It is — what can I say — enough to make me cry?

    I spoke to a friend who is deeply within Chabad — he tried to explain that yeshivas are afraid to combat child molestation for fear it will destroy the institution. Oy vey. Is such a rationalization acceptable?

    I am not really surprised at the Deal Rabbis, or the Rabishkin scandal, or anything anymore. I am numb to it.

    I work in real estate — the only time a dirty deal was proposed — cash for a higher appraisal — was when the appraiser was a young, peyos wearing individual. I nearly fainted.

    I had shabbos at a MO friend of a friend’s house a few years ago. I was, again, privy to how rampant cheating is at a particular MO institution. The wife of the guy who was hosting basically was angry that her husband didn’t cheat more — everyone does it was her attitude. (I am reminded of this because I hear that school has recently announced a zero tolerance policy on cheating — and a big round of applause followed — presumably from students who played it straight!).

    I attended secular, private, college. A pretty elite place. I think in the six years (I took some time off…!) I was there, one person had a cheating charge against them. It just never happened, and I knew many students — cheating was just unheard of.

    I don’t understand. But I have sort of stopped trying to.

  16. Observer says:

    To DF:

    I’m not sure I completely believe the story. But, I think you miss a point. The issue is not just that the young man was involved in an accident. The problem is that he engaged in dangerous behavior – ie driving without having made sure he has the appropriate skill, and then, when faced with the results of his behavior, he maintained that he had done nothing wrong. In fact, the implication is that he would continue to engage in this risky behavior because he does not accept that he is, in fact, putting people at risk. That’s not a whole lot better than drunk driving.

  17. Melanie says:

    I once taught a seminary-level vocational course. One student cheated. And then cheated on the second-chance exam (which had a built-in penalty to the scoring). I failed her. She claimed that her husband said everyone cheats – I said not in our school. The asst director asked me to reconsider, the director stood behind me.

    Years later this student came running up to me, a fellow teacher in the same elementary school that year. She was even teaching the subject I failed her in! (and had marvelous classroom control and student interest). To this day I admire her ability to turn that situation around – not regarding her student career, but rather that she was so eager to introduce herself to me as having been in my class. Sure made me proud.

  18. Midwest says:

    Two observations on previous posts:

    1. The carnage on Israel’s roads is terrible. The toll has already exceeded all those lost in wars and terrorist acts, and it has become a major issue in Israeli society. (Check the Jerusalem Post or Yediot Ahronot after every holiday – the list of lives lost to road accidents is heartbreaking.) Rav Kanievsky was being literal – driving without proper safeguards is very likely to lead to murder – or negligent homicide, to be more exact.

    2. When I lived in Brooklyn I knew a young man, the child of Holocaust survivors, who had stopped being observant, although he had not cut himself off from his parents or frum society. He got a job teaching English at a Chassidish yeshiva in Williamsburg, and was astounded at the (mis)behavior of the students.

    Since he speaks Yiddish he was also aware of what the students were saying in front of him because they assumed he couldn’t understand. He didn’t like it when they called him “der goy” but what really upset him was hearing them say, “He’s OK, he yells but he doesn’t hit.” It seems discipline was only maintained in divrei kodesh classes by physical punishment, so if the only reason for doing what is right is avoiding the “patsch” why bother when the “teacher” (secular government) isn’t looking? And if even a Jew who isn’t part of your group is a “goy,” why bother about the “real” goyim at all?

    There seems to be a general attitude now about ignoring long-term consequences for short-term convenience.

  19. mitch morrison says:

    to Comment by tuviah — August 17, 2009 @ 11:23 pm :

    i was saddened by your comments — not angry or questioning your observations. my upbringing was rooted in religious observance and open-mindedness. i grew up in Brookline, attended Maimonides and my affiliations were with what would be described as Modern Orthodox. what is striking to me is that when i decided i wanted to study journalism in university my rav said we need to learn the laws of Lashon HaRah. we learned about gossip, rumors and numerous nuances. The key thing was at the end of day he said to me, you need to ask yourself,”how would you feel if someone was writing this about you.”
    to this day, that has been a guiding post. I think it is unfair and certain unempirical to suggest that today’s Orthodox are less – or more – ethical and law-abiding than other Jews or non-Jews.
    What seems to be true, however, is that we in the Orthodox World have perhaps become comfortable in the strength of our numbers and are less sensitive to how others will respond to our behavior.
    My father, a’h, worked in construction and was the only Jew in his company. As well, he would have to leave early during Friday’s winters. he was extraordinarily mindful that he was the representative of All the Jewish people. his behavior would be seen as a template for how many would perceive of All Jewish people. and he told me likewise — if others were to judge our people based on how you conduct yourself, how will you behave. it is a constant reminder.

  20. Steve Brizel says:

    One Midah that is a key Midah is Mesiras Nefesh. Anyone who lives in the US or is a student of American history can realize that the American Revolution and the Civil War have many examples where this Midah was developed and which had a lot to do with the US developing into a Malchus Shel Chesed. IIRC, a very positive way of inculcating this Midah is to visit sites of historical interest such as Boston ( Lexington, Concord, Bunker Hill), Colonial Williamsburg, Independence Hall,Valley Forge, Constitition Hall and Gettysburg.

    Visiting West Point struck me as realizing that the young men and women who are enrolled there have a proud, patriotic and positive sense of being Americans and are prepared to make the ultimate sacrifice to protect the freedoms that we take for granted. Stated slightly differently, the only colleges that impose regulations on its students that approaches the average yeshiva are our military academies.

    i highly recommend a trip to any and all of these sites, the logistics of which can be managed quite well via bringing your own food and staying in communities with Orthodox communities within driving distance of any of these sites.

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