Monday, September 7, 2015

Mistreating Men, Trusting Man: Impediments To True Repentance

Elul is upon us, and with it comes the requisite obligation to engage in the process of “teshuva gemura, the highest most comprehensive form of repentance. In this period of the coming Yomim Noraim (“High Holidays”) the severe and somber concept of Divine judgment is fused with the joy afforded us by this unique opportunity. It is the season for the most efficacious form of personal and national repentance, and we Jews have supreme confidence that we can obtain it.

The ability of man to spiritually elevate himself has its price: the ever present potential for spiritual degradation. Unlike the animals who are expressions of instinct, man can degrade himself to a status lower than an animal whose life is dictated by biology. Sin is a reality, and Judaism has a specific formula for avoiding it, including the mechanisms of preventing sin, and the opportunity to return from it.

Judaism has an essentially positive approach to man’s spiritual development. The fundamental belief that given a proper healthy nurturing environment, a life of Halacha will articulate the best in man, while restraining and containing the negative. At its core, Judaism rejects the deterministic outlook of another faith system which deems man sinful from birth. Christianity is premised on the negative belief that man cannot perfect himself, and the solution proposed was contrary to everything that Judaism believes in, including the most fundamental beliefs relating to the one true Creator, Hashem. Idolatry became the mechanism for repentance. Like the former, Islam also rejects personal perfection, and instead glorifies the attribute of subjugation, cruelty, and coercion. Subjugation via the sword negates the basic Jewish tenet of free will.

The correct system of repentance is contingent upon one’s personal belief in the overall system which encompasses biblical and rabbinic prohibitions and positive injunctions. A breakdown of commandments relating to man and The Almighty, and those between man and man.
 I would like to share a few thoughts on the latter category, since there is a tendency for many to define their religiosity with actions relating to our Maker, while sometimes neglecting issues related to man. The Almighty is all merciful and in many ways teshuva with our Creator is an easier process than the tedious task of repairing a wrong with one’s fellow man.

Man vs. Man 
“Ahavas Yisroel, jackass!” The words I hollered at a Jewish driver some 17 years ago, when this allegedly religious miscreant nearly ran me over with his station wagon. Evidently, he wanted to arrive in shul before borchu to pray maariv (the evening prayer service). The absurd irony of a man who would run over someone to pray to G-d! This episode, though humorous now, conveys for me a prime example of this fundamental problem, when man’s obsession with matters between man and G-d, comes at the expense of normal relations with other people. I see this as a tragically dominant phenomenon in many circles, where people place extraordinary emphasis on ritualistic matters of man and G-d, while sometimes neglecting and abrogating those mitzvoth relating “bain adam la’chaveiro,” between man and man.

A Torah life. Here we have a semantic and a label that all too often is misapplied. Identifying with and accepting the divinity of Torah is surely one way of defining who is religious, particularly when the individual subscribes to the “big three.” Yet if one’s flawed behavior is manifest to the public, in the form of theft/dishonesty, cruelty to others, aggression can one be truly deemed “frum”? Can an obsessive adherence to matters between man and G-d while simultaneously abusing and mistreating his fellow Jew be a truly religious person?

I am not Heaven forbid discouraging or minimizing the importance of fulfilling those mitzvoth relating to matters between G-d and man. I am stating that a fixation with the former sometimes results in undermining those issues relating to man and his fellow man, which by its very definition, expose the fact that one is greatly lacking in all matters of observance, including those with his beloved Creator.

Flawed Figures: Reflections on Disgraced Torah Leaders 
The most tragic examples of this tendency are found when people representing Torah betray the system, since while man sometimes has the tendency to mistreat his fellow man, he has the ironic tendency to sometimes idolize specific men. In such instances, the chillul Hashem is even greater, since the damage to the Jewish community irreparable. The system is ruptured when men who are supposed to lead, teach, and embody Torah fall on their faces before our eyes. Ironically, even as we sometimes sacrifice our obligations to our fellow men, the tendency to elevate individual men to such high standards allows for the potential for devastation when they betray the system.

It matters not whether these religious men are “our rabbis.” While the greatest examples of this can sometimes be seen in the popular cult of the “tsaddik” who is sometimes the antithesis of the true man of Torah, the individuals needn’t rise to this level of worship. To the extent that they represent some faction of Torah based Jewry, the damage affects us all, when the Torah is disgraced in front of the world.

All too often today, we read horrific stories where purported men of Torah took advantage of vulnerable people and preyed upon them sexually. From a psychological perspective, it is only natural for the victims of abuse, (and abuse manifests itself in many ways), to abandon Judaism after a negative experience, particularly when they believe that there were other parties involved that enabled the abuse. It’s sad to see people lose faith in Torah. Yet too often Judaism is judged by the practitioner rather than the system. The inherent dangers to the system are manifest when this becomes the anchor for one’s faith. And it’s not only the extreme case of sexual abuse which tests men. Lesser offenses also present Torah as a flawed system, though the desire to see it as such is naturally based upon emotional reactions and betrayed expectations, rather than the perfect rational system of Torah itself.

Several months back, we had the chillul Hashem of a prominent American rabbi, who was found guilty of a crime of moral perversion. Fortunately, the disgraced sexual “rodef” was convicted and sentenced to six years in jail, which although a ridiculously inadequate punishment, will hopefully keep him away from people for many years. And prison is no cake-walk for sex offenders, so the opportunities for additional punishments in prison certainly exist.  Here was a man heading a prestigious Washington synagogue, a scholar in Torah, an academic, a supposed voice of moral reason. He sat on prominent rabbinical boards in high positions. And nevertheless, he undid himself after what must have been a protracted period of idealization of sin followed by comprehensive steps to actualize his thoughts. His actions required extensive research and planning which included but was surely not limited to the following:
  • Indulging and engaging in the kinds of dark sexual fantasies whose articulation jeopardized his spiritual integrity, personal reputation, personal standing (not to mention the image of Orthodox Judaism as a whole), and personal freedom.
  • Making a concrete decision to actualize these thoughts in deed. Researching the kinds of cameras that could be covertly placed in the women’s mikvah, actually purchasing the model and mastering this usage.
  • The final nail in his coffin: installing it. Maintaining his addiction by maintaining the device. Downloading the videos. Allowing it to remain affixed in the mikvah.
Throughout this entire process, one would think that a flawed but G-d fearing person suffering from such a sexual addiction would have time to find some outlet, possibly serious therapy and counseling, to redirect his energies. A certain Gemara comes to mind where it is deemed preferable to sin away from one’s domain in the confines of anonymity. Here we have an intelligent man endangering everything in his life for the pursuit of sexual fantasy. There are two dangers when reacting to this incident:
  •  Failure to learn from this negative spectacle.
  • Drawing the wrong conclusions.
Both are likely possibilities. Religious Judaism has had enough sexual scandals in recent years that came to the public eye and no groups are free of this shame. In many instances, the abusers were enabled both willingly and unwillingly by those who apologized, looked away, and often ignored what was before them. I want to reiterate that from the chareidi world to those in the “modern-orthodox world”, no group can say that they have clean hands. The historical account can attest to this.

And then there are the asinine conclusions of those who don’t understand Torah. The shrill voices of those not personally affected who insist that Judaism needs to change to adapt to this and other incidents. Judaism needs to change? Of course change is needed! Every person, organization who could have prevented such incidents betray this fact! Yet, the Divine system of Torah is perfect, and requires no changing, despite the sentiments of too many who clamber onto the wagon which demands that “orthodox Judaism” needs to evolve. The hysterical reactions of those who view spiritually depraved evil people as representing the system need to reassess their thought process. If change is needed, it is in the practice of Judaism which have become corrupted and politicized. The morality of Torah is perfect. Man is not. And some men are more imperfect than others. Some desecrate G-d’s name while wearing the cloak of the religious G-d man.

The warning signs are usually there. And by warnings, I mean red flags of strange behavior that may not even be motivated by abusive motives but by a distorted dysfunctional personality. It requires a discerning eye and some seichel. Sometimes it boils down to a hunch. A gut feeling that something is amiss. The sense that a rabbi shouldn’t be acting this way.

Several years back, while attending a bat mitzvah in a “modern-orthodox” circle with my wife, we witnessed a peculiar spectacle which led me to opine certain sentiments. The bat mitzvah girl’s “rebbe” was jumping rope with his class of pre-pubescent girls. It was undignified and perverse, yet in this “open” environment no one seemed to notice or think something amiss. Let’s avoid the most blatant halachic issues that come to mind which certainly forbid/discourage such behavior. Even if one could interpret the actual context in a way that didn’t involve prohibitions, one’s internal hunch screams (the hashkafa bone if you will) that something is terribly inappropriate. No normal religious man (rabbi or otherwise) would ever place himself in such a position. A sane cogent man would not want the public to even have a “haavah aminah” that something not so kosher was transpiring. I’m not accusing this man of any sexual indiscretion, G-d forbid. But we have seen too many examples of such close-knit “kiruv encounters” over the years, have we not?

So my second point is this. We need to celebrate the perfect system of Torah, and be wary when it comes to idealizing or idolizing man or men, all the while rejecting the equally un-Jewish notion that man is essentially evil and flawed. Certainly we should honor and revere and seek to emulate true men of Torah, who in the vast majority of cases will not disappoint us. We should make for ourselves a “rav” as instructed by chazal in “The Ethics of The Forefathers.” Yet we should internalize the words of Rav Soloveitchik of blessed memory who noted the following:

“We may trust man, have confidence in him, but we may not have faith in him. Faith connotes absoluteness and no man is worthy of absolute faith. Faith is only applicable to G-d.” (Reflections of the Rav, Abraham R. Besdin, pg. 67)

With these ideas entrenched, we are in a position to truly rehabilitate ourselves and the dysfunctional aspects of contemporary Jewish life, which rupture the ideal Torah system and bring man to sin. And the teshuva process itself becomes grounded in real things, true perfection, and not the trappings of “popular” teshuva which is sometimes monolithic in scope and simple-minded in its articulation.

For a truly comprehensive treatment of issues pertaining to repentance, I suggest people study the Rambam’s “Hilchot Teshuvah” in the Mishneh Torah, and Rav Soloveitchik’s classic work, “Al Ha’teshuvah” (On Repentance, available in English and Hebrew) which represents a treasure trove of gems discussing every nuance of the subject. In my humble opinion, as one who merely benefited from this gadol through his writings, I firmly believe that the “Rav’s” legacy of Torah on the process of teshuva are unparalleled in history.

May Hakadosh Baruch Hu grant us the wisdom to discern His truth, the strength to pursue it, and the fortitude to spread His Torah message to the entire world, both Jew and gentile.  And may we all engage in a process of genuine “complete teshuva” to hasten the coming of the true Moshiach.

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