Tuesday, March 01, 2011

Sometimes You Need to be a Triangle

The prophets of Israel abhorred and excoriated those who hid moral corruption behind a mask of ritual punctiliousness. Typical in this regard are the defiant words of Jeremiah, uttered as he stood at the very entrance to the Temple (7, 9-10):

הגנב רצח ונאף והשבע לשקר וקטר לבעל והלך אחרי אלהים אחרים אשר לא ידעתם:
) ובאתם ועמדתם לפני בבית הזה אשר נקרא שמי עליו ואמרתם נצלנו למען עשות את כל התועבות האלה:
Will you steal, murder, and commit adultery, and swear falsely, and offer unto Baal, and walk after other gods whom ye have not known, and come and stand before Me in this house, whereupon My name is called, and say: 'We are delivered', that ye may do all these abominations?

Jeremiah's audience, tragically, never got the message. They paid a very high price for their obtuseness. Their descendants in the Orthodox community, both Haredi and Modern Orthodox, don't appear to be any more enlightened. There is a moral rot, an ethical disconnect that too often appears among the members of our community. This, it seems to me, is an especially egregious fault when we consciously blind ourselves to the heinous moral iniquities of those upon whom we look to as leaders.

It is truly incredible. We would not brook a thief or a murderer as a Rav, a Rosh Yeshiva or as a Religious intellectual who seeks to use his or her position to participate in the ethical discourse of the Observant community. However, we have no trouble ignoring or denying behavior which destroys families, undermines the lives of children and is no less worthy of moral calumny. We make excuses for them, מאכען ניט וויסענדיק, and bask in the chiaroscuro brilliance of their words and writings, teachings and pronouncements.

We have, it must be admitted, become morally obtuse and lost our basic sensitivity.

This apocryphal vignette puts it best:

While a Professor of Ethics at Harvard, Bertrand Russell carried on an adulterous affair. He was called in by the university authorities and censured. He maintained that it his personal life had nothing to do with his academic responsibilities. When it was objected that he was, after all, a professor of Ethics, Russell replied: “I was a Professor of Geometry at Cambridge,” Russell rejoined, “but the Board of Governors never asked me why I was not a triangle.”


This may be true in academia. However, it does not and cannot pass muster among those who presume to represent, and interpret, God's Torah. The Torah makes no distinction between ethical and moral behaviors, or between Yoreh Deah, Even ha-Ezer and Hoshen Mishpat. If you flagrantly reject one, you forfeit your right to an opinion on the others.

Sometimes, we are expected to reshape ourselves....even into triangles.

3 comments:

Toby Klein Greenwald said...

Right on!

MokumAlef said...

Well put! And Jeremiah wasn't the only navi to call a spade a spade. Check out e.g. Micha 3:9-12!
Now - in view of all the negative news that flies around - what are we going to do about it????

Daniel Bulow said...

I have been doing some research and I believe that a specific Rabbi may be telling untruths about this historical figure, as such I would like to know what is your sources are and why you call this story apocryphal, and if you have any insight as to why this story only exists on the Jewish parts of the web.