The Achish Melech Gat Awards
by Dovid Landesman
I have often speculated to myself whether cynicism, of which I have been blessed with an inordinate amount, is in any way an exemplary or positive middah and I should thus try to direct it toward positive use, or if it might not be just another disguise employed by my yetzer ha-ra in which case I should do all that I can to suppress it. On the one hand, the Torah clearly expects us to demonstrate respect in ascribing purity of motive to our fellow Jews; the ideal of being dan l’kaf zechus even when an action appears to be incorrect or foolish. On the other hand, Chazal made it abundantly clear that they had little patience for behavior which fell within the parameters of the chassid shoteh. Given this unresolved apparent paradox, I allow myself to castigate not only those who sin, but also those whose actions clearly point to an abysmal lack of kavannah when reciting ata chonen l’adam da’as. To those who might feel that sarcasm has no place in the lexicon of bnei Torah, I point to the familiar words of Eliyahu ha-Navi in confronting the prophets of Ba’al [Melachim I 18:27]:
and Eliyahu teased them … call out loudly to him [Ba’al] … perhaps he is sleeping and he will [thus] awaken …
To those who contend that this form of speech was only permissible because it was addressed to idolators, I suggest perusal of the following comment by Rav Shamshon Rafael Hirsch [Shemos 14:11 s.v. ha’mibli ein kevarim]:
This sharp irony, even in moments of deepest anxiety and despair, is characteristic of the witty vein which is inherent in the Jewish race from their earliest beginnings.
In that I am fully cognizant of the need to be exceedingly careful not to engage in rechilus or anything that is avak lashon ha–ra, I assure the reader that what I write is meant entirely l’toeles. This posting is not simply an attempt to entertain or at self-aggrandizement; rather, I respectfully request that you take this missive as an effort to effect change by subjecting the actions of certain organizations and public figures to public scrutiny. I pledge not to mention specific names of people unless it is permissible to do so and also undertake to discuss each of the awards with experts in the field of lashon ha–ra before publication.
My general inspiration for the creation of a reward is the late Senator William Proxmire of Wisconsin.
Proxmire was famous for issuing his Golden Fleece Awards, which identified wasteful government spending between 1975 and 1988. The first was awarded in 1975 to the National Science Foundation, for funding an $84,000 study on why people fall in love. Other Golden Fleece awards over the years were “awarded” to the Justice Department for conducting a study on why prisoners wanted to get out of jail … [Wikipedia]
The inspiration for the name of the prize comes, of course, from the statement made by Achish [Shmuel I 21:16] in regard to the somewhat peculiar behavior of Dovid.
Despite repeated efforts, I have never been able to determine if the awardees are separate tzedakah organizations, or a single group raising funds under two different names [d.b.a.s (doing business as) in legal terminology]. Both organizations are, as far as I know, entirely legitimate. Trust me. I have conducted extensive inquiries about them out of an intense distaste for their publicity campaigns and in hopes of discovering that they are fakes and cheats. Not only are these real; they are quite effective and provide a great deal of relief and help in our communities. They do, in fact, enjoy the support of many gedolim.
That said, and pretend that you hear the drumrolls, the inaugural Achish Melech Gat award is presented jointly to Kupat Ha-Ir and Va’ad ha-Rabbanim who have raised the bar and set new standards of challenging the Guinness records for most advertisements by a single organization using various and varied media forms, including but not limited to mass delivery of multi-colored flyers that fill our mailboxes and all adjacent areas, inserts included with every major Jewish publication featuring full colored portraits of gedolim in a variety of interesting poses as well as endless columns of advertisements appearing in all Jewish media.
The award takes note of their great level of expertise in use of various media; specific reference being made to our recognition and applause for their demonstrated proficiency in the use of photo-shop in their campaigns. The award is presented to them based on the following outstanding achievements:
saving many Jews the need to actually pray for themselves or for others by offering the possibility of having a number of erstwhile talmidei chachamim do so on their behalf for a given period of time for a set, low cost price.
reintroducing the concept of segulos to a generation that had somehow forgotten about the efficacy of these time honored practices.
providing countless trips for many important rabbanim who can now actually go to the kever of the Noam Elimelech without depleting their bank accounts.
providing endless stories about yeshuos to a generation of children thus providing them with Torah true, kosher reading materials [I trust that no-one above the age of ten reads the stories].
publicizing the pictures of gedolai yisroel doing something other than learning – e.g., writing checks or reading computer printouts of names – proving that our Torah leaders are flesh and blood and that we can therefore aspire to be just like them.
reducing the welfare rolls by providing employment possibilities [for at least forty day periods] for out of work or underemployed tehillim zoggers and kotel visitors.
One humble suggestion to the organizations. Given that you have determined that the holy ends you seek to achieve gives you license to stretch the limits of good taste, may I raise the following proposition for your consideration. You are undoubtedly unfamiliar with a major source of revenue used in Hollywood and on Madison Avenue known as product placement. Advertisers are invited to place their product in a visible but subtle manner within the framework of a scene, not detracting from the main message itself, but strong enough to create an association in the viewer’s mind. In our case, can you imagine the bidding war between Coke and Pepsi if a can of either’s product was placed on the table next to Rav Chaim’s shtender. Just think what the Bank Leumi would be willing to contribute if readers would see that name on the checks that Rav Aron Leib writes to these tzedakos. I am certain that with the proper planning, the revenues of the charity funds would double or triple. Those funds could then be applied toward the granting of yeshuos to those who cannot afford to contribute the requisite amount necessary to being included in the list read by a major league gadol.
Readers are invited to suggest further reasons why these two organizations deserve to be honored as well as to nominate candidates for future awards. It should be noted that Kolel Shomrei Ha-Chomos was a close second in the judges voting, based on their remarkable decision to publicize the creation of a gemach [free loan fund] in memory of an executed murderer whose memory they canonized by affixing the suffix hy”d – an acronym reserved for those who die al kiddush Hashem
[Dovid Landesman resides in Israel and comments on the foibles of his fellow Jews. His recently published There Are No Basketball Courts In Heaven will shortly be available in bookstores in the USA and Canada.]
The basic problem this article raises is in how we should view the true purpose of a mitzvah or segulah (ideally, that is a type of mitzvah).
The Jewish way is to look on it as service to HaShem to do His will for His sake and thereby become more attached to Him.
The pagan way is to look on it as a magical, manipulative way to force a certain outcome one desires.
Aspects of this difference are discussed in depth in Rav SR Hirsch ZT”L’s Torah commentary on Parashas Ki Sisa, in his explanation of the Golden Calf incident. [YA – It just happened to be the subject of my shiur last week on the writings of RSRH, and is available at http://www.torah.org/advanced/ravhirsch/5770/kisisa.html ]
Of course, there are also some gradations in between. Jewish charities need to be extremely careful not to allow their ads and appeals to appear to have any trace of the pagan motivation.
I always think of this passage from War and Peace, describing the minister responsible for Moscow, who put up populistic broadsheets as the French approached:
Yasher Koach for getting this article on Cross-Currents. If I wrote it, they would never let it see the light of day. You must know how to write your biting criticism in a more acceptable way. It is about time that someone decries the way these organizations prey on the gullible and sell yeshuos. Do the rabbis they picture really understand what they are party to or are they being “snukkered”? Since when did Litvishe rabbonim allow themselves to be sold in this way? The only justification is that the need for tzerdakah is so great that it is worth appealing to a form of superstition that no lamdam believes in. It is a stirah minai u bei that Litvishe Rabbonim are made into wonder rabbis of the early chassidi type and they go for it. Either they don’t know or they do, in either case, it is a disgrace.Which of the two is true?
L. Oberstein: The only justification is that the need for tzerdakah is so great that it is worth appealing to a form of superstition that no lamdam believes in.
Ori: Learning Talmud might provide the same mental discipline for Charedi boys that Math and Physics provides for the general public. But a Torah-pure school system is not going to teach enough English to do most lucrative jobs in Israel. And avoiding military service means that men cannot start their careers until much later than their Chiloni or Dati-Leumi counterparts.
I’d say the need for Tzedakah is that great. Charity and the Israeli government’s good will are not good basis for an economy.
I am glad to see that I’m not the only one annoyed by these advertisements. Another point not covered by DL is the “holy” competition that goes on. If one advertises a “Minyan at the Kotel” the other will have a “Minyan exactly opposite the Kodesh “Hakodoshim”. If one has “Kever Rachel and Hevron” the other will counter with “40 mekomos hakodoshim” and so it goes. It reminds me of kids playing “Can you top this” or “My Gadol can lick your Gadol”.
The question is; are they paying attention.
I also noticed that right here in CC there is an ad about “For the First Time in History 1,800 Torah Scholars will be praying for you simultaneously” complete with changing pictures of various Gedolim.!!
If I knew how to spell “serendipitious”, that’s the word I would use! 🙂
[YA – CC, like most other outlets, makes no representation as to the worth or probity of any advertisers. Besides, do you know what they promised us to run that ad? They guaranteed that all lamed vavniks would fast for 40 days that CC should have a spectacular rise in readership! How could we turn them down?]
These organizations do show copies of personal checks signed by the gedolim. Rav Elyashiv has an account at Bank Mizrachi. I don’t know if the tzedaka organization gets any sponsorship money from Bank Mizrachi.
While I heartily agree with and applaud Mr. Landesman’s article, I must point out that the late and unlamented senator from Wisconsin, Sen. Proxmire, was the prototype of the No-Nothing politician. His “Golden Fleece” awards were often bestowed on projects and programs that had real value but that Sen. Proxmire was too stupid to understand.
I agree wholeheartedly with this article, but I have a simple question for charedim who read this: what about daas Torah?
I mean, even if CC is not officially a charedi website, several frequent contributors – namely Rabbi Shafran and Rosenblum – clearly identify themselves as charedi. If you’re charedi, then you believe in “daas torah” in its narrow and rigid sense. If Rav Kanievsly and Rav Steinman take part in this, then, according to the prevalent “daas Torah” outlook, we must accept it as emes. If we follow the “daas torah” doctrine, are we allow to criticize or poke fun at Kupat Ha’ir if these gedolim give it their complete support? What does it say about CC that it allowed this anti-daas Torah piece to be published?
The Jewish people are certainly a sharp, witty, and discerning bunch. However, I am not sure I agree with your premise about cynicism in cases where there may be proactive alternatives.
I, too, find the ads distasteful, but I would like to suggest a different approach to the topic.
I was wondering if the ads were not simply lost in cultural translation. Perhaps similar ads are run in Israel, where that kind of advertising might not be viewed as being so trite (whether they would–or should–feel comfortable with the miracle-worker premise, I don’t know). Maybe it would be more helpful to communicate your concerns to people who are involved with these organizations. Let the powers that be know that American sensibilities find the advertising off-putting and are unlikely to respond positively in a practical dollars and cents sense. This is certainly a valuable and constructive peice of criticism for sincere tzedaka agencies. If the tzedaka organizations don’t listen, address the rabbanim themselves or their counterparts in America.
This approach would speak to David’s comment, which is well taken, about daas Torah. If we believe in daas Torah, especially in a society which sneers at this notion, we would do well to not put our rabbanim’s decisions in question in a public forum.
The usual answer is it’s the protocols of the askanim of Zion, not the gedolim.
I hate to be the bad guy here but to me, this post crosses the letzanus line. I laughed at several parts and don’t disagree with observations made and the positions taken and I am also open to criticizing these organizations. But I don’t believe this sort of letzanus is justified – both because of the inherent dangers of letzanus (as described in various places in chazal and in e.g. mesilas yesharim) as well as because I don’t see anything positive coming out of this sort of consciousness raising. It seems like little more than losing patience with numbskulls, rather than attempting to steer things in a direction. Yes, there is a hyperactive charedi type who would be a talmid chacham she-ein bo daas if they were talmidei chachamim who throw all kinds of weight behind increasingly shallow pseudo-charedi nonsense. My advice is to have a good cry and then try not to think about it too much.
“If you’re charedi, then you believe in “daas torah” in its narrow and rigid sense.”
Let me fix that for you. “If you’re a typical j-blogger, you believe that all Charedim are mindless fools who believe in Daas Torah in its narrow and rigid sense.
I’ve thus wondered how one reconciles daas torah (as that individual understands it) with certain activities in the names of the gedolim which are ascribed to “askanim” when the activity or outcome is negative.(i’d rather not go into specific examples)
Maybe it’s just the way charity organizations feel they have to operate these days. Some do bigger and more ourtrageous Chinese Auctions to attract donors. These charities also feel the pressure to outdo the others. (Not that I am condoning, just explaining.)
I think Mark’s comment at 12:35 AM is unnecessarily harsh. David has simply expressed his confusion at how haredim who define their ideal by deference to rabbinic authority (being “mevatel daas”) can criticize organizations and policies which are given stamps of approval by the gedolim. For asking the question, he is accused of calling “all charedim…mindless fools!” I for one would be interested in a more substantive response from him regarding this issue.
I guess if we were known to have only higher motivations, the charities would appeal to those and not the lower ones. So the onus is on us to get our heads on straight.
The one-upmanship goes past segulaos to hilchos tzedakah. For some time, the local kupa here in Ramat Beit Shemesh has been publishing beshem the gedolim “aniei irecha kodmin” – the poor of your city come first, to convince the local ballebatim to spend their tzedaka on them and not “national” kupot. (Oddly, though, they showed pictures of various gedolim breaking this very halacha and giving checks to the kupa of RBS!). But the national kupot counter-attacked, posting a psak that giving to the national kupa has a din of aniei irecha, even supplying a phone number where one could call to hear Rav Chaim Kinievsky shlita giving this psak. Even halacha is fungible in the great tzedakah wars!
Rabbi Landesman’s article is on the mark. I have long been “turned off” by these organizations’ tasteless advertisements. The way that they turn the mitzva of tzedaka into a segula bonanza is wildly inappropriate. Worse, their hyperbolic promises of heavenly assistance and their childish fawning over Gedolim seem almost heretical.
And yet… there are two points I would like to make about the advertisements.
1. They are effective – There are probably hundreds of tzedaka organizations in Eretz Yisroel. How many of them have you heard of? And how many people have not heard of Kupat HaIr or Vaad Harabonim?
2. They are no more offensive than any other advertisement – In reality, every advertisement is really an insult to our intelligence. Advertisements in general try to create a certain, completely unjustifiable perception about that product. The claim of Kupat HaIr that it will grant us immediate Divine assistance is no less outrageous than the insinuation by Coke that their soda makes us more attractive to the opposite gender. Part of the reason we do not feel the same outrage about Coke is simply because their ads are more subtle (Coke of course will never say – “Drink coke, get girls.” Whereas Kupat Hair actually says quite bluntly– “give money, get salvation”). We are really outraged, not at Kupat Hair’s message, but at their lack of sophistication.
I think that the time has come to demand an external audit system for all of these “Tzedakas”. We are all aware of some good ones, which don’t have color flyers, etc. I see these glossies inserted into newspapers and sent to shuls. It is not only absurd, but morally disgusting on how much goes into advertising and marketing.
It is interesting than many criticize the blogs for being bashers of Gedolim, etc. IMHO, the exploitation of those same sages on the aforementioned literature is certainly a denigration of them.
Such a proposal should go deeper than that. There are many schools and yeshivos which should also be taken to task and opening their books. While starting modestly, many of these educational institutions have been commandeered by a chosen few and are ostensibly run as family businesses with all of the nepotism that comes alog with it. Yet, when it comnes to fundraising, they still posture themselves as not-for-profit, community entities. Our Mesora has much to say about the required transparency and checks-and-balances when it comes to Tzedaka and Mammon Hekdesh. It would be a welcome “innovation” to return to that tradition.
Let the powers that be know that American sensibilities find the advertising off-putting and are unlikely to respond positively in a practical dollars and cents sense.
I wonder if this comment is factually true. If these ads are so prevalant , it might mean that this pseudo-Judaism which is nothing more than primitive superstion has caught on in the minds of the simple minded and that they are numerous. Why do the Israeli gedolim go along with this chilul Hashem? No one answers that basic question and it really undermines kovod Hatorah.
I pose the question again to the powers-that-be at Cross Currents: How do you reconcile publishing this article with the concept of fealty to the authority of Torah sages? This article ridicules in the strongest terms promises made by gedolim like Rav Chaim Kanievsky. I believe that Rabbi Adlerstein and/or the others in charge of CC owe their readers – charedi and non-charedi alike – some clarification on this point. If Rav Kanievsky can be subject to ridicule, then what does daas Torah mean?
[Editors’ Note: We’ve asked Rabbi Landesman to respond. His words follow –
Like every good Jew, I choose to answer a question with a question. How do you, as one to whom the kavod of a gadol like Rav Chaim shlita is sacrosanct, reconcile the publication of promises that he allegedly makes with simple sechel hayashar. Do you honestly believe that Rav Chaim or Rav Elyashiv or Rav Aron Leib would restrict their berachos and tefillos to those willing to give $180; give less, and you’ll have to shop for a cheaper gadol! If anyone can be accused of zilzul talmidei chachamim – and this was the point of the article – it is the people who write the drivel that fills the segulos and yeshuos press. To link gedolai harbbanim to such idiocy is to belittle them no end and it is this practice that I feel must be stopped. Do you truly believe that Rav Chaim et al are party to the copywriters flights of fantasy? A very close friend of mine recently met with Rav Elyashiv who said to him: “I never knew I had so much family. Every day I hear that Elyashiv said this and Elyashiv signed that! Never knew that there were so many people with the name!”
Hard to accept? Then consider the following. On Thursday a poster was circulated in Beitar calling on the tzibbur to come to the rescue of Elinor [I refuse to use the title rabbi] Chen – the man recently extradited from Brazil and charged in the horrible acts of abuse against a child that were perpetrated by the mother who was a follower of this man. The poster extolled his tzidkus and was ostensibly signed by rabbanim in Beitar as well as by Rav Chaim, Rav Aron Leib and Rav Elyashiv. There was an immediate public outcry and the askanim who are the gatekeepers of the rabbanim anounced that the signatures had been acquired through deceit – not that they were forged, but that the temimus of the rabbanim had led them to sign. That is a very frightening statement which I will not delve into.
My article did not in any way ridicule gedolai Torah and I resent the false accusation. If anyone is guilty of such denigration, it is readers who consider these advertisements as vehicles through which da’as Torah is conveyed.
My assumption is that these charities are legit. But every time I see one of these glossies, I have less and less respect. I have read the poorly written tear-jerkers included in the brochures, each one worse than the next and yet, exactly the same as the previous. It is amazing that a Godol would allow a story to be written about him that has him answering every troubled life story with the exact same answer – “give generously to kupat hair” or whatever. Be it illness or shidduchim or OTD children or parnassah, the answer is always the same.
This line of advertising is effective in extracting overly generous donations from pensioners and other limited income people. When the Gedolim want money from the wealthy, they have personal meetings (see weekly pictures in the yased). In this sense, this type of campaign is even more insidious, convincing the poor and downtrodden that their yeshua is just around the corner if only.
I know some of these donors, and truth be told, they are buying into a dream, not unlike state run lotteries who sell the “good life” for a couple of bucks.
I asked a visiting Israeli Rosh Yeshiva about these tzedokos which promise Yeshuos. He said that everyone knows it is distasteful and that it plays to superstion but “it works”. He said even his own wife asks him if she should send a donation to one of these places to secure Divine help and he answers her that she should instead daven to Hashem. I guess many human beings have more faith in miracle workers, amulets, fortune tellers, readers of bones, etc. than in prayer direrctly to the One Above. Isn’t this exactly what the Holy Torah tells us is a sin?
These ads are apparently effective else the professional fundraisers who produce them would not continue to stuff our mailboxes with them. I have gotten as many as eight copies of these color advertisements in one day’s mail. Mailings of this nature are very expensive and they must bring a substantial return on their investment for the professionals to continue in business. This brings up the question: How much of the contributions actually find their way to the needy recipients and how much go to the professional fundraisers? We must conclude that although we would like to believe that we are a sophisticated bunch, we are , in fact, outnumbered by a large number of naive and unsophisticated co-religionists.
Dovid Landesman, besides writing an enjoyable piece, has touched upon a growing socio-religious phenomenon, that being the tendency for the Litvishe community to not only treat their poskim like chassidishe rebbes, but to employ them as magicians as well. Rabbi Kanievsky is the prime example here.
The reliance on segulos as magic is not new, and apologetics are off the mark. One only need peruse the Sefer Chassidim for an impressive array of such segulos; indeed they were thought to be directly effective. The Litvishe community in the 19th and 20th centuries downplayed these practices vigorously (mainly as an anti-chassidic philosophy), but they are unfortunately making a serious comeback. I think it is a backlash against the increasing success and the fear of the scientific movement , especially in the area of the origin of the universe and evolutionary theory . I’d like to think the pendulum will swing back, but time will tell.