Posted by Rabbi Shmuley Boteach
At middle age I have come to accept my limitations. Although I like to have an opinion on almost everything, I am conscious of the fact that I am not a legal scholar and do not understand all the complexities of the criminal case against Shalom Rubashkin, the former CEO of America’s largest kosher meat plant, Agriprocessors of Postville, Iowa.
But I am not a stupid man either. And I, and a heck of a lot of other fairly intelligent and educated people are scratching our heads as to why government prosecutors are requesting that Rubashkin, who has ten children, including an autistic son, and a reputation for enormous philanthropy, be given a life sentence in prison.
A life behind bars. The very words are ominous. Isn’t that reserved for society’s most heinous offenders? Life sentence has one conjuring images of rapists and murderers, international drug cartel kingpins and white-collar criminals guilty of gargantuan fraud, like Bernie Madoff.
What did Rubashkin do? After an INS raid on the plant that found hundreds of illegal immigrants, the company was pushed to the brink of bankruptcy and Rubashkin, who had already been arrested for employing illegals, was subsequently found guilty of defrauding a bank and producing false invoices in order to keep the business going. There is no insinuation that he did any of this for personal profit or gain. Unlike Madoff, he had no Hamptons estate, no fancy yacht, and no Manhattan penthouse. By all accounts he and his family lived in incredibly modest circumstances.
Obviously, the Rubashkin story has been an enormous embarrassment to the American Jewish community in general and orthodoxy in particular. The largest kosher meat plant in the country employing hundreds of illegal immigrants? Engaging in bank fraud in order to remain a going concern? Falsifying invoices and misleading lenders? These are serious charges that go against both terrestrial and celestial law and constitute actions that neither man nor G-d can condone. The expected flight of Jewish leaders and spokespeople from Rubashkin’s side ensued, whatever the injustice of his proposed sentence. We Jews are accustomed to run from scandal like the plague.
So let’s remove the smoke from this unsavory story and focus on truth.
Yes, we Jews unfortunately have our criminals. Yes, we orthodox Jews unfortunately have our felons. We’re human, too. We have people guilty of serious wrongdoing. And we too must confess our sins, repent of our actions, be punished for our crimes, and teach our children to always do better and never excuse our behavior. Our community need to know that no matter how important you believe it is for other Jews to eat kosher food, you cannot purchase that mitzvah at any price. You cannot be a good Jew if you are not an honest person. A religious obligation that comes through theft – even when your intention is to simply keep a business open so you can eventually pay off your loans – subverts all principles of religious morality.
Rubashkin is no hero. Whatever the nobility of his intentions, he is a poor example to religious youth. His behavior must and should be condemned. He has been found guilty of a crime and he must do the time.
But he is no monster either. Unlike Wall Street bankers, he did not bet the farm and other people’s deposits in order to buy himself a Ferrari. Unlike AIG executives, he did not cost the government billions in bailouts and then get a bonus. And while I, of course, understand that criminal conduct is infinitely more serious, so is prosecutorial overzealousness that borders on fanaticism.
The time that Rubashkin serves must be fair and just. This is America. Just as there is no room for toleration of criminal conduct, there is also no room for a lynch mob mentality. I realize I am not a lawyer. But I have enough sense to understand that a punishment of a few years in prison sets an unassailable example that criminal conduct is utterly inexcusable. Anything more than that for a crime of this nature gives the false impression that the American justice system is prejudicial and untrustworthy.
As for the outcry from the Hassidic community that Rubashkin is being treated unfairly and that his yarmulke and beard make for a prosecutorial bull’s-eye, I love America too much to believe any of it. This is the fairest, most decent country on earth. But I do believe it possible that when an overtly religious person perpetrates a crime – especially one that involves companies catering to religious needs – there is a feeling on the part of many that the hypocrisy mandates an even harsher sentence.
So let’s be clear.
This is not in any way analogous to other ugly religious stories dominating the news like pedophile priests. There is no suggestion that Rubashkin’s crimes be covered up. Less so is there any insinuation that Rubashkin be moved to another state where he can start up a new kosher meat plant. Rubashkin’s trustworthiness in the American Jewish community is finished.
But there is an insistence that he be treated like a human being. That it be taken into consideration that he has no prior offenses and that his company provided kosher meat to hundreds of thousands of people at affordable prices so that more Jews could observe their faith. That he and his family are legendary in the Hassidic community for their charitable giving, their hospitality, and their communal involvement. That Rubashkin himself devoted a substantial portion of his profits to funding a soup kitchen and supporting organizations like Collel Chabad that feed the hungry and the poor. To disregard all these considerations when it comes to sentencing is to disregard the universal belief that the good we do is not cancelled out by our horrendous mistakes.
I know my own limitations. Perhaps Rubashkin’s prosecutors ought to know theirs as well.
Rabbi Shmuley Boteach, host of TLC’s ‘Shalom in the Home,’ is the international best-selling author of 23 books, winner of the London Times Preacher of the Year, and winner of the American Jewish Press Association’s highest award for excellence in commentary. His website is www.shmuley.com.
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April 12, 2010 | 12:17 am
Posted by Rabbi Shmuley Boteach
The only institution worse at PR than Israel is the Catholic Church. Never in my life have I seen such a formidable world power handle a crisis more catastrophically than how the Vatican is handling the current scandal of pedophile priests. And the sad thing is that the weakening of the Church in general, and this pope in particular, is bad all round. The Church does incalculable good throughout the world with innumerable orphanages, schools, and hospitals. And for Jewish-Catholic relations Benedict has been a godsend (pardon the pun).
For most of its two thousand years the Catholic Church has been anti-Semitic, responsible for horrific atrocities against Jews and others who branded heretics. But in the latter half of the twentieth century the Church repented of its past due to the courage and spiritual integrity of three special men: John XXIII, the greatest of all modern Popes, John Paul II, a leader of extraordinary humanity and humility, and Joseph Ratzinger, the cerebral Cardinal largely responsible for the theological underpinnings that served as John Paul’s foundation in reaching out to the Jews. In the five short years of his pontificate Ratzinger, now Benedict XVI, has visited Synagogues in Germany, New York, and Rome, not to mention his much-heralded visit to Israel last year.
Which begs the question why the Church would itself undermine this impressive record first with Cardinal Sodano, dean of the College of Cardinals, comparing the attacks on Benedict to that of Pius XII. Pius was the highly impious, amoral pontiff, who signed a Concordat with Hitler in 1933 and never once directly condemned Nazi anti-Semitism or the holocaust. In October, 1943, he watched literally as the Jews of Rome were rounded up to be sent to Auschwitz and did not publicly protest.
But rather than unnecessarily alienating the Jews by comparing the attacks on the Church over pedophilia to anti-Semitism, as the Pope’s personal preacher Raniero Cantalamessa did in the Pope’s presence, it would be wise for the Church to learn the following from their Jewish friends: don’t be afraid to be fallible and human.
The principle difference between the Catholicism and Judaism is the former’s emphasis on the perfection of Jesus and the infallibility of the Pope versus the latter’s insistence that no human is divine and no Biblical figure is perfect. While people are not prepared to forgive the infractions of the perfect, they are extremely understanding of the failings of humans when they apologize sincerely for their failures and take full responsibility for their actions.
Later this month I am scheduled to meet the Pope through Gary Krupp, with whom I have sparred over Pius’s legacy but who has since become a friend. I wish I could impress upon the well-intentioned leader of the Catholic Church the need to come clean with the public. Face the people and tell them how you never wished for any children to be harmed and it breaks your heart to see how your inaction and obstruction may have led to more kids being violated. But you made the colossal error of moving slowly and cautiously because you feared what public exposure and the defrocking of criminal Priests would do to the reputation of the Church. You erred hugely in putting the needs of an institution ahead of the safety of the individuals that institution is meant to protect. Explain how you further erred by accepting the prevailing psychiatric opinion of the time that pedophiles could be reformed through counseling and you thought that after extreme therapy these Priests were cured. Admit you screwed up and ask forgiveness for your failures. Human beings forgive the flaws of other human beings. But they don’t forgive gods. Pledge the remainder of your days to helping heal the victims, making reasonable restitution, and declare unequivocally that henceforth the Church will hand over all priests guilty of molestation to the authorities for prosecution.
As the author of Kosher Sex, a pivot in the intersection between faith and sexuality, I would counsel the Church to announce a conclave examining the effects, if any, of clerical vows of celibacy on pedophilia in the clergy. Some would argue there is no connection. But few would deny that an announcement of this magnitude by the Pope would demonstrate the seriousness with which he is addressing the issue and his preparedness to take unprecedented action to heal the Church.
But the Pope is not the only one who needs to apologize. Many in the media have gone beyond all reason in their attacks. Maureen Dowd, who is Catholic, offered the unbelievable comparison of the Church’s refusal to ordain women or place them in positions of leadership with Saudi Arabia’s human rights abuses of women. Are you kidding? The Saudis, in 2002, allowed 15 High School girls to burn to death rather than run out of their smoldering school without a head covering. Amnesty International accuses the Saudis of subjecting women to “arbitrary arrest… torture and cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment; and the use of the death penalty” for religious infractions, like meeting with men in public. Yakin Erturk, the United Nations special representative on violence against women, visited Saudi Arabia and reported ‘the domestic abuse [women] systematically encounter with little prospect of redress.’ She added that the Muttawa, the Saudi religious police, are “responsible for serious human rights abuses in harassing, threatening and arresting women who ‘deviate from accepted norms.” And then there are the continued reports of female genital mutilation that is practiced in northern Saudi Arabia.
And I thought it’s only we Jews who can be so self-hating.
The Western world suffers from an epidemic of materialism, divorce, broken families, and celebrity obsession, the most effective antidote for which is more spirituality and a stronger religious presence. The Catholic Church might be terrible at crisis management and the pope may not be perfect. But what might emerge from this dark episode is a more transparent, more accessible, and more sensitive Church which, in its humanity, might just begin to connect with the eighty percent of lapsed Catholics who pay only lip-service to the Church throughout the Western world.
Rabbi Shmuley Boteach, founder of This World: The Values Network, has just published ‘The Blessing of Enough.’ Folllow him on Twitter @Rabbishmuley.
April 4, 2010 | 6:21 pm
Posted by Rabbi Shmuley Boteach
When it came to protecting the right of the Libyan Ambassador to the UN living immediately next door to me in Englewood, my Democratic Congressman, Steve Rothman, found his voice, issuing a three page press release about a deal he had brokered with the State Department 27 years ago for the Libyans to bizarrely remain in a New Jersey suburb. But when I asked Rothman, who is Jewish, to give me a comment on Obama’s degrading treatment of Israel’s elected officials and the Administration’s opposition to Jews building in all parts of Jerusalem, his Chief of Staff sent me an email that said the Congressman was “away for the holidays so we won’t be able to provide you with a statement.”
Attitudes like these on the part of influential Jewish members of the American establishment explain why Obama has been allowed to get away with his appalling treatment of Israel. Yes, it is we Jews who allow it, afraid to take a stand against a President who is rapidly emerging as the new Jimmy Carter.
Don’t think Obama isn’t listening.
When it came to endorsing a recent Congressional vote to label the Turks’ slaughter of over one million Armenians during the first World War a genocide, Obama quickly broke a campaign pledge, and a moral duty, to do just that and publicly distanced himself from the term genocide in order not to offend the Turkish government. And when it came to hosting the Dalai Lama at the White House, the President of the world’s sole superpower quickly bowed to Chinese bullying, not only refusing to greet the great humanitarian publicly but sending him out through the service entrance of the White House where the Dalai Lama was photographed surrounded by giant bags of garbage. But when it comes to treating America’s most reliable ally like a pariah nation, Obama has no fear of the American Jewish community because he’s convinced there will be no price to pay. The Jews are too timid to react.
How sad that we Jews have become so politically pathetic. Although there were grave suspicions about Obama’s position on Israel before the campaign, greatly compounded by his having sat through 20 years of vitriol toward Israel from his own pastor, American Jewry gave Obama the benefit of the doubt. Nearly eighty percent of American Jews voted for him against a proven friend of Israel in John McCain. But fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice, shame on me. Amid the Jewish propensity to blindly pull the Democrat lever in every vote without even thinking, if Obama gets anything more than twenty percent of the Jewish vote in 2012 it will be a manifestation of a community which simply doesn’t know how to stand up for its itself and has contempt for its own interests.
And spare me the lectures on dual loyalty. If there is one thing the American people have learned it’s that the Israeli people are their canaries in the coalmine. Attacks that Israelis experience first just presage what Americans will later face. Why? Because the Islamic nations hate Israel for the same reason they hate America. Israel is a bastion of freedom in a region of tyranny. The Mullahs are religious, the Arab dictators mostly secular. But what they share in common is an absolute desire to rule absolutely. They hate Israel and America for its freedoms. They know that elections will knock them out of power and, like Saddam, they would face trial for crimes against humanity.
Ahmedenijad hates his own people even more than he hates Israel, brutalizing and slaughtering them in the streets whenever they stand up for themselves. The last thing the House of Saud wants is democracy, preferring to plunder their country’s oil wealth and concentrate it in the hands of princes of the blood all of whom live like kings. The same hatred of liberty is harbored by all the other Arab potentates who have oppressed their people for decades, from Mubarak who has been in power for three decades, to Kaddafi and the Assads who have stolen power for four.
The same is true of Israel’s policies of human rights. Israel is the only country in the Middle East where gays can march openly. Any attempt to do so in Riyadh would end with the marchers all being decapitated. Of course, we don’t have to worry about that in Iran since Ahmedenijad assured us in his lecture at Columbia that Iran has no homosexuals.
And this applies even more importantly in the area of women’s rights. Israel is the Middle East’s greatest champion of women’s rights, with women enjoying all the freedoms of men. But the Islamic countries do everything in their power to oppress women, afraid of the possible corruption women would bring if they showed an ankle or drove a car.
Rather than pressuring Jews not to build condos in Jerusalem, Obama ought to pressure the Arabs to liberalize and democratize. He ought to use his considerable eloquence to state the obvious truth. That until such time as the Arabs allow their citizens to be free, there will never be peace in the Middle East. Israel is the solution rather than the problem. The more Arab countries emulate its market economy and liberal democracy, the more our oppressed Islamic brothers and sisters will prosper. They will not need scapegoats, like Jews, to vent their understandable frustration at their wretched, impoverished lives, all brought about by clerics and dictators whose steal their money and their freedoms.
According to many estimates, Muammar Kaddafi is the richest man in the world, with a net worth of over $70 billion. That a thief and a murderer of that magnitude is allowed to own a tax-free mansion next door to me where we, honest and hard working Americans, pay for his police protection and trash removal, is a travesty of truth and justice.
When American Jews stand up to the lie that Israeli intransigence is the reason there is war in the Middle East, they end up helping their Arab brethren as well. Because the last things the five hundred million Arabs who live under state censorship and political oppression need is their rulers and clerics finding a convenient scapegoat upon whom to place the blame for their people’s suffering.
And every time Obama falsely puts the blame on Israel for the Middle East’s tensions, he puts another nail in the coffin of future Middle East freedom and Arab democracy and liberty.
Rabbi Shmuley Boteach is founder of This World: The Values Network. His most recent book is ‘The Blessing of Enough: Rejecting Material Greed, Embracing Spiritual Hunger. Follow him on Twitter @RabbiShmuley.
March 29, 2010 | 12:41 pm
Posted by Rabbi Shmuley Boteach
This Monday President Obama hosts his second White House seder in as many years. As a Jewish American I am grateful to the President for highlighting the festival of Jewish emancipation and peoplehood. But given a choice, I would readily forgo the White House Manischewitz in exchange for an end to the bitter herbs the President is dishing out to Israel. Publicly shunning the Israeli Prime Minister and privately berating him is not going to be forgiven because of gefilte fish and matza balls. You want to show American Jewry some respect, Mr. President, then stop treating the elected leader of the Jewish state like Pharaoh.
I received my own lesson this week about how to treat those with whom you sharply disagree. I was in Italy to promote the Italian translation of my book The Michael Jackson Tapes. Gary Krupp, the New York-based Jewish papal knight of whom I had been sharply critical for defending Pius XII, went out of his way to arrange for me to be invited to the Vatican to see documents relating to Pius’ pontificate. When I arrived, just one week before good Friday, although the Vatican was under siege with international press reports of pedophile priests, Monsignor Livio Poloniato, who works in the Cardinal Secretary of State’s office, gave me hours of his time to show me around. Here I was, an unrelenting critic for over a decade of a Pope whom the Holy See is seeking to canonize. Yet, the high-ranking Priests I met could not have been friendlier. From Msgr. Fortunatus Nwachukwu, who is Chief of Vatican Protocol, to American members of the curia who have lived away from home for twenty years, everyone I met showed kindness and warmth. The visit did not change my view of Pius XII, whom I continue to view as guilty of the foremost moral omission of the twentieth century in refusing to even once speak out against the holocaust. But it did get me thinking.
As I walked the streets of Rome over the Sabbath, I contrasted the warm welcome accorded a leading Papal critic with that of President Obama’s disdainful treatment of the democratically-elected leader of the Jewish State, Binyamin Netanyahu. If the reports are true and President Obama got up and left in middle of his meeting with Netanyahu at the White House, derisively telling him he was going to have dinner with his family and telling the Prime Minister to ‘get back to me if you have anything new,’ then as an American I am ashamed of our President’s behavior. As a Jew I am scandalized by his contempt. Yes, having dinner with your kids is very important and constitutes the main objective behind my national ‘Turn Friday Night Into Family Night’ initiative. But to use your kids as an excuse to treat a guest like garbage is repellent and constitutes a terrible lesson to the children.
And all this because the President so readily dismisses the Jewish insistence on holding on to a capitol we established three thousand years ago and have prayed to return to thrice daily ever since the Romans forcibly ejected us in the year 70.
There was a time, not long ago, when, while disagreeing with many of the President’s policies, I found him inspiring. Here was a man who never had the love of a father who overcame immense obstacles to emerge temperate, committed to the common good, and a devoted husband and father. As a lover of great oratory I was moved the President’s eloquence and passion. I penned a much-circulated column praising his decision to stop using the name Barrie and return to his given name, Barack. I wrote that all Jews - who so often hide their identities by changing their names - should learn pride from our President.
Sadly, I am now beginning to question Obama’s very character. Am I to look up to a President who treats Netanyahu like a Mexican cartel kingpin, refusing to greet him publicly, share a press conference, or even take a single picture with him? Is our president ignorant of basic manners? Perhaps we should be grateful that the President even allowed Netanyahu into the country. Since the Arabs are famously celebrated for their hospitality, perhaps on his next meeting with King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia President Obama can skip the bow and inquire instead as to how to treat a guest.
Remember the way the President treated the Dalai Lama this past February? Fearing upsetting the bullying Chinese, Obama similarly refused to publicly greet a fellow Nobel Peace laureate whom the world regards as its foremost humanitarian. No pictures, no press conference, no public welcome. To cap it off, he made the leader of Tibet leave through a staff kitchen entrance that was strewn with giant bags of garbage.
All this reinforces my growing suspicion that President Obama not only lacks a commitment to a moral foreign policy that champions freedom and democracy, but, when you cross him, even a commitment to basic courtesy. Cross the man and all that charm turns to ice.
I hope that as the President reads the words of the Haggadah this year he will focus on the very last line of the evening. It’s just four words, easy to remember, and it’s something the Jews have been saying six hundreds years before Islam came into existence. “Next year in Jerusalem.”
Rabbi Shmuley Boteach is the founder of This World: The Values Network. He has just published ‘The Blessing of Enough: Rejecting Material Greed, Embracing Spiritual Hunger. www.shmuley.com.
March 26, 2010 | 4:16 pm
Posted by Rabbi Shmuley Boteach
The advent of Passover and Easter, which always fall around the same time, beckons a deeper discussion about one of the principle differences between Judaism and Christianity. In essence it is the difference between a values system based on struggle and a values system based on perfection.
The reason there are no perfect people in the Torah is that we don’t believe in perfect people and we do not respect perfection. Do you know what the perfect person lacks that the imperfect person has? An imperfect person fights to do what is right. He struggles with his conscience. When you fight for something, you demonstrate its worth.
Look at the contrast with every other belief system. Christianity is predicated on perfection, on the idea that Jesus was tempted but never fell. The same is true for Muslims and Mohammed. In Buddhism, the Buddha is perfect. In Hindu, Krishna is perfect. Even in the pantheon of great American heroes, our founding fathers were once portrayed as saints. I remember being taught as a young boy that George Washington never told a lie and that Abraham Lincoln walked miles to return a single penny. Both these stories were pure invention, but the idea was: How could you respect the founder of your nation if he was flawed?
Here in America we live under the tyranny of perfection. We are constantly being sold glossy images of people with perfect bodies, perfect résumés, and perfect lifestyles. Convincing people of their inadequacy in relation to these paragons of physical, intellectual, moral, and aesthetic perfection has always been a good racket, but never more so than today.
It even seeps into our religious debates. The insinuation that Jesus was lonely and required the love of a woman, as Dan Brown suggested in The Da Vinci Code, deeply offended many of our Christian brothers and sisters. When I debated Cardinal Theodore McCarrick of Washington, D.C., about the subsequent movie, he said that the film’s protestors should remain calm but he could understand why people were upset. I said I understood how the departure from New Testament orthodoxy was provocative, but why was it deemed so hurtful? Dan Brown and the moviemakers didn’t say anything bad about Jesus—they said only that he got married! So what? If he were a young Jewish man growing up in the Galilee region in ancient Israel, not only would he have been expected to marry but it would have been sinful for him not to.
Why were Christians offended at the thought that Jesus married? Because the idea suggests he felt something was missing in his life. In short, he wasn’t perfect. As a perfect being, he required the love and validation of no one. You and I? We get cold and need comfort and want to be held. We feel dispirited, and we need someone to inspire us.
I am always impressed at the deep spirituality of my Christian brothers. I am a rabbi with a deep love and awe for the incredible commitment to goodness and faith that is so characteristic of my Christian colleagues. But ultimately Christianity loses me when it dismisses the humanity of Jesus in favor of his divinity. Jesus is so much more interesting when we read of his struggles in the New Testament to fulfill the will of G-d, like when he says, while dying on the cross, “My G-d, my G-d, why have you forsaken me?” And I am always puzzled why my Christian brothers and sisters seem disheartened to discover Jesus’s vulnerabilities.
Personally, I have no patience for perfect people. I find them boring, predictable, and judgmental. It is human beings whose goodness is real, yet purchased amid Herculean effort and struggle, whom I find so endlessly fascinating.
Judaism doesn’t value perfection. I believe that perfect people are sweet and nice but I have no relationship with them, nor would I seek one. If they’re perfect, they don’t need me. It has been estimated that in many marriages, the criticism-to-compliment ratio is three to one. The argument troubled couples make is always essentially, “but my spouse is so imperfect!” I counsel them to remember that if their spouse were perfect, he or she would never have married in the first place. So why not be thankful for our loved ones’ imperfections (as long as they take responsibility for their actions and apologize sincerely when they’ve done wrong)?
I am not a Christian not because I was born Jewish, because if Christianity were true I would be obligated to convert. Rather, perfection has no appeal for me. Perfect people do the right thing every single time. How could they understand someone like me, for whom every day is a struggle?
Being with perfect people is like watching a movie when you already know the ending. You can’t thrill to perfect people’s victories because they don’t involve real courage. Real courage means to be victorious over fear. If you were never afraid, were your actions courageous? No.
People used to think Martin Luther King Jr. was a saint. He started the civil rights movement when he was only twenty-four years old. He was killed before his fortieth birthday. Of course, one thought, saint that King was, he was able to lead those marches in Birmingham and in Selma and inspire a whole generation. No wonder he was so incredibly eloquent and courageous. He was perfect. But then we discovered that in fact he was deeply human and did things that betrayed big character flaws. Suddenly we saw him differently. In fact, his true greatness was thereby manifest: He was flawed and frail and still he accomplished so much. You mean he was scared in front of those attack dogs and Bull Connor? He had to struggle to do those things? My G-d, that truly is a great man.
To me, that is so much more inspiring. King wrestled with his conscience. Now he speaks to me, because I’m just like him. He was not an angel, not a saint, just a person who struggled to live righteously and courageously. And in so doing he changed America, dealt a fatal blow to racial injustice, and restored the country to its founding creed of all men being created equally by G-d. And he did all this not intuitively or instinctively, but amid great effort and struggle. It was never easy. But if he could do it and he was human like me, then I have no excuse not to try to rise to similar acts of courage.
The truly righteous man is not he who never sins but rather he who, amid a predilection to narcissism and selfishness, battles his nature to live a virtuous life. The truly great man is not he who slays dragons, but he who battles his inner demons, who struggles with himself to improve and ennoble his character.
The truth is that perfection fosters dependency. It is an engine that actually retards human progress, because it continually tosses humans back on a sense of their own inadequacy. Rather than lift them up, it keeps them down. That’s why kings used to claim they were perfect beings, kissed by G-d and standing high above their lowly subjects—because if you can convince people that they’ll never be as good as you, they won’t even try. They will worship you and hate themselves.
Those for whom life has been so sweet and smooth, those who refuse to struggle, will never know the true taste of courage. They will never develop the ability to overcome obstacles to do what is right. They will never firmly establish that their convictions are not just feelings. Struggle is where the infinite value of goodness is established.
The Zohar says that every single time you choose to subdue and subjugate evil, G-d’s glory rises higher and higher. Every time you exert the effort to choose righteousness over selfishness, you are showing that righteousness is precious to you, that G-d is a living presence, and that you are prepared to fight. Even when it’s inconvenient. Even when it entails sacrifice. Struggle is what establishes the infinite preciousness of righteousness.
Israel literally means “he who wrestles with G-d.” It was the name given to Jacob, who wrestled with a brother who sought to kill him and a father-in-law who sought to enslave him. Most of all, he wrestled with an angel. Israel is he who wrestles with the G-dly portion of his existence.
Most of what we cherish in life involves a struggle. I was a child of divorce, so I was extremely excited to be married. I anticipated perfection. Shortly after our wedding in Australia, I went out, a newly married man, to buy a camera. And in the camera store I couldn’t help but notice that the woman behind the counter was pretty. I was mortified. This is ridiculous! I thought. What kind of husband am I? I came home and confessed to my wife that I had noticed that another woman was attractive. She laughed at my naïveté. But it still bothered me, so I thought deeply into this. Why did G-d make love so imperfect? How do we even notice the opposite sex when we are in love with our spouse? Why is it that even in the best marriages we still recognize that other people are special?
Now I understand why G-d made love imperfect. Relationships are special when you choose each other anew every single day. Some think marriage is when you choose your spouse under the chuppah—the canopy used in Jewish weddings—and you’re done. Married! You never make that choice again, and your choice becomes a thing of the past. The marriage becomes stale and ossified, and the commitment is never renewed. But because we all struggle to keep the passion and intimacy in our marriages alive, because we struggle to compliment and love each other, because we wrestle with our nature to always focus on each other, love each other, and put each other first, we choose each other over and over again, and that’s why love is imperfect. The man who chooses his bride and never has to choose her again is one who takes her for granted, who doesn’t seek to bring novelty to his relationship, who allows it to stagnate. But if you forever renew your commitment and investment, your goodness and your relationship never go stale.
Rabbi Shmuley Boteach, a renowned TV and Radio host, is the international best-selling author of 23 books. He is about to publish Renewal: Living the Values-Filled Life (Basic Books). He is the founder of This World: The Values Network. www.shmuley.com.
March 15, 2010 | 2:18 pm
Posted by Rabbi Shmuley Boteach
In my eleven years living in England I often observed, as did many others, that Anglo-Jewry lacked the vibrancy and innovation characteristic of American Judaism. The absence of an electrifying sense of Jewishness and communal dynamism was a subject much discussed among the Anglo-Jewish leadership. In areas like per capita philanthropy and social services, Anglo-Jewry led the world. But in communal programming and affiliation it was hemorrhaging numbers at an alarming rate.
Some said that Anglo-Jewry’s relatively small number accounted for fewer truly original ideas. Others spoke of the natural reticence and lower-key disposition of the English in general and Anglo-Jewry in particular.
In truth the principal reason for the stagnant state of Anglo-Jewry relative to its American counterpart lay elsewhere. Anglo-Jewry is profoundly hierarchical while American Jewry is profoundly meritocratic. Britain, for example, has a Chief Rabbi who is the community’s titular head and Ambassador to the wider community while in America a rabbi’s standing is judged not by any communal appointment or particular title but by effort and impact alone. The absence of a communal hierarchy means that individual Rabbis and communal leaders can innovate and try new and transformative programming without having to fit into an existing infrastructure of control or thought.
In both countries it is interesting to note that its two most successful ideas over the past two decades – Limmud in the UK and Birthright in the United States – originated with activists who were working outside the main organs of the established community. And that’s because giant bureaucracies often stifle originality. But in the UK where the bureaucracy affects the most important leaders of all – its spiritual guides – it is extremely challenging for Rabbis to go up against the spiritual status quo.
We see the same problem manifesting itself in Israel where Rabbinical innovation is strongly limited by the hierarchical demands of an established Chief Rabbinate. In effect a Rabbi is made to feel that someone is watching over him at all times. Being an impactful leader requires the freedom to maneuver and innovate. But wherever there is a Chief Rabbinate there is strong pressure to fit in and conform. And I only partially buy the argument that having an orthodox Chief Rabbinate helps to solidify orthodoxy as the community’s main and established current. In the final analysis, an ossified orthodoxy that retains hegemony by communal fiat will always feel oppressive and invite rebellion, whereas an orthodoxy that is alive and pulsating will rise to the fore naturally and be embraced organically. In America there is no orthodox Chief Rabbinate. Yet few would argue that orthodoxy is now the community’s most potent, effective, and vibrant force. And it became that way without being artificially propped up.
There is more.
Having a Chief Rabbi assumes community cohesion in name rather than fact. Whoever, therefore, occupies the position is immediately compromised by having to be all things to all people. In the United Kingdom, the community is bitterly divided between orthodox and non-orthodox. One of the things I found most distasteful about being an orthodox Rabbi in the UK were the constraints put on me from working publicly with my conservative and reform brethren on matters of great communal concern. In the United States it would be unthinkable for an orthodox Rabbi to be prevented from working, say, to defend Israel on campus with his reform counterparts. But in the UK sharing a public platform with the non-orthodox clergy is sacrilege. This prohibition served in no small measure to sow unlimited enmity between reform and orthodox Jews even in areas where there should be clear unity and agreement. The most famous example was when we orthodox Rabbis were prevented from attending the funeral of Rabbi Hugo Gryn, a holocaust survivor and Britain’s most celebrated reform Rabbi. Is it not better for orthodox Rabbis to use halacha, Jewish law, as their guide rather than rigid communal orthodoxies? And can you imagine any halacha that would forbid a Rabbi, of all people, from burying another Jew?
The limitations of having a Chief Rabbinate explains a paradox of British Jewry under the leadership of Rabbi Jonathan Sacks. On the one hand, Sacks is universally admired as one of the eloquent Jewish thinkers of our time. A gifted communicator in both the written and spoken word, Sacks combines scholarship with a thoroughly modern understanding of contemporary events and social currents. Yet, the UK community has stagnated and shriveled under his leadership. Indeed, the paradox of Sacks’ leadership is how, amid Britain being privileged with arguably the most effective Jewish apologist of our generation, anti-Semitism and anti-Israel sentiment has exploded under his watch as never before. Some of the highlights include the British High Court ruling, unbelievably, that the orthodox community has no right to determine whom the members of its own community are, the arrest warrant issued against former Israeli Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni by a British court, the decree that produce from the West Bank had to labeled as having been grown by Jewish settlers, and the ban by the British academic establishment of Israeli academics at their conferences. How could such an outpouring of anti-Jewish emotion erupt under Sacks’ capable watch? The answer is that in many of these cases Sacks only tangentially engaged himself. A Chief Rabbi is a member of the establishment and establishment figures – seeking respectability above all else – always try and avoid confrontation.
The closest thing America ever had to a Chief Rabbi was Stephen S. Wise who chose to be very guarded and tightlipped during the holocaust, shirking from nearly every political confrontation with his close friend Franklin Roosevelt. The Simon Wiesenthal Center has produced a brilliant documentary about his tragic reticence entitled ‘Against the Tide,’ which serves as a moving and cautionary tale of ever concentrating too much Jewish communal power in a single, establishment voice.
Rabbi Shmuley Boteach is the founder of This World: The Values Network and has just published ‘The Blessing of Enough.’ Follow him on Twitter @RabbiShmuley.
February 19, 2010 | 12:52 pm
Posted by Rabbi Shmuley Boteach
Tiger Woods’ statement was a model of repentance and contrition. He admitted he had a problem. He said that words alone would not solve it, that he requires, and is receiving counseling. He admitted that celebrity and money had given him a sense of entitlement and had corrupted him. He said he had behaved selfishly and irresponsibly. He accepted that being a public figure meant private responsibility and that he had to model good behavior for the youth. And he looked the entire time like he meant it. It was that rarest of things, a sincere and unconditional statement of contrition and responsibility from a public figure for cheating on his wife. And more than just talking about changing, he told us what he is doing in order to be a better man.
Compare it to the nauseating drivel of a guy like Mark Sanford, the misguided Governor of South Carolina, who told the media, after he was caught cheating, that his mistress was his soulmate, or to President Clinton, who never admitted that his womanizing was a deep-seated problem that required counseling, and you can begin to appreciate how difficult it was for Tiger Woods to confess that his own philandering stemmed from a problem of his soul.
Noone wants to admit needing help. We don’t want to confess to that level of dependency. If a man cheats on his wife, he usually sees it as an aberration, something he shouldn’t have done and something he’ll work on not repeating. But it’s not a manifestation of an inner brokenness. He doesn’t need any counseling. He just needs to recommit to an ethical life.
In truth, men don’t cheat because they’re liars and thieves. The vast majority of men who are unfaithful would never shoplift or steal a car. Rather, men cheat because, as Tiger Woods accepted, they have a problem. They are broken on the inside – they feel insecure and unimportant – and think that having women desire them will compensate. It’s the age-old lie that conquest, especially of a sexual nature, will bring personal validation. As Woods said, after all the money and fame he had earned he thought that normal rules didn’t apply to him. He was Caesar, which is another way of saying that even after all the fame and money he still was insatiable for more. All the accolades, all the fans, the beautiful wife, the adorable kids, still could not make him feel full. All the money still didn’t make him feel rich. He remained a black hole of endless consumption.
But this man is on the way to real amends, I believe, because he recognizes he has a problem. The Talmud says there are three essential steps to repentance. The first is to admit you have a problem. The second is to confess it verbally and take full responsibility. And the third is to undertake corrective, righteous action that will undo or make better the error.
By that count it’s time for America to admit it has a problem, because there is a little Tiger in all of us, a insatiable thirst that has gripped the American soul and that cannot be quenched, whatever the level of consumption.
I just published a book called “The Blessing of Enough.” It’s the one blessing America doesn’t have. Even after we collapsed our economy through rampant greed we still refuse to admit we had a collective problem. We still cannot not accept that it’s not normal to be the richest country in the world and still feel like we never, ever have enough.
Our Wall Street bankers earn millions. And even after they receive the most putrid press, exposing their avarice and insatiable lust for more and more cash, all funded by tax-payer dollars, they still can’t stop paying themselves billions more in bonuses. This is a sickness that the patient refuses to acknowledge.
The feeling that enough is never enough, the curse of insatiability, was something I tried to impress upon Michael Jackson. I saw him punishing himself constantly. When I asked him if he was proud of Thriller, which had sold approximately 50 millions albums, he told me, Yes, but not really, because he had a post-it note on his mirror in the bathroom that said 100 million. So that was the man whom Michael saw in the mirror, never enough, always having to succeed more.
I believe that if Michael had realized the corrosive effect that fame and money were having on his life – how it had isolated him from friends and family, how it had given him too a sense of entitlement to cross healthy boundaries, and how it had enhanced his fear of becoming obscure and forgotten, a pain he turned to prescription drug medication to numb – he would be alive today. And the fact that Tiger Woods is honest enough to admit that fame and money can be incredibly corrosive means his marriage and his character have a fighting chance of healing, surviving, and flourishing.
Money and fame can be real blessings. With the former you can cure poverty, with the latter you can highlight noble causes. Instead, they are curses in America today. For all our money, we are the most unhappy nation in the world, consuming three quarters of the earth’s anti-depressants. And for all our celebrity’s fame, they can’t seem to stay married or keep themselves out of rehab.
America, we have a problem. It’s time for a confession of our own.
Rabbi Shmuley Boteach’s newest book, The Blessing of Enough, has just been published. Follow him on Twitter @RabbiShmuley. www.shmuley.com
February 16, 2010 | 12:26 pm
Posted by Rabbi Shmuley Boteach
Last week I was honored to speak to the Jewish community of Venice at the Chabad House, which hosts thousands for Shabbos meals, and to the extremely warm and welcoming main community. Having just returned from Haiti, I addressed the issue of why a good G-d allows the innocent to suffer. I was amazed when an observant Jew approached me to say that the people of Haiti were not innocent, immersed as they are in idol-worship. ‘Surely you don’t mean to say that the morgue filled with the babies that I witnessed, the stench so bad that I was gagging, deserved to die? Or that the discarded bodies I saw being eaten by dogs deserved their fate?’ His response: The people of Haiti as a whole were punished. A similar sentiment had earlier been voiced by the Rev. Pat Robertson on The 700 Club.
I have always been puzzled as to why many religious people enjoy portraying G-d as executioner-in-chief and are always finding reasons to justify human suffering.
The holocaust produced two camps of Jews. Many decided that the Jews had been punished for intermarriage and wanting to be secular. But others had a much more Jewish response. They rejected any theological justification or self-blame and set to work even harder toward the creation of a Jewish state where Jews would find refuge and build an army to prevent another genocide. The appropriate response to death is always life. And the Jewish response to suffering is to demand that G-d put an end to it.
So many people search for a reason why people suffer. They want to redeem tragedy by giving it meaning. Suffering ennobles the spirit, they say. It makes you more mature. It helps you focus on what’s important in life.
I would argue that suffering has no purpose, no redeeming qualities, and any attempts to infuse it with rich significance are deeply misguided.
Of course suffering can lead ultimately to a positive outcome. The rich man who had contempt for the poor and suddenly loses his money can become more empathetic when he himself struggles. The arrogant executive who treats her subordinates like dirt can soften when she is told that she G-d forbid has breast cancer. But does it have to come about this way? Is suffering the only way to learn goodness?
Jewish values maintain that there is no good that comes from suffering that could not have come through a more blessed means. Some people win the lottery and are so humbled that they dedicate a huge portion to charity. A rock star like Bono becomes rich and famous and consecrates his celebrity to the relief of poverty. Yes, the holocaust led directly to the creation of the State of Israel. But there are plenty of nations who came into existence without being preceded by gas chambers.
Here is another way that Jewish values are so strongly distinguished from other values systems. Many religions believes that suffering is redemptive. In Christianity, the suffering servant, the crucified Christ, brings atonement for the sins of mankind through his own torment. The message: No suffering, no redemption. Someone has to die so that the sins of mankind are erased. Suffering is therefore extolled in the New Testament: “And not only that, but we also boast in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope.” (Romans) Again, “If we are being afflicted, it is for your consolation and salvation; if we are being consoled, it is for your consolation, which you experience when you patiently endure the same sufferings that we are also suffering.” (Corinthians) Indeed, Paul even made suffering an obligation, encouraging the fledging Christians to “share in suffering like a good soldier of Christ Jesus.”
But Judaism, in prophesying a perfect Messianic future where there is no death or pain ultimately rejects the suffering-is-redemptive narrative. Suffering isn’t a blessing, it’s a curse. Jews are obligated to alleviate all human misery. Suffering leaves you bitter rather than blessed, scarred rather than humble. Few endure suffering without serious and lasting trauma. Suffering leads to a tortured spirit and a pessimistic outlook. It scars our psyches and creates a cynical consciousness, devoid and bereft of hope. Suffering causes us to dig out the insincerity in the hearts of our fellows and to be envious of other people’s happiness. If individuals do become better people as a result of their suffering, it is despite the fact that they suffered, not because of it. Ennoblement of character comes through triumph over suffering rather than its endurance.
Speak to a Holocaust survivor like Elie Wiesel and ask them what they gathered from their suffering, aside from loneliness, heartbreak, and outrage. To be sure, they also learned the value of life and the sublime quality of human companionship. Wiesel is an incredibly profound man. But these lessons, this depth, could easily have been learned through life-affirming experiences that do not leave all of one’s relatives as ash.
I believe that my parents’ divorce drove me to a deeper understanding of life and a greater embrace of religion. Yet, I know people who have led completely privileged lives and have far deeper philosophies of life and are even more devoted to their religion than me. And they have the advantage of not being bitter, cynical, or pessimistic the way I can sometimes be because of the pain of my early childhood.
When I served for eleven years as Rabbi at Oxford University I noticed that the college students I knew who were raised in homes in which their parents gave them huge amounts of love and attention were the most healthy and balanced of all. They were usually also the best students. Those who were demeaned by their parents could also be positive and loving, but a Herculean effort was first needed to undo the scarring inflicted upon them by parental neglect. Whatever good we as individuals, or the world in general, receives from suffering can be brought about in a painless, joyful manner. And it behooves people of faith especially to once-and-for-all cease justifying the death of innocents and instead rush to comfort and aid the survivors.
Rabbi Shmuley Boteach’s new book on Jewish values, Renewal: A Guide to the Values-Filled Life, will be published in April by Basic Books. His trip to Haiti can be viewed at www.shmuley.com.