It might be events in the Jewish community that leave people wondering “is this the kind of behavior Judaism teaches?” Or perhaps it’s the suffering of a close relative that begs the question “is this how a kind and just God runs His universe?” There would seem to be enough darkness in this world to extinguish just about anyone’s religious enthusiasm.
What’s to be done about it? The first step is to try to understand (not whitewash: understand). Then we can see if there aren’t tools that can help a person develop a mature and constructive response.
There’s no sense trying to hide it any more. For better or for worse, we live in the Internet’s shadow. With minimal effort, anyone with an interest can quickly compile a list of Orthodox Jews indicted and convicted for very serious crimes.
And how about this: some of these Orthodox Jews are rabbis whose serious crimes were committed on behalf of Torah institutions. It’s nearly certain that there are (some) Orthodox Jews who still don’t believe that they should be answerable to civil law and who are convinced that Torah law permits or even requires certain criminal activities if Torah institutions will benefit. And it doesn’t help when Jewish magazines seem to (unwittingly) promote such behavior.
Beyond financial crimes, there have been confirmed incidents of individual pedophiles within the Torah educational community whose crimes were effectively ignored for years as they horribly abused children under their care.
Whether it’s the victims of such crimes or people of good conscience watching from the sidelines, it shouldn’t come as a surprise that some will find their emunah weakened. Still, even if such reactions are not surprising, are they necessary?
Establishing a direct connection between the offensive moral failings of some Orthodox Jews and everyone else’s emunah is hardly automatic. I suppose that one could accuse Judaism of somehow promoting – or at least acquiescing to – crime. After all, Jewish criminals, in this view of the matter, must have acquired their values from the Torah. But the halachic literature simply doesn’t support such a claim (see these sources for some important background). In other words, such attitudes can’t be traced to the Torah.
Perhaps, though, the very existence of immorality suggests a systemic flaw. Could Judaism simply not be up to the task of keeping up with modern society? Might it simply “not work” any more?
In the sense that the Torah’s pure moral message doesn’t manage to inspire every single Jew, we can say that we’re currently experiencing a kind of failure. But it has nothing to do with modern society. There have always been Jews – even notable rabbis – who have stumbled. The Talmud contains more than a few references to Torah scholars who brought ruin upon their own heads. See Moed Katan 17a for a case study of how such a scandal should be treated.
But why stop with the Talmud? God Himself testifies to human failure:
“And God said to Moshe: Behold you are going to die and this people will rise and stray after the strange gods of the land into whose midst they are coming, and they will abandon Me and erase My covenant…” (Devarim 31:16)
So it’s really about being human. If there isn’t any risk of failure, there’s nothing to be gained by trying. And once the risk is there, you can bet that someone is going to gamble and lose. But it’s certainly not the Torah’s fault!
You’ll find a particularly direct discussion of this problem within this online book.
Great yeshivos convulsed in internal struggles over what sometimes appear to be purely personal ambitions. Centuries-old chassidic dynasties split and then split again. Violent and destructive charedi “demonstrations” on Israeli streets over…well, just what cause could justify violence? It’s enough to make someone wonder on whose side he really wants to be. Haven’t we got enough real problems without having to suffer the public embarrassment of being identified with “those wild people”?
It should be noted that conflict is sometimes unavoidable. Rabban Yochanan ben Zakai fought Sadducees. Saadia Gaon and Rambam fought Karaites. Rabbi S.R. Hirsch fought German Reformers. All were controversial in their times. History has shown they were all correct. It might well be that some of today’s struggles can be similarly defended – even if we’re not sure how. As outsiders, we must always accept the possibility that we’re missing critical information.
Nevertheless, it’s unrealistic to imagine that all of the events we’ve hinted to above were justified. Could their persistence provoke a questioning Jew – especially a Jew who has suffered directly because of these disruptions – to simply give up; to wash his hands of his people?
But, again, he shouldn’t blame it on God and His Torah. Not only did the Torah anticipate political struggles, but it provided a perfectly functional mechanism for resolving disputes – Sanhedrin (see Sefer Hachinuch 78). Because of our long exile we’ve lost the conditions needed for the fully-authorized court system that could prevent these problems. But that’s hardly God’s fault.
As with Jewish crime, we’re suffering because of human weakness.
Still, even if we can’t fault the Torah for these problems, here and there, people do blame the ugly face of Jewish crime and dirty politics for their weakened emunah. Why? Perhaps some individuals, trapped in difficult lives, use their faith as a tangible substitute for the real root cause of their trouble – a root cause sometimes too painful to even name. Others might associate their religious confusion with the flaws they witness in the community in all honesty, unaware that there is no real justification for it.
What can help? Feeling that not all is right with the Orthodox world can be most unsettling and alienating. Feeling that there’s no one within mainstream Orthodox Judaism who shares your concerns is even worse. Let this web site serve as evidence that you’re not alone. There are voices (growing in both number and confidence) seeking to restore morality as a cornerstone of Jewish life.
This one is a bit harder to defend. If, let’s say, a family faces serious illness, we can’t very well blame it on human failings and cheerfully go on with life: our tradition teaches that God is directly responsible for much of what happens to us (see what Rambam writes near the end of his letter to the Chochmai Marseilles). So what is one to make of some of the intense pain that this world can sometimes throw at us?
Intellectually we all know that the inner workings of God’s world aren’t necessarily meant to be obvious to us. “My thoughts are not like your thoughts and your ways are not like Mine, says God.” (Yeshaya 55:8) If we know that “The Rock! His acts are perfect, for all His ways are justice,” (Devarim 32:4), then we should be able to simply trust that God is doing what’s best. For most of us, that’s only going to work when things are, by and large, going smoothly. But when once we’re engulfed in darkness, only those who have prepared over long months and years by developing a serious and mature relationship with God can rely on these simple (but eminently true) thoughts.
So what about the rest of us? In these essays from some years back, I tried to offer some observations that could help a person visualize the way God relates to His children and construct strategies to better cope with adversity.
Perhaps some of this can soften the shock of suffering and even reveal an opening back to belief.