Postscript to Unwanted Headlines

The announcement by Attorney General Jeff Sessions brought some comfort to people in our community embarrassed by the recent Lakewood arrests. Some 421 people in 20 states, including 50 physicians had been arrested for 1.3 billion dollars of Medicare fraud. “This event,” said the AG, “again highlights the enormity of the fraud challenge we face.”

Some found vindication and a sense of perspective in the story. What’s a few million allegedly taken by a handful of people in a community of tens of thousands? Perhaps we don’t look so bad after all. Others went further. Only anti-Semites would pursue a few young couples in Lakewood when NJ officials claimed that their efforts blocked over $700 million in annual fraud in just one type of entitlement program.

As others pointed out in various comboxes, both of these reactions are wrong and unfortunate. As frum Jews, we never dare compare our conduct to that of those who did not receive a Torah. Moreover, that same Torah tells us that non-Jews have the right to expect more from us. That’s part of our job description. Stories of Orthodox misdeeds will remain high-profile regardless of the actions of others, because we are not supposed to be falling prey to this kind of behavior. Besides, the Orthodox sense of shared values makes our community a more likely candidate for policing. A few very visible arrests sends a powerful message to the rest of the community that can be expected to lead to others cleaning up their act. It is a more effective deterrent to future fraud than picking up 50 physicians in 20 states.

There have been some very positive reactions to the scandal stories, and much conversation about steps to take. Some of the reactions, however, point to troublesome attitudes that are deeply set implanted in some of our neighbors, and need to be addressed. I will cite two examples.

Consider these paragraphs from one of our print outlets:

Reb Nosson never bothered keeping organized records, but he couldn’t duck the authorities forever. One time he was summoned to the government tax office with the request that he bring his accounting ledgers. “Well,” Reb Michoel recalls, “he never kept a ledger, so he took the only document he had — his marriage certificate, with the listing of his seven children — to the tax authorities. The clerk gaped at the certificate and then sneered disdainfully, ‘Get out of here.’ ” 

Even the silver items that he purchased in Germany got to his store in unconventional ways. Reb Nosson befriended one of the customs clerks at the border patrol, making sure to collect his merchandise only on the days that this man was on duty, equipping himself with several bottles of expensive whiskey. Reb Nosson would declare that the boxes were full of shmattes that had no value. “But one time,” Reb Michoel relates, “the clerk actually decided to open the package, and found a small silver goose. The clerk opened his eyes wide and asked my father, And-What is this?’ “My father didn’t lose his equilibrium, and managed to reply casually, ‘That’s a gift from my wife to yours…'” 

Given what this Reb Nosson had endured at the hands of neighbors and governments, his attitude towards authority is understandable. It is disappointing, however, that the story could appear days after the Lakewood arrests without some sort of warning by the author that this kind of relationship with secular law should not be imitated by the rest of us. When such caveats do not appear, stories like this serve as models to be emulated today by those who did not suffer at the hands of evil governments. Think of any Talmudic passage that deals with evading taxes or border control agents. In every case, either the gemara or the rishonim will ask the question about dina demalchusa, and limit the case to an illegal self-appointed tax agent or an illegal tax. The important point to notice is that the case is not allowed to stand unchallenged and free of limitation.

A different take from a somewhat public figure gained traction, and exposes some different fault lines. It properly condemned any illegality, but urged our community to understand the nature and fallibility of human law. Why are the upper limits of entitlement programs set so low, when so many frum families struggle mightily even though they earn more? As a community, we provide many benefits to general society. Specifically, we pay property taxes without taking back any of the funds, since our children go to private schools. We also run many chesed endeavors for which the government doesn’t pay. Setting the limits on programs where they are is the product of a Congress that is ill-informed, and legislates in ways that make no sense. Besides, we could ease the plight of countless families by not building a single useless aircraft carrier that costs billions.

We could question several of these contentions. More likely, every one. No numbers are given to support the argment that our property taxes exceed everything we take out of the system. (Really? Has he seen the numbers of Orthodox poor in NY, and all the entitlement programs they subsist upon? What percentage of us are paying property taxes? How many properties do we take off the rolls, by turning them into exempt religious institutions?) Do our chesed organizations save the government any money at all? Don’t they cover services for which there are no programs – because if there were, we would be using them?

The real damage done by this kind of thinking (and let’s be fair – it did not justify illegality, but called on people to be more vocal in their expectations of lawmakers) is in the attitudes that it perpetuates subliminally. Does it matter if Congress is “ill-informed?” Who, in a democratic society, gets to make that determination? If we are paying in too much, does that give us the right to decide to even the score a bit? Is this an unintended dog-whistle to those who see themselves as above man-made law, and only responsive to Divine law – an attitude that we unfortunately recognize in some of us? Would the author extend that right to the many other American citizens who send their children to private and parochial schools? Should ordinary citizens pass judgment on the needs of the military? Does that encourage some people to make all sorts of rationalizations about simply restoring a bit of equity and sanity when they game the system?

The shock waves after the arrests produced some good momentum towards finding solutions. Part of the process will be recognizing, rather than hiding from, points of vulnerability.

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51 Responses

  1. joel rich says:

    In social psychology, the fundamental attribution error, also known as the correspondence bias or attribution effect, is the claim that in contrast to interpretations of their own behavior, people place undue emphasis on internal characteristics of the agent (character or intention), rather than external factors, in explaining other people’s behavior. The effect has been described as “the tendency to believe that what people do reflects who they are”.

    more simply put , “the other is evil, I’m a victim of circumstance”

  2. Robert says:

    This piece makes a lot of good points. With regard to property taxes, though: in many (most?) places, property taxes are used primarily to fund public school education (and thus blamed for public school inequality between localities having the power to collect property taxes). So it is not unreasonable for those paying property taxes to infer an inverse correlation between the demand for public education services with enrollment in private schools. Simply imagine if all children currently at private schools suddenly enrolled in public schools. The direct costs (e.g. infrastructure and staffing) and indirect costs (e.g. opportunity cost of deferring improvements and new/updated programs and infrastructure) would be non-trivial. This in no way excuses transgression of dina demalkhuta dina, but perhaps it should help direct the focus of our lobbying and voting for offices and referenda.

    • lacosta says:

      one cannot lobby for Repeal of the First Amendment of the Constitution. The recent Supreme Court case of govt funding for a church playground included the by now famous Footnote 3 , which basically implies there are no five votes for direct funding of religious schooling.

      as to closing the jewish schools for a month , and registering tens of thousands in public school, consider the districts where there is actual haredi control of the secular school board– eg Ramapo, and look at all the chillul hashem that comes with it. but it certainly would be curious to let the school districts call the bluff , and see hundreds of chassidishe yingelach sitting in a mixed classroom for 1st grade….

    • Mycroft says:

      One does not pay taxes because one or his group benefits from the service. Society decides what it wishes to spend assets on and then we have a requirement to pay for it. BTW the same logic applies to the Tax Expenditure Budget- charitable contributions assuming itemizing cause the government to lose money. The same cost as if a check were written. Thus, we all pay for donations to churches, synagogues , mosques etc
      Of course foreign aid which we as a community benefit from us is also mandatory expense to be paid for ven by those who are not members of a group benefiting from it.

      • Steve Brizel says:

        That of course means that your taxes go for all sorts of government funded programs that you as an individual could find much to disagree with.

    • Steve Brizel says:

      Mycroft’s comment is correct. I think that we can all identify government programs that we view as uncecessary or worse. In the absence of the same being repealed by Congress , the only alternative is to pay taxes and seek the election of legislators who would repeal such programs.

  3. Zave Rudman says:

    I think it is important to note the magazine mentioned above, did publish a critical letter, and take responsibility for publishing such material in the next week.

    • Thanks. I didn’t know that. But my point was not to criticize the magazine, which I did not name. It was to point out the ease with which we transmit the meme, without thinking too much about its effects

      • I think their immediate retraction shows a new approach to such a transmission.

      • We certainly hope so. Only time will tell

      • Steve Brizel says:

        I think that there needs to be a stronger statement to the effect that it is completely antithetical to (a) claim that we are not the only community that has such persons and (b) if we are serious about Bein Adam LChaveiro especially during this time of the year, we need programs that focus on Halacha LMaaaseh, receiving , and not abusing the gift of a Malchus Shel Chesed of government funds as much now as drashos , etc on Lashon Hara.

  4. DF says:

    Good article. A few points you allude to are not quite that simple, but otherwise well stated. The only point that should be stressed, one might suggest, is that the issue here is not necessarily orthodox Jews, but rather, Lakewood Jews. To the broader world, maybe perhaps there is not so much of a distinction. (Though I do have reason to doubt that; people today are getting better at recognizing strata and sub-communities within communities.) But internally, we know there is a difference. To the same proportion that a Jew should be a light unto the nations, to that same extent a Jew who holds himself out as a rabbi, or allows himself to be perceived as such, should likewise be a light to other Jews, particularly orthodox ones. The Jews’ Jews, one might say. That is hasn’t worked out that way is grounds to reconsider, in my view, the place and value of the Lakewood approach in Jewish life.

    • I would not that be that quick to commit what may be two wrongs: 1) painting the “Lakewood approach” a single dark color, without any authoritative grasp of how widespread and deep-seated the problem is, and 2) ignoring all the good that has come out of the that same approach, and that is not organically connected to the problems now coming to the surface.

      • Eli Blum says:

        Rabbi Adlerstein – I don’t know why you say the “Lakewood approach” is not “organically connected” to the problem at hand. The insistence of boys B’shitah only having Limudei Kodesh starting in ninth grade, and that everyone should go to Kollel as long as possible, breeds COMMUNAL dependence on government handouts, which is the root problem.

        Now, you can say that the ends of all the Limud HaTorah justify the means, but then where do those “means” end?

      • My strong objection is calling this the “Lakewood approach,” as if it were invented in New Jersey – and then using the term as a pejorative

      • Solomon Braha says:

        Outside of Lakewood there are no Litvish yeshivas that don’t have secular studies for 9th grade. Not in Monsey , not in Brooklyn and definitely not out of town. Yes, there finally are high school s in Lakewood that have secular studies but that is against what the Roshei Yeshivas used to say(and only because Rav Elya Svei supported ‘secular studies’ did it make inroads in Lakewood).

  5. lacosta says:

    RYA does not point out that the excerpt was from a magazine article about the demise of a Belgian seforim store., which may explain why bribery worked so easily there. The idea, so prevalent in Europe , that government law is just a jew-hatred interference with the need to finance the heimish household/community , has now successfully rooted itself in the haimish communities of the US , especially since the economic model of Kollel life could be easily shown by first year college Economics undergrads to be financially unviable.

    Unfortunately, pronouncements of dina dmalchuta and issur of gzeilat akum will meet deaf ears in an era of mandatory tuitions that exceed the average american family income , not to mention food costs, the frum neighborhood cost surcharge, financing sons-in-law for terms ad infinitum etc

    It would seem that the emphasis on the negative [ hilchot gneivah] will be less salutory that on the positive [solutions to the income-expenses gap]. Unfortunately, a solution , if it even exists, is decades in the future…

  6. Dr. E says:

    Among the intellectually honest in the ranks of the Yeshiva world, it is important not to frame the conversation in strictly behavioral terms. One approach I have seen is to view the arrests as mere outliers within our community. The other approach is to divert the discussion towards the technical Halachic constructs of Gezel Akum, Ta’os Akum, or even the broader Dinei D’Malchusa. Very nice as pilpul for the Beis Medris, but there is a deep-seeded Hashkafic and attitudinal aspect which is the antecedent of all of this.

    The elephant in the room is how the typical frum family of X number of children is supposed to sustain itself in an independent fashion, without needing to rely upon heavy parental. communal, and governmental subsidies. Sustainability requires being able to live within the framework of the high costs of real estate and kosher food, as well as the various amenities of dress and style. Then there is the recurring costs associated with (full) tuition. Where the lines are drawn between needs and wants is an important but different discussion. And just when parents think they have paid their last tuition check, the cycle starts all over with supporting all of these things for the next generation of the family.

    Given the reality that after one does the math and budgeting at the level of the individual and family, these costs require dual-income parents from the get-go—to not only pay the bills now, but to plan for the future. How much of the ideological trajectory within out Yeshivos and Bais Yaakovs supports this? What and when are the exit strategies found in the mainstream Yeshivos (which will help fathers fulfill their fiduciary obligations towards their sons found in Maseches Kiddushin)? What viable channels exist in these institutions to get the training and credentials concurrent with their learning, that will prepare the guys to move on from the Yeshiva into the competitive job market, while still maintaining their identities as Bnei Torah? To me, these are critical questions that must be part of any collective introspection.

    • Shaya R. says:

      The elephant that you bring up is truly an oversized elephant.

      Even those in the “learner-earner” category (i.e. learned for 1-2 years post marriage and simultaneously learning a profession,and then go to work) can hardly make ends meet. (I’m not referring to those that learn for 1-2 years and then start learning a profession, which can take an additional 2-3 years).

      Given that, I asked someome with whom I’m close with, and who plans on learning “long term” post marriage how he plans on doing it. His answer: ” the same way the rest of Lakewood does it”.

      I don’t have a good response to that.

      • Steve Brizel says:

        The issue may be how you define learner earner. I know many hard working professionals who are kovea Itim LaTorah in a very serious manner. Looking at a learner earner as limited to someone who has left kollel for work is an overly restrictive definition

      • Dr. E says:

        Indeed, the Yeshiva world has indeed developed its own nomenclature, including learner-earner, earner learner, as well as long-term learner and “no Plan”. While it conveniently puts young people into boxes for shidduch purposes, it is merely for branding purposes without any connection to the economic realities. Women from previous generations cannot understand how any young woman today would be interested in marrying someone without a current parnassa. But, in the BY system today (from K-Seminary), the young women are indoctrinated that the holy grail is to be able to support the long-term learner. That has become “a thing”. Let the parents/in-laws, community, or Lakewood figure it out down the road. It all works out in the end for everyone, right? Not.

        So, your friend’s teretz to your question of pushing personal responsibility off onto the collective entity that is “Lakewood” was obviously a good example of hadra kushya l’duchta.

      • Shaya R. says:

        I don’t have an answer. But I can say that if you take a drive through Lakewood (which I often do) you’ll see strip mall after strip mall with higher-end clothing stores for men, women and children, geared to the frum community. Someone must be shopping there since I don’t think you can pay rent for a commercial property with section 8;-)

      • Steve Brizel says:

        All the indoctrination in the world works to a point-when the avrech realizes that he is not going to be a Gadol or does not want to be in Klei Kodesh-that is when reality sets in.

      • Steve Brizel says:

        You might be surprised by how many professionals , etc and businessmen out here are seriously Kovea Itim LaTorah. I would not dilute the tern “learner/earner” or “earner/learner” by claiming that it means someone who was in kollel but now works and learns on the side.

    • joel rich says:

      a similar analysis of MO (an least “in town”) yields similar results. It takes a community to fund yeshiva education.


  7. Bracha says:

    This article speaks to what should NOT be our response. I think this video by Rabbi Moshe Hauer is a “must see” and speaks to what SHOULD be our response.

  8. dr. bill says:

    An observation: The goings on in Lakewood versus Medicaid are representative of the government’s problem with big data. When the information is largely in one system, like Medicaid, the situation is at best fair to poor, but not hopeless. When the information is spread across multiple government systems/entities, it is impossible for the government to locate much of anything by extensive data search alone. The initiative Jared Kushner was advocating with tech executives will take years. Perhaps the tefillah for the medinah should be amended to exclude any desire for success in this area.😊
    Seriously, in past jewish history, as demonstrated by any number of scholars, these problems are often solved bottom-up. Waiting for answers to come the other way is placing hope in the wrong place. In the end, it may well lead to zilzul talmidei chachamim. those who are carefully studying the situation in Israel, have already observed bottom-up change, albeit slowly.

  9. I’m sorry Rabbi Adlerstein, but momentum isn’t enough.

    This Chilul Hashem was an earthquake, and the real upshot must be that we in the Chareidi community begin taking our parnassah obligations seriously. Between the apologetics and the dodges of so many on the right, the strategy seems to be duck-and-cover while paying lip service to all the wonderful ways Agudah et al is helping the average fellow coming out of kollel, at 30-something with five children and barely a high school education, figure out how to make a living.

    Someone needs to stand up and proclaim Torah im Derech Eretz to be the lechatchilah. People should not be on government programs lechatchilah because (a) the programs were never intended, and are not set up, to be a lechatchilah for people who shirk their responsibility to attempt to make a living; (b) they create a “melachtan na’asis al yedei acheirim” mentality, but not in a good way; in an “es kumpt mir” way, which is unhealthy and hashkafically wanting; and (c) the very real fact that once a family becomes dependent on these programs and then realizes that the first $35,000-50,0000 that they earn will simply offset their “free” benefits, they become VERY reluctant to report that “additional” income.

    From Rav Aaron Kotler’s and Chaim Dovid Zweibel’s statements on Dovid Lichtenstein’s Headlines program it is clear that no FUNDAMENTAL changes are going to be made, and without fundamental changes, I don’t see how this ends well. The exponential growth of the Jewish velt has been bankrolled by the System. At some point, the goyim are going to calculate the cost of so many of us on Welfare, and they will make Havdallah.

    • dr. bill says:

      Ha’devarim kal ve’chomer beno shel kal ve’chomer. if that is what you concluded from two people trained in the art of speaking pleasantly but ambiguously, imagine how you might react hearing directly from their gedolim. but fear not, in many such situations, as noted above, klal yisroel moves forward in different ways. if you wish, you can certainly blame various gedolim for not providing the necessary hadrachah, but realistic solutions will require practical initiatives that require different skills.

    • Steve Brizel says:

      That will require some serious cheshbon hanefesh. The number of yungermen who can be employed either in some form presently outside the Klei Kodesh either in real estate or nursing homes, where one can find and identify gvirim is not indefinite.

      • Mycroft says:

        I believe I agree with Steve. I have over the decades seen one “hot” field after the other attract special programs catering to the frum community. I have noticed that some people expect that taking a quick course will be the way to procure wealth. It rRely works that way. Certainly if ones family controls a nursing home or real estate business one could get it as a gift, but outsiders have slim chances of making the huge money described.

  10. Eli Blum says:

    Eventually, the government will bring a Yoder-type challenge to the private-school systems of many of these groups (perhaps via YAFFED or similar), and the Yeshivos will lose, due to their reliance on public funding.

    Perhaps then they will wake up. Not before.

  11. Faigy Rothman says:

    People seem to be discussing theoretical cases where a family making let’s say 75K, fudged and said they make 50K, in order to be eligible for food stamps and other benefits because they struggle to get by on 75K with several children and so many expenses.
    If you read about the actual arrests/charges – these people set up shell companies to hide income that was over $1 million a year.
    The people stealing government money here were not poor couples struggling to make it who were tempted to misrepresent their income to get extra help (not that I would defend that practice either, but at least I would understand both the temptation and the sense of compassion people feel for that theoretical family).
    The discussion about how families are meant to make it when they are post-kollel — and parental help and government programs cut them off when they have relatively low income, no or little education, several children, and many expenses including tuition – that’s a conversation worth having but I don’t see it directly connecting to the recent Lakewood arrests.

  12. Bob Miller says:

    This golus, for however long we need to stay in it, needs a new strategy. Looking good is one community priority but being good is the main thing. Power-political machinations and slick PR to evade individual and communal responsibility don’t cut it. One we’ve ticked off “wrong” and “doesn’t work either”, as we should have done by now, it’s time for real stock-taking, planning, and action spearheaded by our highest spiritual guides acting in concert.

  13. >Is this an unintended dog-whistle to those who see themselves as above man-made law, and only responsive to Divine law

    Um, perhaps I misunderstood it but isn’t the principle of dina d’malchusa dina a halacha and therefore part of the Divine law? And doesn’t that mean that obeying man-made law that does not conflict with halacha is as important as observing ‘Divine law’?

    • Actually, no. On two counts. 1) Shmuel’s halacha is not necessarily a d’orayso. If it isn’t, it is completely binding and normative, but wouldn’t be regarded as Divine, except in the sense that He demands that we follow derabbanans as well. 2) How should we phrase this? There are strict and loose constructions of dina demalchusa. Some of the stricter ones narrow the application of the principle considerably. A person with the tendencies we wrote about might well latch on to one of these narrower applications, and tell himself that he is on the right side of halacha.

      • dr. bill says:

        odd behavior for one abiding by all the chumrot he can. or perhaps those chumrot are ones that are easy, more public and “expected.”

        without getting into this quandary, i suspect safek chillul ha’Shem is a d’oraysah at least according to Rashba. i recall a great deal of lomdus, but not how we pasken.

      • Rav Moshe zt”l used to say that those who are routinely machmir in Orach Chaim shouldn’t be coming to him for kulos in Choshem Mishpat. But today we realize that he was a liberal…

      • 1) We say “asher kidshanu” on lighting Shabbos and Chanukah candles even though they’re d’rabbanon. Ultimately the only reason a d’rabbanon has any legal force is because it’s based on a d’oraysa obligation to obey it. If we assume that Chazal has ruach hakodesh to ensure that their innovations were consistent with God’s requirements for us that strongly implies they’re Divine. Your “except in the sense” tries to dismiss but rather proves this point.
        2) Yes, there are different understandings of dina d’malchusa dina but I would love to see the reasoning that justifies an interpretation that permits cheating on welfare, stealing from the public, lying on taxes, etc.

      • 2) No, you wouldn’t. It might make you ill. But it works for those with stronger constitutions than you or I.

      • dr. bill says:

        Garnel, WRT to 1). From one point of view you are correct. though this explanation is not valid according to many rishonim, it should help. The God given right for chazal to enact gezairot and takanot, subject to some constraints, should make the status of those enactments “Divine.” However, that very group of rabbis also enacted a rule that in cases of safek, we can be maikil. a form of heim omru ve’heim omru.

        separately, your assumption that this was somehow linked to assumptions of Chazal’s ruach hakodesh is entirely debatable and i would argue incorrect.

      • micha berger says:

        According to Rashi (Gittin 9b, “חוץ מגיטי נשים”), Shemu’el’s halakhah (dina demalkhusa dina) is an aspect of one of the 7 mitzvos benei Noach, and therefore yes, deOraisa.

        The Rambam (Hil’ Gezeila 5:11) holds that withholding taxes is theft deOraisa. (The same reasoning would imply that claiming gov’t funds fraudulently would equally qualify.)

      • Not sure I want to have this debate publicly, particularly since we are both looking for the same thing to happen. However, whether dina demalchusa is a d’orayso or not is a machlokes the Beis Shmuel EH 28:3 (derabbanan) and Shut Chasam Sofer יו”ד ס שיד ד”ה אמנם ראיתי And claiming gov’t funds fraudulently is arguably worse than non-payment of taxes. The latter is seen by some as equivalent to hafko’as halvaah; the latter is out and out gezel, since it means actively taking something that belongs to another.

      • micha berger says:

        TGhat explains it. I never got to the Beis Shemu’el. I thought the CS’s position was the only one.

        But my intent when seeing you take the edge off DDD, was more that I wanted to put some back on. If nothing else, I assume we both agree that even if the deOraisa cup is half-empty, we cannot be lenient because it’s also half full!

  14. Yossi says:

    Yet it is funny- because all the problems are true but the wealth and entrepreneurial spirit of some of these same Lakewood graduates is astounding. Many of my Lakewood friends have done extremely well in nursing homes, real estate, law- all after learning for five years. They had some help and some connections, but also worked their tail off to pound the pavement and think big. Look at all these luxury Tzedaka functions and you’ll see the attendees are all wealthy ex kollel guys.

    While the problem is a huge problem indeed, there is also more money in the frum world than there ever, ever was.

    • Shaya Rosner says:

      That’s 100% true, but the questions is what percentage of guys learning for 5+ years end up “making it”.

      I don’t have an answer. But a potential problem is that if it’s only a small percentage that go on to do well despite learning for 5+ years (which I suspect, but had no proof for), the rest will use that fact as their justification for not preparing for parnassah and then have a rude awakening a few years down the road.

  15. MK says:

    A close talmid of Rav Aharon Kotler ZTL told me that someone told the Rosh Yeshiva that he attended the “tisch” of a Chassidic Rebbe in prewar Europe and was very impressed and very moved.
    Rav Aharon told him, “I don’t know the Rebbe so I am not talking about him, but as a general rule, do not be “nispael”, impressed, by anyone unless you know that he is meticulous in financial matters!”
    There are many similar stories about Rav Aharon and it is tragic that to many people he has become a “one issue gadol”, advocating full time learning, and this aspect of him has been overlooked.

  16. micha berger says:

    I think the solution is simple to describe, but huge in societal impact. We today think of life’s priorities in terms of Pei’ah 1:1 — talmud Torah keneged kulam (Torah study is equal to them all). However, when we look at tannaim, they all summarize the goal of the Torah as being interpersonal — and not even reducible to any specific mitzvah/os of the 613.

    That which you loathe, do not do to others. This is the whole Torah, the rest is commentary. Go Study! -Hillel
    “Love your peers as yourself” — this is the great principle of the Torah. – R’ Aqiva
    “These are the descendents of Adam” — this is a greater principle that that. – Ben Azzai

    We read Rus on the anniversary of the giving of the Torah and in fact the only specific mitzvos the gemara (Yevamos 47a) and the Rambam (Issurei Bi’ah 14:2) list as ones that must be taught a convert, alongside a general picture of observant life and its consequences, are those that involve sharing one’s crop with the needy. When chazal think of accepting the Torah, this is their central theme.

    Just as the wicked son at the seder denies the essence of the Torah when he excludes himself from the community.

    R Yitzchaq Volozhiner reminisces about his father, R’ Chaim, in the introduction to Nefesh haChaim:
    “He would routinely rebuke me because he saw that I do not [sufficiently] share in the pain of others. This is what he would constantly tell me: that the entire person was not created for himself, but to be of assistance to others, whatever he finds to be in his ability to do.”

    And that’s the author of the section of Nefesh haChaim from which the Yeshiva Movement gets its focus on learning.

    Which is why I find the discussion of the chilul hasheim caused by this incident to be a bit problematic. It reflects the general disjoin between today’s prioritization and those of the past. Something went awry during the era when we shifted from praising the “ehrilicher yid” and today’s conversation about who is “frum”. We can talk about frum Jews who steal from government charity programs, but would question the Orthodoxy of a certain famous couple whose Shabbos observance is not what we try for ourselves.

    I would think we need to reorient our priorities, back to the pursuit of ehrlachkeit, of a yahadus that assumes that Derekh Eretz qodmah laTorah — proper behavior in this world is a prerequisite for Torah (based on Vayiqra Rabba 9:2 & 35:6) is something more than a nice text for a poster for a 2nd grade classroom but the actual driving force in our lives.

    Later on the same page (Shabbos 31a) that Hillel says that all of Torah is to empathize with others enough not to do to them what would bother you, Rava tells us what questions Hashem asks the soul immediately upon her return to Him. The first one is “Did you sell and buy with trustworthiness?” And if the answer to that question is “no”, the assessment of one’s life if “F” even before Hashem asks the second question, “Did you set times for [studying] Torah?”

    But who is Micha Berger that anyone would listen to me about restructuring something as fundamental as their life priorities? This is the message of Shelomo in Mishlei, of the above tannaim, of numerous Lituanian gedolim of over a century ago — R Chaim Volozhiner, R Yisrael Salanter and subsequent Mussarists and down through Rav Shimon Shkop’s introduction to Shaarei Yosher and the Chazon Ish’s Emunah uBitachon (in particular c.f. 1:11). But unless today’s gedolim spearhead such a campaign, can the observant community get back on track?

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