Scandal has affected every religious group recently. This is not new, nor surprising. People are people, not matter their religion. The Bible highlights this reality repeatedly in its first five books where every person makes mistakes, many intentionally. The very first humans showed their humanity by doing wrong; Adam and Eve disregarded God's first and only command. Their son Cain killed his brother Abel. Even Moses, the great law-giver transgressed God's command to speak to a rock, and struck it instead. Yet knowing this does not help. Having co-religionist do something that hurts or offends people, such as Bernie Madoff cheating investors, or rabbis and an Israeli president that have inappropriate sex, or producers of kosher foods swindling employees, or Israeli prime ministers charged with taking bribes, is quite embarrassing. How should Jews respond to these disgraces? What can they do about it?
Dr. Erica Brown addresses this problem in six chapters filled with quotes from many sources and many stories. In the first, she describes how and why Jews are so disturbed when they read about the crimes of co-religionists and how they react. There is an interesting interview between Dr. Brown and Gary Rosenblatt, the editor-in chief of the
Jewish Week, who aired the story of a prominent rabbi who took criminal sexual advantage of youngsters under his care and also revealed other scandals. Rosenblatt tells why he feels such stories should be publicized, how he was threatened by Jews for revealing the truths, how he had to hire body guards, and how he generally handles criticisms of his disclosures.
Dr. Brown's second chapter offers a brief history of Jewish criminals; "brief" because the story of Jewish criminality is so huge that it would take large books to tell everything. These include tales of murder, robbery, extortion, beatings, incest, wife beatings, and money-laundering, as well as how these criminals contributed to helping the Jewish community, and some analyses of what caused the anti-social and the proper behavior.
Her third chapter focuses upon morality. It is interesting to note how rabbis frequently refuse to speak about the subject. There is an interview that Dr. Brown had with Jeffrey Goldberg on whether or not there is a crisis of morality in the Orthodox Jewish community today. This discussion received wide publicity and, as could be expected, Dr. Brown received criticisms for airing the subject. Many people were embarrassed and objected that she was criticizing Jews.
The fourth chapter looks at the widely practiced hypocrisy when people in positions of authority act differently in public than in private. There is the story, for example, of a prominent "pious" rabbi who revoked the conversion of a woman because he heard that she wore pants instead of a modest dress or skirt, yet he seduced another would be female convert.
The fifth chapter speaks about repentance. It addresses subjects such as are we prepared to welcome Jewish criminals who have served time back into the community? Can we forget or overlook the pain they caused? How can criminals repent?
In her final chapter, Dr. Brown offers ten ideas how to remedy the situation. These include getting the Jewish community to wake up and develop a stronger moral sensitivity, start teaching moral living rather than platitudes, developing habits of performing acts of social justice and expecting more from Jewish leaders and making sure that they deliver.
The Jewish Eye - Israel Drazin
When in a minority, it seems the actions of one reflect on the whole.
Confronting Scandal: How Jews Can Respond When Jews Do Bad Things is a thoughtful read on how a Jew can stand up for their people and prevent one bad apple from ruining an entire bunch. Drawing from scripture, Erica Brown does well in explaining the role of the Jew in defending their society and condemning a law breaker of their own. Confronting Scandal is an excellent read, a key addition to Judaic studies collections.
Bernie Madoff. Yigal Amir. Solomon Weiss. Elliot Spitzer. Rabbi Baruch Lannerbad Jews blamed for bad deeds. When a Jew commits a crime, I feel shame, anger and disillusionbut most of all, betrayal. My feelings go beyond the fear that a Jew doing bad things will be a
One feels the betrayal because of the violation of a trust. These bad Jews are men who are supposed to serve as religious and moral exemplars. In a deeper sense, these bad Jews have violated an allegiance we hold to one another as Jews. They have betrayed our moral best selves. Our best selves are engaged in the Jewish enterprise of doing good deeds and walking in the paths of honestynot merely as individuals but as a community. On Shabbat, we meditate on these words: "Help us always to find contentment in one another. Save us from dissention and jealousy. Shield us from pettiness and rivalry. May selfish pride not divide us. May pride in one another unite us. Help us to renew our love for one another continually."
Just as we take pride in one another, we also take shame when one of us does bad deeds. Dr. Erica Brown extended this idea further. She spoke of these crimes as
Hillul HaShem, profaning the name of G-d. Since we are created in the image of G-d, our task is to maximize the divinity in others and ourselves. When we act badly, we diminish not only ourselves; we diminish the Jewish people. And, we diminish Hashem (G-d).
Brown is scholar in residence for the Jewish Federation of Greater Washington and the author of
Confronting Scandal: How Jews Can Respond When Jews Do Bad Things (Jewish Lights). Brown will speak about some of the issues raised in her book on Nov. 11 at 6:15 p.m., at the annual Jewish Book and Arts Fair. Madoff, for example, funded more than 100 charities and sat on the board of trustees at Yeshiva University. His crimes wiped out the endowments and destroyed the budgets of dozens of Jewish communal organizations. In the case of Rabbi Lanner, we had our own version of the Catholic Church sexual impropriety and coverup. The rabbi was convicted of aggravated criminal sexual contact and endangering the welfare of a child. He previously had been exonerated of these charges in a beit din and was allowed to continue to work with young Jewish boys until charges were brought in a state criminal court.
Why do we need to respond at all when a Jew does a bad thing? Brown related a midrash attributed to Rabbi Simeon bar Yohai: There is a group of men in a boat. One man takes out an auger and begins to bore a hole underneath his seat. His boat companions become alarmed and ask the man what he is doing. "What business is it of yours?" he answers. “Am I not boring a hole underneath my place?” They answer, “It is our business. Your hole will allow the water to come in. The boat will be swamped with us in it.” One's bad deeds are never without negative consequences for others.
As Brown emphasized, the concept of
Hillul Hashem helps us remember the real reason not to do bad or criminal deeds is that it is wrong. “In classical Jewish literature,” she says, “the exhortation to care about your reputation does not involve what non-Jews will think but what other Jews and G-d will think.” Brown quoted Yeshiva University President Richard Joel who, in the wake of the Madoff scandal, sent out a High Holy Day letter to thousands of people. “The problem is not our Judaismit's the people who distort it,” wrote Joel. “But it goes deeper than that. We must achieve a higher level of self-consciousness of who we are, what our values are, and how each day serves as an opportunity to model them. Not by making statement, but by being statements.”
Brown also asked some important questions: In cases of white-collar crime, particularly among observant Jews, is there a cavalier and denigrating attitude present towards secular (non-Jewish) laws? We certainly have seen a disproportional number of observant Jews expressing distain and acting illegally in matters of secular law, both here and in Israel.
In case of clergy abuse, Brown identified what she called an extreme bifurcation of behavior; that is, concern for religious law while losing control of one’s own sexual behavior. Whether the perpetrator is priest or rabbi, Brown advocated that the appropriate community response is to expose the perpetrator publicly, so that the behavior comes to an end. If there is a lesson to be learned from the Catholic Church child-abuse scandal, we should understand that circling the wagons, defending the faith, blaming the victims or moving the perpetrator to a new location does not end abusive behaviors.
Third, if Madoff repented, what shape might that transformation take? Brown asked us to consider teshuva and how would one know in the case of Madoff? For those who were hurt by Madoff’s bad deeds, how would one forgive him?
“It is not enough to identify a glaring problem,” argued Brown. “We must each create a strategic and careful plan of improvementa personal moral compassand adhere to it with discipline.” Thus, Brown suggests a list of 10 possible directions for such a moral compass in the final chapter of her book. She concludes, “It is time to think seriously about our reputations in the world and what we do to enhance it, not because we want to look good, but because we want to be good.
Jewish Herald-Voice - Aaron Howard
The public spotlight has been shining (a bit too brightly) on some Jews lately that have done things we can be less-than-proud of as a people. Bernie Madoff is a prime example, in addition to a former Israeli Prime Minister and President who are both facing criminal charges today. Dr. Erica Brown saw this emerging trend, and in response, she sat down to author a book about her (and our) response to this worrying phenomenon.
The result is titled
Confronting Scandal: How Jews can Respond When Jews Do Bad Things and the author will be speaking at the JCC of Eastern Fairfield County on Thursday, January 13th, at 7:30pm, with Q&A and book signing to follow. In addition to this latest publication, Brown is the scholar-in-residence for the Jewish Federation of Greater Washington and consults for the Jewish Agency. She is also the author of the books Inspired Jewish Leadership and Spiritual Boredom. She co-authored The Case for Jewish Peoplehood, and writes "Weekly Jewish Wisdom", an essay column appearing on the Newsweek/Washington Post's “On Faith” website. All of her books are made available by Jewish Lights Publishing and can also be purchased through their website.
It's hard to imagine a more timely book than
Confronting Scandal: How Jews Can Respond When Jews Do Bad Things by Dr. Erica Brown (Jewish Lights: $24.99). The book comes too late for Bernie Madoff, but Anthony Weiner needs a copy, and so does DSK. Indeed, all of us who look on public scandals that involve Jewish figures as a shanda far de goyima shame in the eyes of the non-Jewswill find it fascinating.
The author tells a story of how she pitched the idea for the book to Stuart Matlins, publisher of Jewish Lights, shortly after the Madoff scandal. "Erica, are you six months too late?" he asked. After a flurry of new scandals, she wrote him a prescient note: “Maybe I'm six months too early?”
Although the author offers much good advice on what could be fairly described as crisis management, the core of her book is moral instruction. “I firmly believe that most people who serve the public in a political or religious capacity start out fired by the greatest of ideals,” she observes. “But something does happen to their own sense of inflated power as they travel down the road to success.” They sometimes stumble into what she calls “moral quicksand”: “Entitlement,” as Brown puts it, “grows egos too large to fit within the moral standards that everyone else observes.”
She argues that Jewish misconduct is especially consequential because of the tradition of chosenness that is woven so deeply into the Tanakh. “We are a light unto the nations,” she writes. “Isaiah told us so.” Like Hebrew National, she quips, we hold ourselves to a higher standard. Then, too, we seem to carry a gene for anxiety that prompts us to fret whenever a fellow Jew does something wrong: “It is bad for the Jews” is the old refrain. And so the stakes are especially high when the names in the newspaper headlines are Jewish names.
Brown calls on her Jewish readers to own up to the communal issues that arise when a Jewish person goes famously wrong. “”Without naming the problem, we will not take the necessary steps to ameliorate it,” she writes. “Facing, naming, and tackling scandal empowers us for goodness.” She points out, for example, that when the undeniable fact of Jewish participation in organized crime in the ’20s and ’30s was finally confronted in the Jewish press, the “Jewish gangster movement” came to an end: “Reporting Jewish crime,” she points out, “led to Jewish respectability.”
Brown draws on Torah and Talmud to explain her attitude toward sin, repentance and redemption, and her analysis is often both profound and shocking. She cites one passage of the Talmud, for example, to illustrate the “moral fragmentation” that sometimes accompanies the practice of religionthe passage depicts one priest stabbing another priest on the ramp to the sacred altar and addresses whether the knife is rendered ritually impureand she uses it to make the point that “on closer examination of scandals in houses of worship and life as we know it, we frequently find moral vacuums in supposedly ethical people.”
This brings her to the volatile subject of abusive behavior by rabbis. She considers, for example, the shattering experience of one woman who learned that her childhood rabbi had been charged with involvement in child pornography and pedophilia, something that ultimately led her to join a lay-led minyan, because she no longer trusted the rabbinate. Brown herself writes that “[t]he search for holiness, when it infuses our lives in its totality, becomes an irresistible force that brooks no entrance for immorality.” But, of course, the whole point of her book is that there are many opportunities for immorality to enter any human life, even a rabbi’s life, and the real question is what to do when it happens.
Indeed, the touchstone of Brown’s book is the Yom Kippur liturgy, which invites us to engage in an annual public ritual of repentance. But she warns against “teshuva-lite,” and she makes a distinction between forgiving and forgetting. “Forgetting an act is impossible,” she insists. “Forgiving someone so that a relationship can continue to exist is possible and, from a Jewish perspective, both desirable and a moral responsibility.” Above all, she calls on her readers to “make morality in the highest form of art.”
Confronting Scandal addresses some of the most challenging issues in Jewish life and Jewish religion, it is also lively, provocative and witty. “It’s Judaism in the public oy!” cracks one of Brown’s acquaintances, and the quip captures perfectly what her compelling book is really all about.
Note: For the sake of full disclosure, I need to let my readers know that I have had business dealings with Jewish Lights, the publisher of
Jewish Journal of Greater Los Angeles - Jonathan Kirsch
What should we do if we learn about someone behaving badly or see a wrong in the community that needs to be righted? The answer seems almost self-evidentspeak out, bring the problem to the light of day so that it can be dealt with. I'm sure that, as Americans, an overwhelming majority of WJW readers would agree with the proverbial cleansing power of the equally proverbial light of day. Few would disagree on the need for a free press to expose the wrongdoers, to correct the shortcomings.
But what if it's a Jew who is the guilty party or there is an embarrassing incident in the Jewish community? Should a Jewish newspaper report it? Too often, those same American Jews demand a cover-up.
The editor of
The Jewish Week of New York confronts this conundrum in an interview conducted for this provocative book. "People want to feel good about being Jewish when they read a Jewish paper," Gary Rosenblatt said. "When you read about a dark cloud over the Jewish community, you feel angry." Of course, newspapers need to handle scandals with care and often editors choose not to do certain stories. But he tends to regret those more than the controversies his newspaper has covered. "We do write things that are embarassing to elements of the community," he said. "In the short term it's painful, but over a longer period of time these stories are supposed to help you change things."
We share our colleague's sentiments, not theoretically, but literally, for we have had to confront similar complaints from readers and suffered the angst of agonizing about which stories to cover and which to avoid. Author Erica Brownformerly director of adult education and academics for the Partnership for Jewish Life and Learning and scholar-in-residence at the Jewish Federation of Greater Washington and a current d'var Torah contributor for WJW comes down hard on those who oppose exposing Jewish crime.
"We are naive to think that some Jews can act irresponsibly and immorally in public and that a Jew who questions that behavior is more guilty than the criminal," she writes. "We have spent too long justifying that which is unjustifiable and making more dirty laundry in the process. So rather than air the laundry, let's clean it once and for all. Then we will not be ashamed to put anything on the line."
Brown points out that in the early decades of the 20th century, crime was rampant among Jews of New York, especially young immigrant Jews. At first, little was done. But as time wore on, non-immigrant New York Jews began to take action to provide better education and training for younger Jewish immigrants. The happened only after Jewish newspapers and other community institutions accepted responsibility for hiding the problem.
"Reporting Jewish crime eventually led to Jewish respectability," she writes. Are more Jews committing crimes today, or do the greater number of images of Jewish criminals we see reflect a new outlook on what should be published and a new venuethe Internetthat makes former censorship impossible? Are there really more pedophiles among rabbis and Catholic priests or are their crimes reported today, rather than hidden? Is there more white-collar crime or is it simply more visible?
Regarding the propriety of publishing, remember that journalists knew about President John Kennedy's extramarital affairs 50 years ago and decided such behavior was private and not to be reported; on the other hand, a little more than 10 years ago, Bill Clinton was almost removed from office when his affair with Monica Lewinsky was splashed all over the newspapers and TV screens.
Whether or not " 'the light to the nations' [is] dimming," Confronting Scandal is full of wise words as to why Jews should care about Jewish crime and what should be done about it. Especially insightful are the author's 10 recommendations for creating "a moral compass" leading to a more ethical Jewish community.
There certainly is room for improvement in our personal and communal behavior.
Washington Jewish Week - Aaron Leibel
"I have been hoping for such a book and here at last it is.
Confronting Scandal is a genuine act of conscience. Erica Brown rightly insists, with learning and with compassion, but also with an appropriate strictness, that the Jewish duty of self-criticism is to be taken seriously. Her polemic against moral complacence falls squarely into the great tradition of Jewish ethical literature. Her book deserves the close attention, and the deep gratitude, of her community." Leon Wieseltier
"Sensitive and accessible.... Demands we raise the bar on ethics, both personally and institutionally, by owning up to negative stereotypes, facing up to difficult truths and living up to what it means to be a member of the Jewish people."
Dr. Lawrence A. Hoffman, author, Rethinking Synagogues: A New Vocabulary for Congregational Life, and editor, Who by Fire, Who by WaterUn'taneh Tokef
Confronting Scandal, Dr. Erica Brown, public intellectual par excellence, has written a compelling guide on the direction Jewish life must take if we are to remain true to the tenets of Judaism and have something to teach the world. This is an important book by an important writer.” Rabbi Joseph Telushkin, author, Jewish Literacy, A Code of Jewish Ethics and Hillel: If Not Now, When?
“An honest and thoughtful examination of one of the most vexing issues in communal life. A must read for anyone who cares about building a strong and ethical Jewish community for the future.”
Rabbi Jill Jacobs, author, There Shall Be No Needy: Pursuing Social Justice through Jewish Law and Tradition
“Erica Brown has written a bold, honest and necessary book about our collective Jewish failure to come to terms with our collective Jewish failures. Engagingly written by one of American Jewry's most refreshing new voices, it deserves to be widely read and deeply heeded.”
Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks, chief rabbi of Britain and the Commonwealth
Confronting Scandal is an important and courageous book for all, especially at this moment in Jewish history. It is important reading for Jewish community leaders who are already facing the terrifying issues that Erica raises without the benefit of her Jewish knowledge and wisdom. Confronting Scandal provides clear, informed and wise Jewish context for confronting these challenges.” Barry Shrage, president, Combined Jewish Philanthropies of Greater Boston