12/21/10

Erica Brown is wrong about what to do to combat corruption in the Orthodox Jewish Community in America

Looking back, we found this post about a crisis of a moral vacuum. We thought, well just buy a new vacuum bag and that's that. But no, not what the ersatz leading thinker Erica Brown says.

So here is our repost from 7/27/09 to illustrate once more that some urgent books just do not stand the test of time, to wit, there was no crisis and there was no vacuum and the author and her book offered no solution. Oh well, the post follows.


The list of recent Orthodox Jewish scandals continues to grow. The arrest by the FBI of Rabbi Saul Kassin and others with title rabbi in the Syrian community in Brooklyn has brought another spotlight on wrongdoing in our world.

Hat tip to Henry who pointed us to this interview in the Atlantic by Jeffrey Goldberg. Goldberg talked with Erica Brown, whom he calls, "One of the leading Jewish thinkers in America today." We don't know much about this person. But based on the interview, we beg to differ about his assessment of her "leading" qualities.

The chat starts out with a clear question which she answers with an unfocused evasiveness that leads Erica to quote her daughter's exclamation.
Jeffrey Goldberg: Is there a crisis of morality in the Orthodox Jewish community today?

Erica Brown: I don't believe that there is a moral crisis specifically in the Orthodox community. I believe that there is a crisis in the Jewish community at large that reflects a larger moral vacuum in society. And here I would make a critical distinction. Judaism upholds certain ethical values grounded in the book of Deuteronomy -- "And you shall do what is just and good in the eyes of God" -- that some Jews choose to ignore. That's a human problem, not a faith problem. In other words, there are Jews and there is Judaism, and they are not the same thing.

The fact that observant Jews can turn away from the Talmudic dictum that the "law of the government is our law," namely, that we are bound by the jurisdiction of whatever country we are in, shows a moral failing on their part. As you know, Jeffrey, I grew up in Deal, New Jersey. I feel ulceritic at what I read and saw yesterday. As my daughter said loudly when she heard, "How can the paper report that they're Orthodox? There is nothing Orthodox about them."
I believe that Erica's answer was, "It is not just us - everyone else is doing it. I feel bad and so does my daughter."

Let's just recall that according to a famous dictum of the Oracle of Omaha (Warren Buffett) the five most dangerous words in business are, “Everybody else is doing it.”

Erica Brown has found a new and unfortunate way endanger our community by invoking those words in her thoughtless incorrect characterization of the absolutely abominable behavior of some of our Orthodox brothers and sisters inside of the formal structures of Judaism -- in the shuls and the Yeshivas.

To her daughter we say, "Yes, most definitely young lady. These are badly behaving Jews and they remain full members of our Orthodox community -- some in fact are revered leaders in Judaism -- that is, unless and until you and your mother and your neighbors expell them from our midst."

We won't burden you with the other "wicked smart...so to speak" observations in her interview which you can read here, but we turn to its awful conclusion.
JG: So Erica, do you feel that you need to do something about this problem personally? What I mean to say is, if you feel that all of these controversies reflect poorly on Judaism, what can a Jew do to make it better?

EB: I feel an enormous responsible as an educator, writer and parent to speak to these issues directly. For a while, I thought one of the biggest challenges facing the Jewish community was boredom. So I tackled it last year and in a few weeks my book, Spiritual Boredom, will be out (Jewish Lights). But this year's series of crimes with Jews at their center has showed me that some of us may be bored and some of us have turned to transgressive behavior to relieve the boredom. I could use a little less excitement myself. I'm currently working on a new book -- When Jews Do Bad Things -- because we need to think about collective shame and strengthening our ethical base. I hope that will be some small contribution to facing these ethical challenges more authentically. As a group, I believe that the best way to combat the ethical morass that's landed on our doorstep as a minority is to go out of our way to articulate our own distance from this behavior and to go out of our way to do acts of kindness for others that show us to be a moral light in the world.
We can't know where to start objecting to this answer (aside from cringing at the blatant plugs for her own books - boredom? really?). The Lord surely knows what "articulate our own distance from this behavior" means. We don't have a clue.

And the idea that we ought to "go out of our way to do acts of kindness for others" is about as vanilla a formula of banality as we have heard since we puzzled over the movements promoting "random acts of kindness." We don't object to doing nice things - but hello -- non sequitur -- that was not the question.

Here is our answer (today's version) -- some of what we say Orthodox Jews need to do to combat the current scourge of immorality that is running through our community.
A. If you know of Orthodox Jews engaged illegal activities, tell them you know about it and tell them that they must stop it.

B. If you admonish Orthodox Jews who are engaged in illegal activities to no avail -- OR -- if you are fearful to approach a person engaged in wrongdoing -- and you have concrete evidence that crimes are being committed -- go to the appropriate government law enforcement authorities, the local police or the FBI, with your accusations and your evidence.
Yes, since you ask, we did skip over the intermediate step - namely taking your complaint to an Orthodox leader in the community. Don't bother. Orthodoxy is a non-hierarchical social system. There is one level of titular Orthodox leadership (definition: having the title and usually the honors belonging to an office or dignity without the duties, functions, or responsibilities). There is no formal functioning hierarchy to take responsibility for the behavior of the first tier of "leaders." Certainly there is no mechanism in our Orthodox community to investigate offenses or to enforce the law.
C. If you do not want to engage in either approach A or B -- then definitely move yourself to another community. Do not stay in a corrupt environment. It is toxic to you and to your family.
This is not exactly what Erica Brown says to do to combat the crisis of immorality in our midst - is it?

2 comments:

Abe said...

Although I agree in large part with the remedy you've outlined in this post and admire your willingness to be honest about the less pleasant issues confronting our community, I feel you've missed Brown's point. For the most part, Goldberg wanted to know if there was a "moral crisis" in the Orthodox community. Brown's answer was, simply put, that whatever crisis there might be, it is not one that afflicts the Orthodox community in any way markedly different from the rest of our society. Indeed, it is precisely because religious Jews tend to err on the side of caution, morally speaking, thus making scandals involving members of the community relatively rare, that such scandals, when they do occur, are particularly newsworthy. Her prescription for dealing with moral turpitude among our brethren is, in some ways similar to your own: don't run from it, confront it head on. But, again, in the main, the question she was answering is whether a moral crisis exists, not what to do about it.

evanstonjew said...

Great post...I see no reason to believe this woman has anything special to say. I hope she goes away, but you just know she's here for the duration. Why Goldberg and Brooks wrote her up is beyond me.They must be very hungry for something, but what?