Dear Rabbi Fried,
I’m sure you know about the recent news of the involvement of rabbis in a large New Jersey money laundering scam. How is someone like me, who has been contemplating becoming more observant, supposed to deal with something like this? If this is what observance leads to, why become observant?
You are asking a very important question, which is undoubtedly on the minds of many. This recent event is a very embarrassing one for the Jewish community at large, especially on the heels of the recent Madoff tragedy, and for the observant community specifically. Such activities are completely forbidden by the Torah and must be condemned in the most unequivocal terms. These actions constitute a chilul Hashem, or a desecration of the Name of G-d, when done by those who are said to represent G-d’s Name.
Your question exactly mirrors the Talmud’s explanation of the sin of chilul Hashem. The Talmud says that when otherwise-observant Jews perform a chilul Hashem, it will cause others who see it to not want to study Torah or be observant. Our obligation as Jews, explains the Talmud, is that of kiddush Hashem, the sanctification of G-d’s Name. This means to conduct oneself in such a manner that all who behold him will strive to emulate him, and yearn to study that Torah which made him into the sterling individual he has become.
I would like, however, to reframe your question to put it in context. As you know, a number of Gentile politicians and mayors were allegedly involved in the same scam as the aforesaid rabbis were. They were obviously not involved in this due to observance of Judaism. Your real question is not “If this is what observance leads to…,” rather “Why doesn’t observance lead one away from this type of conduct?” The rabbis’ knowledge or observance did not lead them to this — just, somehow, did not protect them from it.
This is the answer to your real question. There is no guarantee that just because one observes the rituals between man and G-d that he will uphold all the laws that govern man to man. This was the motivation behind the foundation of the Mussar movement in Judaism. In the mid-1800s, Rabbi Yisroel of Salant noticed that many observant Jews were not being scrupulous in their dealings with fellow Jews. He therefore founded a movement concentrating on those areas of Torah which focus on ethical and character development. R’ Salant’s thesis was that without a conscious focus on those areas of Torah, it is possible to observe and study Torah and miss the spirit, overlooking the forest for the trees. R’ Salant’s movement was eventually widely accepted, and today the entire yeshiva system is adherent to this.
It is still possible, however, for individuals who have not heard or studied this approach, to neglect the ethical and moral messages contained within the Torah. Unfortunately, the vast majority of observant Jews, who daily uphold the ethical precepts of Torah despite the tremendous enticements of the secular and business world, do not make the news for their actions. Only those who step out of line are newsworthy.
I bid you success in your steps toward observance, and to make sure your ritual observance is coupled with a heightened sensitivity toward your fellow Jews and Gentiles as well. In this you will join the many observant Jews who sanctify even the most mundane areas of life, thereby living a life of kiddush Hashem, fulfilling the words of the prophet who quotes G-d saying “Israel, in you I will be glorified.”
Rabbi Yerachmiel D. Fried, noted scholar and author of numerous works on Jewish law, philosophy and Talmud, is founder and dean of DATA, the Dallas Kollel. Questions can be sent to him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Dear Rabbi Fried,