Friday, July 24, 2009

What's the Deal with those New Jersey Rabbis?

I've been on vacation for the past couple of weeks. I want to make it clear from the start that I have not been spending any time engaged in black market transactions involving kidneys and Gucci handbags. In fact, I've been many places, but haven't set foot at all in Deal, New Jersey, a place that may soon change its name to "Plea Bargain." My wife can state flat out that I haven't been laundering anything - although I do my part sometimes in taking the clothes out of the dryer.

So I was only half awake yesterday morning in the waiting room, servicing my car, when the news guy talked about the big sting operation involving New Jersey politicians...and then I thought I heard him say something about rabbis.


I thought it was the coffee. The dealership needs to get stronger coffee. Why rabbis? What's the deal with rabbis? What's the deal with rabbis in Deal? I half expected Howie Mandel to jump out from behind the TV and assure me that this was no deal, or at least no BIG Deal.

But it is. It's a huge deal. Bigger even than a few Cambridge policeman mistaking Henry Lewis Gates for a burglar. You should know, BTW, that when Gates spoke at Beth El a few years back as our Hoffman Lecturer, he was not frisked for silverware on the way out. He was treated with the respect due one of this generation's most inspiring social justice advocates, of course, and his lecture was well attended and much appreciated.

Back to the rabbis: You can read more about them here. It would be easy for me to say, "Whew! At least they're not Conservative," and then begin ranting about the corruption and hypocrisy of some who claim to be more observant and paint all Orthodox or all Syrian Jews living in the tri state area with the same broad brush. Of course, that would be as bad as those who paint all rabbis - and all Jews - with similar broad brushes. No, once again, we are dealing with a crime that stains all of us, all rabbis, all Jews, all New Jerseyites, anyone close enough to smell the stench coming from across the river.

Thank God we're not in Israel, one could say, where the corrupt rabbis are also part of the government. But I suppose there is not much difference when they've bought off a few mayors.... I suppose we've always said that Israel looks a lot like New Jersey. Now we can say that New Jersey ACTS a lot like Israel.

It's important to state, as the President did regarding Gates, that we don't yet know all the facts and shouldn't rush to judgment. It's also very important to state that most rabbis, most Orthodox rabbis and most Syrian Orthodox rabbis are perfectly honest, good people. I don't believe in collective guilt, but neither can we wash our hands and pretend to ignore what has happened. I know that as a rabbi, I do represent all rabbis, and as a Jew, I represent not only all Jews, but the Torah too.

Read some of the comments to this Star Ledger coverage of the sting. One person wrote:

The influence of these jewish organizations on politics in NJ needs to be investigated. These jewish communities set themselves up as effectively private fortresses - one in NY state even had its own untrained volunteer fire fighters that were at a rabbi's house fire when the legit FD arrived! As long as this kind of influence is allowed to take over towns like Deal and Lakewood, it will be a poison to elected politics in NJ and throughout the country. One needs only to look at the influence of AIPAC to see the problem at the national level.

And another:

why no photos of the rabbis been arested;only the americans;are you afraid you are going to acuse you for antisemitism;

And these are the ones that the newspaper didn't remove from their site! Imagine what the censored comments look like, or the comments not being uttered out loud.

There's no getting around it. It's another bad day for the Jews; but a very good one for corruption.

I only wish the accused rabbinic leaders had spent a little more time thinking about the prayers they utter thrice daily and a little less on the market value of donated kidneys. They could start with the one that concludes the Amida, a silent meditation, "Elohai Netzor," written by Mar bar Ravina. There are a number of versions of the personal prayer appended to this central prayer, but this is the one that has stuck:

O God, keep my tongue from evil and my lips from deceit. Help me to be silent in the face of derision, humble in the presence of all. Open my heart to Your Torah, that I may hasten to do Your Mitzvot. Save me with Your power; in time of trouble be my answer, that those who love You may rejoice (based on B’rachot 18a).

As for the rest of us, maybe we could take another look at Psalm 34:15, also found in the liturgy:

Depart from evil, and do good; seek peace, and pursue it.

Look at it this way: For those who might have been looking for a good reason to fast and reflect this coming Wednesday night and Thursday for Tisha B'Av, we now have one!

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