A spate of highly publicized scandals in the American Orthodox Jewish community has “touched off a campaign of intense soul-searching among American Jews” concerning ethics.
Moment magazine (February) reports that in the last few years, prominent Orthodox, particularly Hasidic, Jewish leaders and sometimes whole communities have found themselves mired in scandals involving allegations of corruption and fraud. One well-known case involved a Brooklyn Hasidic rabbi using his bank account to launder $1.75 million of what turned out to be Colombian cocaine money. Other recent cases include welfare fraud by an Orthodox community, Hasidic rabbis allegedly involved in kidnapping a teenager, witness tampering, and even attempted murder.
The scandals have been enough for sermons and articles in the Hasidic world to argue that their immersion in politics is misguided and that there needs to be a return to insularity and isolation. Marc Stern of the American Jewish Congress calls many of these cases part of a “hangover from Europe,” when Jewish communities viewed their anti-Semitic regimes in prewar Poland, Hungary and Stalinist Russia as the enemy. “An attitude developed that whatever we can get from them is giving them back their due,” he adds.
The attitude of Jewish law is also sometimes ambiguous about the value of secular law. There are some halachic and talmudic passages that give the law of the Torah priority over the laws of the land, such as in teaching that stealing from the government is less serious than stealing from an individual. Many of the cases of fraud and corruption involves politicians who tend to “fall over themselves to throw aid at Hasidic communities,” thus tempting the often financially strapped, and sometimes impoverished, Hasidic Orthodox community to cut corners to receive such funds.
A double-standard can’t be ruled out, since many of the offenses committed by these rabbis and splashed across newspapers also regularly involve secular institutions and figures who receive little press attention. Many Orthodox leaders feel that the non-Orthodox world amplifies and publicizes their offenses because they dislike the “air of self-righteousness that Orthodox carry about them in the pursuit of their distinctive lifestyle,” according to the article (Moment).
Another article in the same issue of Moment finds that prejudice against Orthodox Jews is common in both the secular and Jewish press. The coverage of such events as men and women non-Orthodox Jews praying at Jerusalem’s Western Wall [separate areas for men and women are designated at the Wall] and coming under attack by the ultra-Orthodox are played up by the media. But the fact that these efforts by the non-Orthodox are meant to be provocative and garner political attention and that the majority of Orthodox at the Wall do not participate in the attacks is not reported.
Also glossed over is the fact that Orthodox religious authorities have regularly forbidden violence against any groups. Another widely reported story involved an Orthodox-inspired plan for gender segregated buses The news raised outrage against the Orthodox in Israel and in the West, although it was later found out that the program was voluntary and limited to the back sections of buses in strict Orthodox neighborhoods.
A widely publicized and baseless recent story in the Jewish and secular press about the trend of Orthodox men using concubines was the most recent case of misinformation involving this religious group. Even more legitimate stories, such as the Orthodox rejection of the validity of other Jewish groups’ conversion rituals, are given slanted treatment, according to the article. There is little media treatment of Conservative Judaism which rejects most Reform conversions, nor criticism of Reform’s refusal to include Humanistic Judaism or Hebrew Christians under its umbrella.
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