Monday, July 27, 2009

Does ultra-Orthodox garb protect a Jew from sinning?

When righteous stumble

'For these defendants, corruption was a way of life," said New Jersey District Attorney Ralph Marra, speaking of rabbis and politicians ensnared in a $3 million money-laundering scandal.

For the rest of us, it was painful and embarrassing to watch Rabbi Saul Kassin, 87, the venerable leader of the Syrian Jewish community of metropolitan New York, being led away by federal agents.

Images of the arrested ultra-Orthodox Jews being escorted to a waiting bus generated headlines in the American press that said it all: "Is nothing sacred!" (The New York Daily News); "Walk of shame" (Newark Star Ledger); and "Kosher nostra & dirty Jersey" (The New York Post). The paper led its story with: "Everything was on sale - from politicians to kidneys."

ONE OF the reasons ultra-Orthodox Jews wear dark suits, wide-brimmed hats and ritual fringes hanging outside their trousers is as a self-reminder that the Holy One above is a constant presence. Dark colors remind the pious that life should not be taken frivolously - that its purpose is not to revel in the pleasures of the here and now, but to prepare a place for the soul in the eternal world to come. Haredi garb is intended to instill "fear of heaven."

Among the ultra-Orthodox - Hassidic, Lithuanian and Sephardi - distinctive dress is intended to make it difficult to sin publicly or privately. You can never blend in or forget who you are.

It would be unimaginable for a group of ultra-Orthodox Jews to be captured on camera robbing a bank or mugging an elderly pensioner who had just cashed a social security check; or beating a drug dealer senseless for selling heroin on a street corner they had staked claim to.

Plainly, however, haredi garb is not a foolproof protection against immorality.

Lately, the Jewish world has been roiled by the bad behavior of people who are identifiably Jewish. Sometimes it is not a matter of clothing.

Bernard Madoff, for instance, was described as an Orthodox Jew, not because of how he dressed but presumably because of his synagogue affiliation and the fact that he served on the boards of major Orthodox educational institutions. But the magnitude of Madoff's crimes was such that his garb was beside the point; his Jewishness was anyway in the public domain.

From the streets of Jerusalem to the streets of New Jersey, the media have lately been spotlighting what seems like an epidemic of ultra-Orthodox Jews behaving badly. In fact, the number of haredim who riotously attack police officers in Jerusalem or engage in money laundering in New Jersey is minuscule. And it would be stating the obvious to point out that the vast majority of ultra-Orthodox Jews are law-abiding; many live simple, unadorned lives, genuinely focusing their energies on the study of Torah and the fulfillment of the mitzvot, down to their minutiae.

Yet were ultra-Orthodoxy a brand, one might argue that the "franchise" has taken a public-relations hit over the years. Fair or not, the stock of the entire ultra-Orthodox world declines when outwardly pious Jews turn out to be slumlords, child-molesters or wife-abusers, proprietors of nursing homes that neglect their residents, dealers in human organs, money-launderers, or those who have no compunction about hurling bricks through the windshields of cars on Shabbat.

REPENTANCE is an essential tenet of the Jewish way of life. So there needs to be some genuine soul-searching in the haredi world on two levels. Since it is now pretty much demonstrated that distinctive garb doesn't inoculate against unlawful behavior, what would?

And since these crimes also intimate a weakening of faith and an obsession with materialism, what steps can the faithful take to strengthen the tenets of their belief?

And what does this mean for the rest of us? It does not mean that those affiliated with other streams of Judaism, or the unaffiliated secular, can afford to be smug. Human beings are fallible.

Instead, it reinforces the idea that Judaism strives for a golden mean which combines fidelity to tradition with morality; ritual with responsibilities to our fellow human beings - and, it should go without saying, an obligation to adhere to the laws of the land.

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