Understanding Malfeasance

general
December 7, 2009
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David Zwiebel

Are Haredim more prone to illegal or unethical conduct than others? Once upon a time, the question would have appeared absurd. In recent years, however, with headline after headline reporting case after case of alleged malfeasance by Haredi Jews, the perception has now become widespread that the most ritually rigorous sector of the Jewish community is also the most ethically lax.

What remains unknown, though, is how much that perception owes to reality and how much to a prejudice among people toward the Haredim or the visibility of Haredi Jews (most Americans don’t wear their religion on their sleeves – or suits or skirts or heads).

When people ask me if Haredim are more prone to unethical or illegal conduct, I respond that I don’t know. No one does. I’d like to think that the Torah’s own exacting standards, as well as halakhah’s insistence that Jews respect the laws of the lands in which they reside, elevate Orthodox Jews to a higher plane of ethical conduct. Surely, none of us should be jumping to negative generalizations.

But there can be no denying that there are Jews, including Orthodox and Haredi Jews, who have engaged in wrongdoing. It behooves us all to bemoan that sad reality, and it obliges those of us in the Orthodox world to try to understand how Jews who are focused on doing things Jewishly right can engage in conduct that is Jewishly wrong.

And Jewishly wrong it is to misappropriate money from its legal owners, be they Jews, non-Jews or a legitimate government like ours. I recall vividly an address nine years ago by the revered dean of Yeshiva Torah Vodaath and member of Agudath Israel’s highest rabbinic body, Rabbi Avrohom Pam, of blessed memory, at the last Agudath Israel national convention of his life.

Rabbi Pam was too ill to attend the convention in person, but videotaped his address beforehand so that his words could be shared with the thousands in attendance. He pointed out that it makes no difference whether one is acting as an individual or on behalf of an institution, or whether one is dealing with a Jew, non-Jew, or government. “Meticulous honesty,” he declared, is the mandate of every Jew, and must be “the hallmark of every observant Jew.”

Why, then, is it not? I offer my thoughts not as an excuse for bad behavior, but as a means of trying to identify some of the factors that may cause it, in the hope that understanding might lead to improvement. I will focus on two factors in particular: ignorance and poverty.

Many financial crimes are born of ignorance, which is often a by-product of insularity.

It might be safe to assume that Bernard Madoff was quite aware that his conduct was illegal, but that is not necessarily so for Yankel, whose friend asked him to deposit a personal check and then transfer the funds to a business client. “Money laundering” might not be a term Yankel has ever heard, much less a concept whose illegality he realizes. And then there is the rabbi operating a free loan fund who never knew he had to register with the state, and the tax avoidance strategy suggested to Moishe by an acquaintance who assured him it was legal…

To be sure, there may be instances where conduct is so obviously inappropriate that the ethically sensitive individual should be expected to avoid it even if he is unaware of its illegality. Still, there are many circumstances where the ethical line is far from clear and where individuals may violate laws of which they have no inkling whatsoever. Ignorance of the law is not a legal excuse, but it often does speak to the question of moral culpability.

To the extent, then, that ignorance of the law is a factor in Haredi malfeasance, it is important to educate the community. Toward that end, Agudath Israel has been sponsoring a series of gatherings and seminars — the turnouts thus far have been extremely impressive — aimed both at acquainting the community we serve with knowledge of American law and impressing upon the community the vital need to respect it.

But that is not enough. The next phase of a meaningful “dina de-malkhuta dina” education project needs to take place in our yeshivot and day schools. Young Haredi children must learn that compliance with the law of the land is an essential component of a Torah-true lifestyle.

Another fact to consider is the dire poverty of much of the Haredi community. Even living extremely modest lifestyles, young Haredim are hard pressed to provide for their generally large families (which, however others may feel, are to Haredim their most important “acquisition” in life). The costs of a religiously observant life and of private education for one’s children are formidable. The temptation to cut corners, even when doing so borders, or crosses, the line of legality, is surely powerful.

I do not believe such corner-cutting is rampant. Most Haredim comport themselves with dignity and integrity. Many of the social pathologies that afflict other poverty-stricken communities are virtually non-existent among Haredim. We have much to be proud of. Still, economic pressure is a powerful force that can lead astray even the most pious of our people.

A number of organizations sponsor programs designed to combat poverty in the Haredi community: job training and placement programs, housing assistance programs, programs designed to help people live within their means. In addition to the inherent value of the offerings, they also help people live as law-abiding citizens in the full sense of the term.

If Haredim in the headlines prompt us all to better address Jewish poverty, wherever it exists, the scandal will have yielded something precious. Perhaps that will be the silver lining in the troubling cloud that hovers over us at this time.

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1 Comment

  1. Mr. Zweibel,

    1. You speak of a need to educate community members to the requirements of civil law. Do you really believe that most such crimes do not already involve issues of geneivas daas (theft of knowledge; i.e. deception) something which almost all ultra orthodox Jews know is forbidden?

    2. Do you really mean that there is a need to overcome the internal community value system which implicitly defiles halachah by conveniently rationalizing such deception when dealing with those who are outside the community.

    3. Do you feel that the prosecution of child molesting by ultra orthodox Jews is “a power grab” by the Brooklyn District Attorney, a quote attributed to you by the Forward? Do you see the problem of under-prosecuted sex abuse in the ultra orthodox world as a result of either ignorance of the law, or poverty? Do you believe Rabbis Pam and Schwabwould have supported the Agudah’s lackadaisical approach to this problem? Do you feel that your head, Rabbi Perlow, lacks sufficient familiarity with the nature of the outside world in spite of his having a B.A. with a Phi Beta Kappa?

    In the past I have criticized you mercilessly on my blog. I would be glad to be proven wrong and would gladly apologize if I am wrong.

    You say you would like to see the ultra orthodox world truly change, But it is obviously the case that shows no evidence of serious movement. Five years after Rabbi Perlow began holding meetings about sex abuse within the community you spoke at the recent convention about the need to admit we had such problems. Why should anyone believe that a serious organization would need five years to finally boldly admit the problem while still not having a single policy position or action initiative. Your only work of substance has been to ally with the Catholic church in obstructing the Markey Bill which would have facilitated the prosecution of sex abuse crimes. Mr Zweibel why should we believe your protestations about a concern for ethics? I have not seen a single living rabbi say anything of substance about ethics or sex abuse at your organizaiton’s most recent convention. The one session I did see on video, since removed from the web, showed a presenter and an audience joking about stealing a mailing list from an employer to start a business.

    I wish you well in being the reformer some say you are. But I believe in tachlis. To date you have acted like an apologist which using the rhetoric of a reformer.

    http://FrumFollies.wordpress.com

    Posted by
    Yerachmiel Lopin
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