News That Makes Us Wince
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News That Makes Us Wince

Monday, July 27th, 2009

The Jewish people has pulled off some pretty fancy tricks over the millennia; still being here today, with a reborn homeland, high among them. But purging sin, greed and general bad behavior from every single adherent seems a tall order, even for such a talented and determined group as ours.

So our dream of being only the people of Einsteins and Wiesels, Heschels and Koufaxes is sometimes thwarted by Rosenbergs and Pollards, Milkens and Boeskys, Amirs and Madoffs.

It’s early in the scandal of five rabbis accused of being part of a web of money laundering and other corruption in New Jersey, coming so quickly on the heels of the Madoff scandal. More key details will emerge in the coming months. While everyone is entitled to the presumption of innocence, we must accept that high-profile cases like these, reportedly built on secret recordings, are rarely pressed by prosecutors without airtight evidence, and as such often result in pleas, with or without deals, rather than a trial verdict.

It’s easy to scratch our heads and wonder where Judaism in America, and Orthodoxy in particular, went wrong. But it’s important to keep perspective. These are five out of tens of thousands of rabbis. Since non-profit institutions, including yeshivot, are implicated in the alleged profit-making scheme, it may well turn out that they operated as part of a system of corruption enabled and supported by segments of their communities. Or it may turn out that their alleged activities took place in a vaccum. We’ll know the answer if more arrests follow.

Our temptation to say that there is a trend at work here, a betrayal of values that grows like a cancer. But the fact is that organized Jewish life in America, secular and religious, is intrinsically and overwhelmingly ethical and altruistic, something in which we should never lose pride.

This is not to suggest we should accept a percentage of misbehavior unchallenged, in the way banks and other companies figure a degree of fraud as the cost of doing business. We should always embrace, to use an increasingly popular phrase, a teachable moment. Even a single example of religious hypocrisy or corruption is one too many.

But it would be challenging to find any group — religious, political, social or professional — without its disgraces. In recent years we have seen the downfall or tainting of presidents, governors and senators, military leaders, CEOs and police officers, judges, teachers, priests and chaplains — all people from whom we had a right to expect better.

It’s flattering if the public expects 100 percent of rabbis to be, by definition, immune to the same temptations as those in other professions; and while we would like it to be true, the law of averages and the weakness of the human spirit suggest otherwise.

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