Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Zman Not Simchaseinu – The Shanda in Washington

Despite our best efforts, this past Shmini Atzeret/Simchas Torah was not quite Zman Simchaseinu (Our time of Joy); not for me nor for many others.

To be sure, there was a great spirit of joy in the shul. The Young Israel of Forest Hills has been blessed to host a new Sephardic minyan over the last two months, which has brought a great deal of new energy and excitement, along with many people, into our community. The resultant boost that we had from the joint hakafos and the post Shabbos “Hakafot Shniyot” party was wonderful and enjoyed by all. But inside, I could not get my mind off of the scandal that had blown up in Washington DC just the day before, and the worry for what it meant for the future of the Orthodox community ate at me deeply inside.

I leave it to the reader to discover the unpleasant details of the scandal surrounding Rabbi Barry Freundel elsewhere.   For me, it was extremely disheartening, upsetting, infuriating and saddening to see the huge Chillul Hashem (Desecration of G-D’s Name) that would result from the incomprehensibly bizarre, ugly – and frankly stupid and creepy  – actions of a formerly highly respected colleague, who had done a great deal of good for the American Jewish community.   The pain that we all feel for the victims, for the Freundel family, for his congregants, and for all of the women, both regular mikvah users and converts, who feel betrayed by him is beyond description.  I write here only to offer the following thoughts.

1) The Importance of the RCA GPS (Geirus Policies and Procedures) Institution

Several years ago, the Rabbinical Council of America and the Beth Din of America established the GPS system for centralizing and standardizing Orthodox conversions in a process that would dependably be “fully in accordance with Halachah (Jewish law), ensure sensitivity to the dignity of all potential converts at all times, and provide reasonable assurance that its converts and their offspring be accorded acceptance and recognition in other Jewish communities in the future.” (from their website).   This was a tremendously important accomplishment; one which brought honor, veracity and dignity to a process that previously could be described in Yiddish as a “hefker velt”; a situation whereby there were many problems of differing standards among Rabbis, pressures brought on individual Rabbis to convert those who might not truly be sincere, inadequate concern and care given to conversion candidates, and other idiosyncrasies resulting in a situation in which the validity of many Orthodox conversions were called into question.

The RCA committee of distinguished Rabbis, chaired initially by Rabbi Freundel, produced a beautiful system of  regional Batei Din who operate according to carefully thought out and supervised standards, and have brought hundreds of people through the conversion process in a most dignified way, while sorting out those that were not willing to fully embrace traditional Jewish Halacha.  I have proudly sponsored several candidates to the Bet Din in Queens, and the candidates and I have been uniformly impressed by the professional, caring, and ethical manner in which it has performed its duties.

However, not all in the Orthodox community have been pleased with the GPS system.  In particular, the so-called “Open Orthodox” movement has been trying for years to tear down this institution.   In keeping with their attacks on many areas of traditional Halacha, such as the ordination of female rabbis, the celebration of openly Gay & lesbian members, the assailing of the normative Halachic process and the historic validity of Biblical accounts, they have argued that the GPS violates their rights as Rabbis to decide what standards ought to be demanded of potential converts, and it is not for a centralized body to impose those standards on them.  Thus if they choose not to demand a full commitment to observing Halacha that ought not be questioned.  To quote Rabbi Marc Angel, one of their proponents, ancient sources “do not equate conversion with a total acceptance to observe Torah and mitzvot, but rather see conversion as a way for a non-Jew to become a member of the Jewish people.”    Additionally, the memory of Rabbi Avi Weiss' attack on the GPS and the Chief Rabbinate less than a year ago, in which he advocated not only that both these institutions be dismantled but that “the state [of Israel] should move to accept non-Orthodox conversions and weddings done in Israel as a matter of Israeli law” remains painfully fresh.

Predictably, opponents of the RCA GPS system have used this scandal to go on the attack in many quarters, claiming that the failings of Rabbi Freundel prove that the “Holier than Thou” stance which underlies the GPS is but hollow hypocrisy.  They are furthermore trying to instigate fear and havoc, insinuating that this incident will call into question all of the  GPS conversions, and cause untold misery for untold numbers of people, in a thinly veiled effort to undo all the good that the GPS has accomplished in its years of work.   Many non-Orthodox writers have also jumped on the bandwagon, attacking Orthodox Rabbis as misogynist sexists who exploit converts and particularly women while exerting unholy and uncalled for pressure on them to their bidding.

Additionally they are attacking the very process by which conversions are determined.  A “Bill of Rights for Jewish Converts” is rapidly circulating on the internet, which, while making some very valid points, calls into question some matters that cannot be resolved by demagoguery, such as the length of time that a conversion will take. (It is totally subjective, depending on the candidate and the situation they present, and the amount of time that a sponsoring Rabbi will feel comfortable attesting to a Bet Din that he is totally confident as to the candidate’s sincerity and commitment level, as well as the other demands on the Rabbi’s time, which cannot be predicted in advance.)  The pressures that are being brought to bear on those attempting to uphold Halachic standards while responding sensitively to what has happened will be intense.

Clearly, this is all uncalled for.  Rav Gedalya Dov Schwartz, the venerable head of the Beth Din of America, has already ruled that this incident will not invalidate any conversion overseen by Rabbi Freundel, and certainly not those overseen by any other GPS Bet Din.  The Israeli Chief Rabbinate has reached the same conclusion.  Furthermore, the RCA and all Rabbonim are taking this matter very seriously, and considering what tikkunnim and safeguards can be put in place to protect the sanctity of mikvaot, the dignity of women, and the conversion process so that nothing like this might ever happen again, chas vehsalom.   I have been privy to several internal RCA discussions, and they have already announced several safeguards and are considering others; you can follow the announcements at www.rabbis.org

It is critical that cool heads prevail here, and that we make sure that this terrible aberration remain just that.  We must derive the lessons that must be learned from this shanda while at the same time not allowing those who are attacking the overwhelming majority of Rabbis, who are  G-d fearing and men of integrity, to profit from this fiasco.

2)  No One is Above Temptation

Our tradition has always had a very healthy respect for the Yetzer Hara (Evil Inclination).  The Talmud in many places invokes the principle אין אפוטרופוס לעריות,  which (loosely translated) means that no one is above temptation, when it comes to sexual matters.  This terrible incident brings this home in a more powerful way than any mussar shmuz.   One has to have a great deal of humility in knowing that temptations are powerful, and that it is all too easy to be drawn into a sinkhole in which one's morals are irreparably compromised.

But this story illustrates another problem – that goes beyond mere sensual temptation – which can also be very dangerous.  The first question that anyone hearing this story surely asked themselves, after hearing that a respected Rabbi had stooped so low, is: Why?   If the motive were mere sexual gratification, or the desire to view inappropriate matter, surely there is sufficient  material all too easily accessible in the depraved society in which we live, whether in the media or on the internet, or any number of other places?  Why engage in such a risky and crude activity?

The obvious answer, is that it comes from something deeper than sexual proclivity. It will not engage in any attempt to psychoanalyze this, certainly not publicly.  I write about it only to emphasize this:  Anyone, and I mean anyone, can slip into crazed behaviors that can ruin their own lives and hurt many others, if they allow themselves to think that they are above temptation and can engage in behavior that Halacha forbids, while being able to set limits that will only allow it to go so far.  There are thousands of people who have learned that this is not so, many the hard way.  

As a Rabbi you get to hear all sorts of things, many which you would rather not.  Unfortunately, I know of many cases where respectable people, including leading professionals, Rabbis, Roshei Kollel, Rebbeim in Yeshivos, Doctors, Lawyers, you name it, women and men, have been ensnared at a variety of levels by an addiction to pornography and worse.  None of them meant to arrive at the depths they found themselves, of course.  Most allowed themselves this or that indiscretion, this or that ego trip or pleasure trip, and found themselves drawn into the quicksand from which there was little hope of escape without great damage being done.

If anything good can come out of this situation, perhaps it is this.  If you know of anyone (including perhaps yourself) who has found themselves subjected to temptation and inappropriate use of the internet or other lustful activity, please refer them to the literally life saving website, www.guardyoureyes.com . It is a tremendously important resource, and it deserves all the support that can be given to it in its holy work of combating the insanity that surrounds us.

May Hashem have mercy on His people, and help us to restore honor to His Holy Name and Torah.


Anonymous said...

As bad as pornography is, what the rabbi did is a zillion times worse. Maybe pornography would have been good for him.
He obviously needed an outlet. I'm sure his congregation wishes he had found one. Not all choices in life are between asur and mutar.

Eliezer Eisenberg said...

Until his actions were exposed, there was no personal offense. Embarrassment only vests when the someone other than the malefactor is aware of it. Don't blame me. Blame, e.g., the Rambam in ChuM 3:3.

Anonymous said...

Embarrassment should vest when the malefactor is aware that HKBH is aware of it, or, for the radical jewish orthoprax or gentile, when the malefactor is aware of cognitive dissonance from the past/future or this/other practices.

Eliezer Eisenberg said...

You and I are not having a conversation; I don't know what you're talking about, and I think the converse is also true. Do you not agree that if a person shames another, and nobody on earth is aware of it except the bad guy, that the victim has not been injured? I certainly say the bad guy is morally repugnant. But the injury is to his own soul, and the crime is between him and himself, and between him and God. Once the story comes out, then the victims are profoundly hurt and traumatized. So tell, me, exactly when the the inter-personal crime vest? Maybe now we can have an intelligent conversation. But why bother. Anonymity is usually evidence of either lack of self confidence or a cut-and run-mentality.

YLO said...

I am not sure I understand either side of this conversation fully.

Anon 1 - Of course this much worse than porn. My point was that pornography is like a drug to many, and can be addictive. Just like a drug addict needs a bigger and bigger fix, so to one who gives into the yetzer for porn. Again, check out the Guardyoureyes website.

Eliexer 1 - Have to disagree. The Rambam you cite actually says that it is forbidden to shame someone who is unaware of it, and although the penalty can be extracted from the malefactor if the victim dies, if they seize it, it is theirs. Meaning, patur bdinei Adam vechayav bdinei shomayim

Anon 2 - Agree...it is not just about the victim *although of course primarily so) but it is a stain on the malefactor regardless of the victim's awareness.

Eliezer 2 - As above

Rabbi Joshua Maroof said...

There is only one thing worse than Open Orthodoxy, and that is tainting and tarnishing the reputations of genuinely Orthodox rabbis who are against OO by publicly insinuating that they are affiliated with that movement...This is what you have done with your comment on Times of Israel and I respectfully ask you to edit it immediately. I have nothing to do with Open Orthodoxy, I have published no less than a dozen articles online and in print against it over the past several years, and I categorically and absolutely reject its tenets. Kindly refrain from besmirching my name.

Eliezer Eisenberg said...

1. Re addiction- as the Gemara says
(San 107a) מרעיבו שבע משביעו רעב.

2. Re the Rambam- A. The whole point of pattur bedinei adam indicates absence of civil liability. B. In that case, the yorshim did find out about it, obviously. If nobody finds out ever, there cannot be boshes. This is not like stealing money where the victim doesn't realize it. There, there is a real absence with potential consequences. Here, while you have become diminished in the eyes of the actor, that is too tenuous to be called damage.

I recognize that this discussion may seem like sophistry. It is not. I bring it up for two reasons. 1. For those of us that are flummoxed by the despicable behavior of a religious leader, you need to realize that one can rationalize this as being a victimless crime. 2. That if I had caught the alleged bum, I would very, very think about whether exposing his sin would make me an accessory to his crime by traumatizing his victims.

YLO said...

I decline to address Rabbi Maroof's comment at this time.

As for Eliezer's subsequent comment:

1. The Gemara you cite about
מרעיבו שבע משביעו רעב is about a regular yetzer hara. it does not necessarily help with addicts, not without additional factors. See www.guardyoureyes.org

2. You have a valid point that perhaps if no one ever knows of the embarrassing act then there is no embarrassment. That is sort of like the old philosophical question regarding trees falling in the Amazon ... You may or may not be right. The subconscious is aware of more than we realize. Furthermore, defiling a sanctified area or person is loathsome, whether or not anyone knows about it, IMHO.

Your point that it might have been better if there was a way to stop the perpetration of this evil without anyone ever knowing about it would have preferable is theoretically correct, and I wish this could have been done, I do not know if it is realistic. Short of having absolute power to lock someone up forever, no explanations needed, I don't see how this could be stopped short of publication. History shows that by and large that the only way to stop many evil-doers, especially sexual perverts, was to shine a light on them. Even in this very case, previous attempts to rein him in for lesser offenses did not stop what happened. Nor did it in many cases of abuse, as is all too well known today.

Rabbi Joshua Maroof said...

שתיקה כהודאה

Spreading false rumors and besmirching the reputations of others is unbecoming of a rabbi. Admitting your error and correcting it would be a קידוש השם.

Anonymous said...

Anonymous 3 said...

Re: 2) No One is Above Temptation

Under-reported and neglected halacha...Talmud Moed Kattan 17a
"Rabbi Ila'i said: If a person is tempted to do evil he should go to a city where he is not known, dress in black clothes, cover his head in black, and do what his heart desires so that G-d's name will not be desecrated."

This has been used (no surprise) by Jew-phobics to point to our hypocrisy and corruption etc. (I have a different interpretation of it, see below.) Speaking about Jews who purportedly care about halacha, here are probably not more than a dozen or two total such creeps who end up representing us in the antisemitic worldview.The really horrible thing about this case is that each such creep outweighs one million Jews (Rabbis, laymen, Orthodox, Non-O's) who more-or-less successfully struggle every day with the temptations that di velt feel is their normal lifestyle. I hate these creeps for that reason. With all the empathy in the world, there is nothing we can really do for these people. Sure it's a double standard, but it's *our* (Torah) double standard.

So if you think about it in light of the Gemara, the public (spiritual) health problem is not temptation but the fact that the creeps represent us (and HKBH). We can't eliminate temptation or sin but as per the Gemera we can attack the chillul Hashem. The intention of this ma'amar is not to fix the problem of the individual. The intention to Leave The Rest Of Us Out Of It. It's not 'Plan A' anymore anyway.

What is needed is a takanah by the Moetzes Gedolei HaTorah or equivalent that anyone convicted or even even under suspicion of such evil is forbidden to publicly appear as an identifiable Jew. Who the hell needs a Levi Aron showing up in court with a yarmulka? (And with regard to the later part of your post, it is a good bet that Aron was probably a porn addict who did who-knows-what and killed Leiby just to be sure to shut him up. That makes more sense than anything else.)

Using the dinnim of 'onen' as a guide in principle, they must take off their head-coverings, shave their beards and cut any payos, remove their long coats and hats etc. and not attend a minyan. If they are proven innocent there will be time enough for those things. And if not a Hawaiian shirt and a bare head will do the Jews and the world more good.

YLO said...

Rabbi Marroof wrote to object to a passing reference to him that I made in a obscure comment on another blog, that can be seen at


I have since published the following statement there

"I write again after an extensive correspondence with Rabbi Joshua Maroof, who chided me for conflating his views with those of Open Orthodoxy. He has written extensively in opposition to Open Orthodox positions, and thus insists that it was wrong of me to write what I did.

While other things that Rabbi Maroof has written confuse me as to his true leanings, I apologize for misrepresenting his stated current views"

Naomi Knobel said...

Hi Rabbi!
Extremely thought out and well written - as usual. some of these comments are strange, like a person not being a victim unless she is aware of it??! I wonder what that person would say if it was his wife/daughter/sister??
So many truly dedicated and devoted do their utmost to help wannabee converts in their quest with understanding and sensitivity. This is a terrible thing, and I hope people who would condemn Rabbis and Giyur in general know that this is a one-of-a-kind creep.
Thank you for explaining how things work.
Naomi K

Eliezer Eisenberg said...

Ms. Knobel, I'm the suthor of the strange comment you mentioned. You're right. I'm wrong.