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.