A man identified as Daniel Van Pelt, a New Jersey Assemblyman, tries to shield his face as he exits federal court after being one of the more than 40 people arrested in a federal investigation of public corruption.
Dear Reb Simon,
For some reason I was very disturbed by the pictures in the NY Times and all over the media of Rabbis clad in Hassidic garb being marched in chains, under arrest for their alleged money laundering and other crimes. The screaming headlines, “Rabbis and mayors charged in NJ corruption sweep” (online the Times later changed the title to “clergy”) have touched a deep chord in me and, I suspect, in many others.
My children, for whom I am trying to provide a good Jewish ethical education, have asked me about it. And frankly, I don’t have much to say. I haven’t shared with them the sad fact that in my teenage years, I was turned off and repulsed, as were many others of my generation, by hypocrisy coming from our own Hebrew School teachers and Rabbis.
I sincerely believe that it would serve us all well to hear your thoughts on this. You have demonstrated in the past your willingness and courage to address controversial topics that others shy away from. And I, for one, know much that has empowered me in my journey.
Thank you and may you have an inspiring Tisha B’Av,
Initially I was inclined not to react to this story, one of many similar scandals, which we have unfortunately become accustomed to, and would rather they simply go away. “What’s the point of addressing it?” I thought. We live in a corrupt world and crimes happen all the time. In this case they happen to involve religious Jews. So what does this tell us? That people of faith are not immune to temptation; they are no different than the rest of the world’s population. No one needs me to communicate this “revelation.” It is common knowledge.
I also have no interest in dwelling on negatives, or on condemning – or defending –individuals who may or may not have perpetrated the crimes they are accused of. The fact that this particular story includes a religious “mosser” (an FBI informer), who set up people of his own community, makes it more intriguing and embarrassing. But my soul did not come down to earth to expose or relish intrigue, or to pontificate about the vices of others. I have enough challenges of my own to deal with.
Especially when these events, as sad as it sounds, are “nothing new under the sun.” I have been trained, and would like to believe, that my writing should be dedicated to matters “above” the sun, trying to discover new ways to rise above the grimy streets of earth, trying to ignite new hope, new strength and new insights on how to transform this dark world into a brighter place.
But the e-mails, postings and phone calls kept coming in, reflecting how disturbed people were about this disgraceful news. I have learned not to ignore the call for clarity coming from so many different directions. As I thought about it some more, I began wondering: maybe this is not just an issue of (some people being shaken up by) the arrest of a few allegedly corrupt individuals, who happen to be religious. Perhaps there is something more fundamental going on which is affecting us.
To boot, one cannot ignore the fact that this incident took place in the sad Nine Days, when we grieve over our iniquities and the ruins they brought upon us. In explaining the purpose of fast days, Maimonides poignantly declares: When a calamity strikes the community we must cry out, examine our lives and correct our ways. To say that the calamity is merely a natural phenomenon and a chance occurrence is insensitive and cruel. I wondered, perhaps there is a deeper message that we all can learn from this latest scandal.
So here I am, sitting at a keyboard on Tisha B’Av afternoon – when the flames rose to their highest as they consumed our Holy Temple – writing about the essential theme of this saddest day in the calendar: Dissonance.
Dissonance may seem like a mild word, but it is hardly mild. Yes, it includes subtle inconsistencies, but it also includes fundamental schisms and contradictions – hypocrisies, duplicity and deception – in people’s behavior. You preach one thing and you do another; you smile to someone and then stab him in his back; you dress a certain way and then behave in direct contradiction.
Every lie is essentially dissonance. But the worst form of it is when the contrast is strongest: Pain coming from a loving source. Your life-long friend suddenly becomes your enemy over a spat. Families are torn asunder due to financial disagreements. It includes being abused by someone who loves you – a parent, a teacher, a respected authority.
The deepest of all wounds is the one inflicted by someone close to us. Strangers are strangers. Enemies are expected to be adversarial. But when the dagger comes from someone who was supposed to protect us from harm… that dissonance does not easily fade.
No wonder then that we are shaken when we see Rabbis – people who we respect for their increased piety, individuals we expect to be better than the rest, authorities we entrust with our education, our children, our values, our religious commitments – hauled off in handcuffs…
Talk about dissonance. Shock is our healthy response to the jarring observation of a seemingly good person acting badly. Like seeing a dark spot on a bright surface, the contrast is what disturbs us. That is, until we get used to it. Once we become accustomed to duplicity – that “what you see is not what you get” – out shock subsides, at the expense of our souls’ desensitization.
People’s different reactions to this scandal are in itself an “interesting” study in human nature. Some are defending the Rabbis, suggesting that they were set up and even blaming anti-Semitism for the arrests. Others correctly state that it’s premature to jump to conclusions; everyone is innocent until proven guilty. We have no right, they claim, to be judgmental. The majority of course is appalled by this incident. And many others argue that this just confirms that all religion is corrupt.
I would like to submit that Tisha B’Av gives us a completely different take on this, and shines the spotlight on each of us, compelling us to discuss the issue and act upon it.
Why do we fast and grieve on Tisha B’Av? The conventional answer, citing the Mishna, is due to the five tragic events that happened on this day, including the destruction of both Temples (Taanit 26b. See Five Roots of Trauma).
But the question is simply carried over to these five events: Why did they occur in the first place? Again, the conventional answer is, due to our sins.
And why do we sin? We sin because it’s easier to give in to self-interest and temptation than to do what is right and virtuous.
Our sages and mystics, however, are not satisfied with simply addressing the symptoms. They insist on digging to the root of the problem. They therefore retrace the steps, and deconstruct existence to its core elements, and in the process discover the root foundation of all our iniquities and crimes: Cosmic dissonance.
The great 16th Century mystic, Rabbi Isaac Luria (whose yahrzeit is Av 5), revealed that existential dissonance and all the schisms we experience in life are rooted in the “secret of the tzimtzum” – the concealment of the Divine consciousness, which allowed for the emergence of our independent reality. The “withdrawal” of the Divine presence created in effect two “realities,” two perceptions and two types of consciousness: Pre-Tzimtzum and Post-Tzimtzum. The Higher reality (Daas Elyon) is a Divine consciousness that is all encompassing. The lower reality (Daas Tachton) is an existential consciousness that sees its own existence as primary and can barely sense a reality outside of its own.
From the higher perspective all is one large field of energy, and “there is nothing but Him.” From the lower perspective we each are distinct and separate entities, each driven by personal self-interest.
Take away this tzimtzum/schism – and all dichotomies melt away, but all independent existence as we know it, ceases to be, as well. With the tzimtzum in place, every duplicitous act – from the most innocuous “white crime” to the most vicious inhumane act – is possible.
Since we are all integral parts of one whole, how, ask the mystics, is it possible, that one person hurts another; that one informs on others to protect his own skin; that people murder each other, that parents hurt their own children?… How is it possible – when we are all like organs in one body? Would one healthy arm ever hurt another if it transgressed?
The dissonance-driven tzimtzum is the answer. Due only to our not sensing that we really are one, can we easily hurt each other.
Tisha B’Av is the day – or shall we say the night – of the Tzimtzum. On this day we recognize, with brutal honesty and no silk gloves, the sheer power, and root, of dissonance in our lives: The dissonance between matter and spirit, earth and heaven, the human and the Divine.
This is why the sadness of Tisha B’Av is not only attributed to the destruction of the two Temples, but also to other events that happened on this day. We are not grieving for the destroyed Temple alone; that was merely a symptom. We are grieving for the causes – the human iniquities – that brought on the destruction and all the other tragedies of the day.
On this day of the year we refrain from eating, from partaking of any other form of indulgence, and stand in awe and humility before the great schism – the root core of all tragedies.
This dissonance manifests in a multitude of ways. Last year we focused on its “child abuse” incarnation. This year we shall focus on its impact on religion and faith.
Perhaps one of the strongest manifestations of tzimtzum-dissonance today is the fundamental gap that exists between religion and personal refinement, between rituality and spirituality. How many people considered to be in the “religious” category are simply religious by default? Born into religious homes, educated in religious institutions, not by their own choice, they continue to follow and conform to the rules, guidelines and expectations of their families and communities. Is this a religious person, or someone following a program by rote, mechanical Judaism, as it were?
This does not mean that religion is not to be equated with ethics, or that all people born into religion are mechanical. Quite the contrary: Religious faith expects and demands the highest standard of ethical behavior, and actually scorns upon “mechanical” religiosity (G-d despises “mitzvos anoshim melumodoh,” lip service and by rote tradition taught by men – Isaiah 29:13). Indeed, some of the most refined people you will ever meet are deeply religious, and their faith is what drives them to be the best they possible can.
Yet despite this supreme standard, history is witness to the inconsistencies and paradoxes in the lives of “religious” people. How often have we seen a so-called devout person fall; holy men and women stoop to disgraceful behavior? And then you wonder, were they true people of faith in the first place, or mechanical saints, or even worse: just putting on a show?
And this dissonance takes on another bizarre shape as well: At the other end of the spectrum you will find people who, by conventional standards (whatever that means), are extremely “not religious” (and even anti-religious), yet they are more sensitive and refined than many “religious” people you meet.
I don’t believe the divide between “religious Jews” and “non-religious Jews” is accurate today. I know many Jews who do not keep Shabbos and eat kosher, but are more refined, spiritual, ethical and virtuous than their “religious” counterparts.
Who then is more religious: The bearded man with payos, a yarmulka and kapote, who devoutly keeps Shabbos and will go to obsessive lengths to find a kosher meal, yet cheats others, beats his wife and visits questionable environments, or one without a beard, skullcap and religious garb, who may not keep shabbos or kosher, but is impeccably caring, scrupulously honest, helps anyone that comes his way, is kind and giving, sensitive and virtuous?
Who is the more religious and devout of the two?
Some would reply, the former. But that would be wrong. As if suggesting that outer garments and behavior are more important than virtue and love. The Torah’s mitzvos don’t just include Shabbos and kosher; they also include love your neighbor, honesty, ethics and so on. In fact, loving another is considered to be the most primary of all mitzvos, as Rabbis Akiva and Hillel declare.
So why is religiosity defined more by externals than by internals? There is no adequate answer to this mystery, except that this is yet another manifestation of the dissonance that we are honoring on Tisha B’Av
By no means is this a new phenomenon. Talking about Tisha B’Av-dissonance – what do you think was going on 1941 years ago when the Romans destroyed the Temple? Thousands if not millions of religious Jews – and then, everybody was observant – were roaming about, devoutly following their beliefs, but… not far from the surface a simmering, baseless hatred was toxifying their environment and communities. The Talmud makes it very clear that the Temple was destroyed not because the Romans were so powerful, but due to Jewish sinas chinam, baseless despise from one person to the other!
In the last Haftorah, read always as a prelude to Tisha B’Av, the prophet Isaiah doesn’t mince words when he relates G-d’s blunt statement about the dissonance of the Jews in the Temple: Who has required that you trample My courts when you come to appear in My presence? Stop bringing meaningless offerings; they are offerings of abomination to Me. New Moon, Sabbath, and the Festivals - I cannot bear iniquity along with solemn assembly. My soul hates your New Moons and your appointed feasts. They are a burden to Me; I am weary of bearing them. When you spread out your hands, I will hide My eyes from you. Yes, even though you multiply your prayers, I will not hear; your hands are full of blood (Isaiah 1:12-15). Your princes are rebellious, and companions of thieves. Every one loves bribes, and chases after rewards. They do not judge the fatherless, nor does the widow’s cause come to them (1:23).
How is it possible that in the shadow of a glorious Holy Temple, where the Divine service was held day after day, the Menorah burning steadily, offerings brought on a constant basis, with the Holy of Holies at its center – how at the same time could the Jews so callously hate each other?! Surrounded by Divine revelation, how could they be so inconsistent, bearing iniquity along with solemn assembly, to the point that G-d “hates” their holidays and prayers?!
The same question can be asked of Adam and Eve in Paradise: Here they were in a Divine Eden, all their needs taken care of, a place of spiritual revelation (the Midrash says that the Divine presence rested in Eden). And yet, they still could not control themselves and gave into the temptation to eat from the forbidden fruit of the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil… How is this paradox possible?
The same question can be asked of countless men and women in subsequent generations, who served G-d on one end, and then transgressed on the other.
How could such profound dissonance be possible?! The answer my friends, is the insidious tzimtzum, which has shaped the universe from its genesis. No one, not today, not in the beginning of time, not at Sinai and not at the Holy Temple, not Moses and not the lowliest man, is immune to the tzimtzum’s effects.
This is not an excuse for any sin, nor is it an explanation of the recent Divine desecration in New Jersey and New York. It simply is a way of putting things into context: We are all guilty of dissonance in one form or another. The tzimtzum has affected us all. And even when some have fallen and deserve to be called to task, we must always humbly remember that we live in the same world with them, and we too are part of the equation.
Our collective dissonance is aptly captured in the Talmud ‘s proverbial thief who prays to G-d “before he goes out to steal” (Berachot 63a). On another occasion Isaiah says in the name of G-d: These people come near to me with their mouth and honor me with their lips, but their hearts are removed from me. Their reverence for me consists of rules learned by rote from men. Therefore, I will continue to remain obscure to this people, obscurity upon obscurity, and the wisdom of his wise men shall be lost, and the understanding of his geniuses shall be hidden. Woe to those who go to great depths to hide their plans from the L-rd, who do their work in darkness and think, “Who sees us? Who will know?” You turn things upside down, as if the potter were thought to be like the clay! Shall what is formed say to him who formed it, “He did not make me”? Can the pot say of the potter, “He knows nothing”? (Isaiah 29:13-16).
Armed with these Tisha B’Av principles let us now return to the issue at hand – religion and ethics.
What should be our reaction when we see bearded, kapote-clad, pious Jews being hauled away in handcuffs for alleged crimes?
Firstly, we ought all be pained and hurt by the great Chilul Hashem that this creates. Chilul Hashem means desecration of G-d. When a person who appears like a man of faith (even if that were not the case) is publicly accused of a crime, it in some way desecrates faith and G-d Himself. Instead of making G-d beloved in the eyes of the beholder, it makes G-d and G-d’s expectations of us “look bad” or even worse, irrelevant.
Without passing judgment on these individuals – that is not our role; due process will determine their verdict, and everyone is innocent until proven guilty (I fervently wish they are exonerated) – but regardless: the desecration has been done. Chilul Hashem is not about right and wrong; it’s about perception. The great Talmudic sage, Rav, would not buy meat on credit so that one should never suspect or accuse an esteemed Rabbi of stealing meat (Yoma 86a).
It would be bad enough even if it were a one-time thing that a “religious” Jew was accused of a crime. That too is a Chilul Hashem. But the damage is infinitely compounded by the fact that we are living in a non-neutral climate. The status quo impression is that religion is riddled with hypocrisy, falsehoods, abuse and corruption. That religious people are no better than the rest of the population. Hollow bar and bat mitzvah lessons, coupled with Woody Allen humor, tripled by rabid anti-religious best-sellers (recently by Hitchens, Harris and Dawkins), have hardened the stereotype into stone that religious people are full of themselves, without many redeeming features…
It would be bad enough if there was no basis for this negative attitude. Unfortunately, many of the impressions and stereotypes about religion are all too true and are continuously fueled by religious establishments. I should know – I grew up in a religious environment, and in my work and travels, I have quite often been on the receiving end of the wrath against religion. Speaking in different milieus, I have often been attacked with cynicism: “Oh yeah, we know you Chassidim… You preach about morality, as if you’re holier than thou, and behind the scenes you are just as bad, if not worse than everyone…” And even if I get through the first block in this unyielding obstacle course of relentless stereotypes, people will say: “OK, maybe you’re different. I like you as individual. I can relate to your teachings and approach. But you are an anomaly, an exception to most religious people. I cannot relate to, and I even despise the religious community, with their condescension and judgmental mentality.”
So, now with these latest images being beamed across the world of Rabbis in cuffs, you can imagine that the pre-existing stereotype, and its resulting chilul Hashem, are reinforced, and any work and progress achieved to bring some healing and reconciliation is set back by miles. One fool can burn down a palace built by a hundred prodigies.
So first, we have to acknowledge the very real chilul Hashem created by this episode – its consequences, the responsibility carried by the perpetrators, and above all, the great care that must be taken in the future to prevent more of the same.
But we cannot suffice with that. The root cause for such behavior is the profound schism that exists between Torah life and secular life. I’ve read some Orthodox Jewish columns stating that the problem is Orthodox insulation and lack of respect for secular law. I humbly disagree: If Orthodox Jews were truly secluded, then they wouldn’t be interacting with the business world, and wouldn’t be tempted by illegal moneymaking methods. But with all due respect, they are not insulated, and neither are most people in today’s open world. They may feel insulated in their minds, but in reality they, as much as anyone, are investing their time, money, ingenuity, profit making and so on in the real material world. They are very much engaged in the ways of this world, and the more money they make the more engaged they become. Where exactly is the insulation? Yes, the Orthodox eat, pray and celebrate with their own; many live in secluded communities where secular people are not welcome. But when it comes to business, which occupies most peoples’ time, their minds and hearts are immersed in navigating the rules of the marketplace, and are very much influenced by the secular forces at work, whether it be technology or advertising, politics or media.
The problem is not insulation; the problem is lack of integration. It’s one thing if you go off living in a desert, oasis or mountain – like the Biblical Patriarchs did as shepherds – with little or no interaction with the world around you. Where your income is not dependent on clients, customers, employers, employees and co-workers. But when your sustenance is reliant on the modern economy, and you are immersed business wise, the only choice to not becoming overwhelmed or compromised by the temptations of the marketplace is to learn how to fuse your business with your faith.
In fact, G-d never intended that we be isolated; that was the grave mistake of the scouts, which not incidentally took place on Tisha B’Av, in yet another expression of dissonance (see Holy Land). The purpose of existence is that despite the tzimtzum induced schism between matter and spirit, we bridge the two worlds (see Orthodoxy vs. The World).
On the other end of the spectrum, we need to acknowledge the profound stereotype – and the resulting double standard – that exists around religion. And here the secular world need take notice: Is cheating more acceptable if one does not pose as a religious person? We understand that religious appearance compels higher responsibility: to live up to the higher standards that you project and judge others by. But should secular people be held less accountable because they do not project holiness? And as intelligent people, we need to be accountable for our stereotyping and religious bashing as well. Just because the religious communities are giving us fodder for ridicule, do we have to bite?
Above all, what needs to be addressed – and this is perhaps the largest and most fundamental issue of all: Are we part of the problem or part of the solution?
Yes, it’s easy to point fingers. Today we point them at the “Rabbis” in handcuffs, and tomorrow at the “secularists” in chains. Many easily succumb to the “I told you so” temptation: “Ahh, you see, this only confirms what I always knew. All the religiously clad Jews are thieves.” Or the other way around: Religious people patting themselves on the back when they see “non-believers” transgress, stating almost the same slogan as those hurled at them: “Ahh, you see, this is how “frayeh” (secular) people behave. They are all poishim (sinners).”
This, my friends, is the unchanging world “under the sun,” where nothing is new. It would terribly monotonous if only it were not so tragic. Rule of thumb: Most people will gravitate to justifying their own pre-conceived notions. They are drawn to ideas and events that support whatever position they have held all their lives.
And this, my friends, is the tragedy of Tisha B’Av. This is the “tzimtzum” at work in full glory: Separating us all from each other, pitting individual against individual, community against community.
At the same time, deep within the tzimtzum driven dissonance of Tisha B’Av also lays its cure; in the throes of the flaming abyss of this sad day, the redemption is born.
And what is the cure? To travel “above the sun,” and look at ourselves in a new way. Take that laser-sharp microscope that we use to analyze others and turn it around. Focus it on yourself.
Tisha B’Av awakens us to finally realizing that we are all in “one boat,” we are all part of this dissonant universe, living under the shadow of the great “tzimtzum,” which conceals our inherent unity and our own inner seamlessness. All of us are potential if not actual liars and thieves. All of us are capable – and often more than that – of behavior inconsistent with our inner consciences; all of us do not live up to our own abilities and standards.
Appreciating the tzimtzum/dissonance of Tisha B’Av makes us aware – as in the idiom: awareness is half the cure of a disease – that we are also part of one integral unified whole. When one of us falls and succumbs to dissonance, all of us have fallen in a way. Whether it is a person wearing “religious garb” or other “garb,” whether it is someone who is internally “religious” or not. When any one of us does not live up to our expectations, instead of seeing it as “someone else’s” problem, instead of pointing accusatory fingers and saying “aha,” we must realize that it truly is our own problem.
Dissonance anywhere is dissonance everywhere. Dissonance in one corner of the earth is dissonance in all corners. And they are all rooted in the same nasty place.
And the accumulative effects of this dissonance – especially as it manifests in the schism between the spiritual and the ritual, between blind mechanical Judaism and personal refinement, between dogma and introspection, between the external and internal dimensions of Judaism and Torah – is what has caused the menticide of our people.
The countering force to Tisha B’Av-dissonance is unconditional love and unity: Recognizing that we are an integral unit, each indispensable musical notes of one composition.
To sum up: What should our attitude and response be when we witness Rabbis arrested in chains?
1) Recognize the desecration of G-d that this entails.
2) Don’t be judgmental. You have your own discord to contend with.
3) Sadness – over the fact that is the story of all our lives.
4) Do something positive and loving. Extend unconditionally to someone in need.
5 Celebrate our unity, instead of feeding our differences.
Let us conclude with a fascinating twist of irony: The sages tell us that in the near future Tisha B’Av will become the greatest of all holidays. In the most paradoxical fashion, the saddest of days has the energy to become the happiest. The most profound dissonance carries the impetus to create the deepest expression of unity.
After all that we have been through we have the power to make this a reality.
The question that remains is: Will we act on it? Will we be part of the problem or part of the solution?
Next week: Explaining dissonance to children, how to respond to children’s questions about hypocrisy, religious corruption and the basic inconsistencies they witness when supposedly good people behave in bad ways and when hurt comes from those that are supposed to love us.