Sunday, June 06, 2010

The flip side of the coin(s).

I here excerpt for you the last article in the latest issue of Rabbi Marc Angel's organization (Institute for Jewish Ideas and Ideals) called Conversations, which is published quarterly. The title of the Spring 2010/5770 issue is "Orthodoxy and Diversity" and I have greatly enjoyed this and every issue published to date. Each issue consists of articles submitted by Rabbis, Educators, Pundits, Historians, and other Jewish intellectuals and the idea is to discuss Orthdox Judaism in relation to current issues and events.

Those who are familiar with my blog's posts for the last few years will recognize that the issues brought up in this particular article have been discussed here (particularly in the three articles that I wrote for and cross posted at "UOJ Group" and in the Decline of the West commentaries, lower right sidebar). Jewish culture is now so entangled with Western Culture, which is imploding at an increasingly exponential rate, that it cannot really be separated. Jewish culture has, for the last couple of hundred years or so (perhaps farther back, really) been a child of the Western mindset and suffers from the same mental diseases of that mindset which are now destroying Western Culture in general and RWMO/UO/Chereidi Judaism in particular. Far from being superior and cut off from wider Western philosophies and attitudes, Orthodox Judaism has embraced them lock, stock and barrel - albeit with Talmudic disguises.

So Mr. Landau's comments will not be new to readers here, unfortunately. Indeed, many will realize that some of his comments are in fact hopelessly naive.

Issue 7, Spring 2010/5770
Sounds of Silence
by Pinchas Lanau
(you can email the author at

Can you point me to rabbis or other leadership figures in the Orthodox Jewish community who have spoken or written about the moral aspects of the financial crash and the economic crisis? Is there a specifically Jewish ethical and moral response to what happened relating also the prominent role of Jews, including and perhaps especially observant Jews?

Do you know of anyone who, in the period of the stock market and property manias in the 1990s and the decade that just ended, saw those developments in a moral context, as involving ethical issues for individuals and communities? Are there any Orthodox leaders who talked or wrote about the trends underway in the financial sector in the US and elsewhere, as moral and ethical issues that Orthodox/observant/Torah True Jews should have something to day about?

Yes, some of us - myself and others - did bemoan the complete lack of Judeo/Christian ethics apparent in the economic goings-on at least in the 2000s, but we were not leaders, and we were not and are not listened to by any leaders.

The answers translate as follows:

A. Even people who have a definite interest in this topic haven't seen or heard of relevant material. They, like me, want to believe that said material exists, but have no hard evidence thereof. They - we - are deliberately indulging in wishful thinking, because the alternative it too awful for us to contemplate.

B. Many people, including - or perhaps especially - rabbis and educators actually have no clear idea what ethical and moral issues are. More precisely, they have great difficulty distinguishing between legal/halakhic and moral/ethical treatments of issues...

C. Those who have addressed the topic from a moral perspective have preferred to direct their remarks to a general audience.

Like blogs, apparently.

But finding a few righteous men...

Or women! Sodom will not change the basic premise of this article, which is that Orthodox Judaism, as currently conceived and practiced, is morally challenged. The ongoing financial and economic crisis is arguably not even the most severe moral challenge facing it and us. Rather, the crisis has exposed the moral bankruptcy of much of Orthodoxy - of all streams, in both Israel and the Diaspora - so sharply, that henceforth this sorry state of affairs will be difficult, if not impossible, to continue to ignore.

The crisis has exposed the existence of a widespread moral darkness within, indeed at the heart of, Orthodox Judaism. This black home expresses itself the way all such negative moral phenomena do - via silence.

...What I am looking for is moral leadership, which I define as people with the courage to tell at least the members of their flock, if not the world at large, what is wrong with what they are doing and how they can and should be doing better.

Well, class, you're not a flock, but I believe (and I think long time readers of my blog will agree) I can say with confidence that I have met this challenge.

In the best case, this leadership should be demonstrated in real time - that is, with regard to what is currently happening or likely to happen.


...This whole [macro-economic] aspect of human activity is central to the theory and practice of Judaism. If, therefore, it is now enveloped in crisis, it is impossible that Judaism has nothing to say about it, beyond theological platitudes and/or legal formulations.

[Paul Volcker said in a speech]...You might ask how {the housing/mortgage boom} went on as long as it did...Compensation practices has gotten totally out of hand and spurred financial people to aim for a lot of short-term money without worryi8ng about the eventual consequences... [Volcker's own grandson wrote to him:] "Grandpa, don't blame it on us! We were just following the orders we were getting from our bosses." The only think I [Volcker] could do was send him back an email, "I will not accept the Nurenberg excuse."

...These are bankers he is talking to. They already know all this. Precisely for that reason, Volcker lays it out for them in simple words, and then lays it in to them with a series of powerful accurate blows: Incompetents - BIFF! Liars - POW! Greedy and Irresponsible - WHAM! And the coup de grace, Conceited Fools - CRACK!

Then the switch from his audience's generalized stupidity to his own intense personal paid: his grandson decides to squander his promise and potential on the alchemy of financial engineering. Volcker is well aware that his smart grandson can and probably will (in the pre-crash world) earn millions in his chosen career, but that does not prevent [Volcker] from defining this decision - entirely correctly from a moral and a religious perspective - as [his grandson] "wasting his life."

...Do you know a rabbi of any stripe, from any stream, who stood up before, during, or at least after the crash and told his congregation of real estate or stock market speculators that they were scoundrels and probably criminals to boot? [Do you know] an Admor who told a Hassid that adopting the business practices of this bosses or colleagues was morally repugnant?

This is an area where I believe Mr. Landau is suffering from a bit of naivete. It wasn't only greedy goyim who came up with a lot of the sub-prime mortgages, derivities and other economic weapons of mass destruction - a lot of Jews (and yes, even professing Christians) were involved in creating these rip-offs. They were lauded by the industry just a few short years ago as geniuses and heros.

If you do [know such a rabbi or Admor], you have the privilege of being exposed to moral leadership. I'm looking for it, so far unsuccessfully - and if I can't find it among the rabbis, rashei yeshiva, and Admorim, I'll take it where it's available.

I wonder if that includes women writers.

John Bogle [another prominent figure in the financial sector who spoke harshly to his colleagues] is the founder of Vanguard. His [business] concept is based on the premise that investors in regular mutual funds are consistently and systematically ripped-off by their fund manager's panoply of fees.

[He wrote:] ...self-interest got out of hand. It created a bottom-line society in which success is measured in monetary terms...[and] the result is a shift from moral absolutism to moral relativism. We've moved from a society in which "there are some things that one simply does not do" to one in which "if everyone else is doing it, I can too." Business ethics and professionals were lost in the shuffle.

And here the Rabbinate is guilty, guilty, guilty of moral relativism - because many RWMO/UO/Chereidi Jews have indeed adopted the reprehensible attitudes of the Talmud described in the last post - that it is perfectly OK to screw over the government, insurance companies, and their gentile neighbors because every means, no matter how unethical or morally disgusting, is acceptable if it leads toward the end of enriching or enhancing Jews. There is no denying this attitude exists, and it motivated many, many Jews in the financial sector to engage in perfidious activities they surely KNEW were wrong - and worse, many preyed even on those of other sects of Judaism, because THEIR sect is the "only" correct one and everyone else is apikorus. Don't deny it - we all know their justifications, they don't generally even try hard to hide them.

Moral leadership demands a larger measure of courage than most people have.

Taking as stand against persons found guilty of a broad range of white-collar crimes is not considered an obvious cause belli even for Orthodox Jews who define themselves as observant and/or Torah True. Indeed, it may well be closer to hara kiri on the part of a rabbi who tries it.

Indeed, the Rabbis of such men are often the very ones excusing such activities or besmirching those who try and bring such unethical behavior to light. Those outside their fiefdom are ignored as "self-hating Jews" and "instigators."

It is not the principled stand against moral turpitude that will cause anti-Semitism, but the failure to denounce moral breakdown and thereby facilitate it continued spread. The prominence of Jews in the hated financial elite, in today's charged atmosphere, causes far more anti-Semitism than would the explicit denunciation of the ills of the financial system by Jewish religious personalities.


We cannot agree, in principle and a fortiori, to conduct our communal life on the basis of what the reaction of [real] anti-Semites might be.

The silence of many religious leaders in the face of moral challenges stemming from the areas of business and finance reflects conflicts of interest on their part. In many cases, rabbis have an interest in the financial well-being of individuals who are prominent supporters of institutions that operate under their aegis. They are therefore compromised in their ability to address problematic aspects of the business areas in which these persons are engaged - let alone the specific business practices of those persons.

Many rabbis actually seem to believe that the means can and do justify the ends

I believe Mr. Landau meant to say that the other way around - i.e. many Rabbis have philosophical or racist beliefs or even just cognizance of the fact of pressing financial needs in the various communities that cause them to accept that the end - a goal of Jewish financial success or security - can and does justify the means (even though they are exploitative and/or unethical), as I pointed out above and in numerous other posts.

Leadership can be complicit not by merely ignoring the issues, but by direct involvement. Obviously, in such cases there is no point in discussing moral leadership - nor do moral issues resonate with the followers.

In many cases that would be the entire community, raised in an insular educational environment and taught that all those outside their particular in-group or community are less than they. They actually do not believe it is immoral or unethical to exploit others. Until Orthodoxy comes to grip with this attitude and roundly condemns both it (and the Talmudic passages such as those in the last post) upon which they are based, nothing is going to change.

There is evidence that Orthodox Jewish society did not always feature a warped value system in which business ethics and money morality is related to second-class status, at best.

Agreed - a lot of the teachings of the UO and such like-groups are innovations, not historically accurate Jewish practice.

One of the few people who has devoted himself to writing and speaking about Jewish business ethics is Dr. Meir Tamari. Tamari is convinced that the phenomenon of religious bifurcation, in which ritualistic and theological/mystical elements of Judaism have risen to prominence, while inter-personal and, in particular, pecuniary moral and ethical practices have withered, is neither very recent - meaning post-Holocaust, nor very ancient - meaning pre-modern. He suggests that it was the demise of the kehilla as the linchpin of Jewish society that started the rot.

For those of you not familiar with that term:

From Wikipedia:
The Qahal (Hebrew: קהל) was a theocratic organizational structure in ancient Israelite society, according to the masoretic text of the Bible[1]. In later centuries, Qahal was the name of the autonomous governments of Jewish communities in Eastern Europe[2]...In the 16th century, Jewish communities in southern Poland-Lithuania began to set up new qahals to administer tax collection[2]...These Polish-Lithuanian qahals quickly came to be politically autonomous bodies, with major regulatory control over Jewish communities in the region[2]...However, rich and powerful individuals gradually began to dominate qahals, abusing their position for their own benefit[2]. As a result, by the 18th century, many ordinary Jews had begun to clamour for the abolition of the institution[2]...

In short, just like their gentile neighbors, the Jews of various communities resented "church taxes" that went to corrupt and power-mongering elites who abused their authority and imposed standards that the community did not believe in - as the article goes on to say, often enforcing religious compulsion by threatening or actually carrying out a sentence of expulsion from the community. Sound familiar?

So the Kehillas were abolished, for good reasons - namely, freedom of religious practice and freedom to conscientious giving.

Landau continues:

With no fiscal autonomy - because the kehilla's taxation powers were gone - the religious leadership became entirely dependent on the few rich people available for their own financial survival and that of their families and their institutions, whither these last were yeshivot or the courts of the Hassidic leaders. That structure was inherently corrupt and served as a further spur to the process already underway, as Enlightenment ideas and values spread through Jewish population centers, of a growing estrangement and eventual mass flight of Jewish youth from their ancestral religion.

This undemocratic and unhealthy social structure has survived into the 21st century, and indeed thrived, despite the fact that today's Jewish society is completely different from that of pre-Holocaust Europe, with affluence having replaced poverty, especially in the Western Diaspora.

The existence of this social structure and its salient characteristics, including its warped moral value system, must be accepted as fact.

Yes, unfortunately it is unconscionable in this day and age for anyone to suggest that all Jews MUST donate a certain percentage of their income to their Federation, synagogue, or other local or regional Jewish groups. And therefore those who give the most will always have control of these institutions - them that hath the gold make the rules. That's a universal aphorism, unfortunately - common good be damned.

The proof Tamari cites for his hypothesis is telling because it comes from direct documentary evidence of social, religious, and economic conditions and values among Orthodox Jews over the centuries - namely the responsa literature.

...The moral rot that found such dramatic expression in the financial crisis of 2007-2009 is rooted in the collapse of those basic human values - trust, reliability, mutual confidence - without which commercial and financial activity cannot take place. It requires no great intellectual leap to see that the same values are needed in the domestic sphere to make marriage and family life work.

I would add: and community life.

The moral collapse is taking place across the board, even if the dynamics of breakdown differ between areas of human activity.

...In between the praying, the learning, the kosher sushi, and all the rest, the new generation of Orthodox youngsters participated, willingly and even enthusiastically, in the creation, design, and sale to unsuspecting "suckers" across the country and around the world those "financial weapons of mass destruction" - in Warren Buffett's telling phrase - that have inflicted massive damage on the American public and, ironically but fittingly, brought the entire Wall Street culture crashing down around them.

Most of these young people, despite (or is it because of?) their background in the world's leading yeshivot, seminaries, and other institutions of advanced Jewish study, never saw the inconsistency in this behavior.

Were they confused? Did they feel disoriented? Or were they able to live totally compartmentalized lives?

I would say a firm: NO! But Mr. Landau gives them the benefit of the doubt.

It seems that many did and continue to do just that - as a survival mechanism for religious people in a secular and hence culturally hostile world.

A couple of paragraphs down, even Mr. Landau can't help but write:

Many of them are today either amoral or immoral, although they delude themselves into believing that their religion, as they understand and practice it, makes them morally superior and provides them with a large measure of immunity to the immoral wider culture in which they move. Thus it is that there are many Orthodox Jews - from Modern to Hereidi - whose minds and hearts are already lost to Judaism.

Lost to real Judaism, yes. Lost to the RWMO/UO/Chereidi teachings that they received from their rabbis and mentors? Not hardly - they embody them, actually.

...They lean emotionally towards Gordon Gekko...whose motto is simple and direct: "greed is good" - because it get you what you want.

[Yet] the unfolding crisis has exposed the false gods once again as being unable to deliver the goods.

Unfortunately, the crash is likely to prove only the first stage of a prolonged crisis, which will impose deep and painful changes on the economy and society of America and the entire Western world.

As I've been saying for the past five years!

...But this trauma provides the opportunity for Orthodox Judaism to admit that it took the wrong turn some way back and needs to get onto a road that leads somewhere worth going. Finding our way back is the definition of teshuva, repentance. WE know that the essential first step of teshuvah is to accept and then admit that what we thought or did was wrong. That means ending the fraudulent pretense that current Orthodox theology and lifestyle are good enough, let alone idea.

Basic values that used to be commonly accepted and upheld by all Western societies can no longer be taken for granted. They are going to have to be taught, imparted, inculcated - consciously and carefully. The values governing the huge part of people's lives encompassing work, income, wealth, spending, and investment must be resuscitated and these activities rescued from the clutches of "professional experts" and then re-integrated into an overall moral framework, along with family, health, and well-being and all the other central components of our lives...

Well, it's nice to see we agree on the diagnosis and the needed medicine, but I'm not holding my breath on any of that actually happening. Western culture is in terminal decline and will fall under its own folly - just as all other cultures have fallen. Can Judaism be untwined from it? I have serious doubts.

In the meantime, every scandal and every greedy, power-mongering or immoral act done by a Jew is just going to pour more gasoline on the fire of anti-Semitism, and when it burns out of control it will be the fault of those very Rabbis and teachers who taught these yokels that they were so superior and so much more intelligent than everyone else - and that everyone else is just low-hanging fruit ready to pick.

As long as these attitudes are cherished and taught to our young people, the more damage will be done. And I'm afraid that telling this to the Ravs and Roshei Yeshivot of these young people will simply make them more determined to "uphold" their "min har Sinai, Torah way" of condescension and racism toward non-Jews and other sects of Jews. It has nowhere to go but bad, I fear.

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