July 14, 2011
The Moral Route to Redemption
It’s hard to imagine a more timely book than “Confronting Scandal: How Jews Can Respond When Jews Do Bad Things” by Dr. Erica Brown (Jewish Lights: $24.99). The book comes too late for Bernie Madoff, but Anthony Weiner needs a copy, and so does DSK. Indeed, all of us who look on public scandals that involve Jewish figures as a “shanda far de goyim” — a shame in the eyes of the non-Jews — will find it fascinating.
The author tells a story of how she pitched the idea for the book to Stuart Matlins, publisher of Jewish Lights, shortly after the Madoff scandal. “Erica, are you six months too late?” he asked. After a flurry of new scandals, she wrote him a prescient note: “Maybe I’m six months too early?”
Although the author offers much good advice on what could be fairly described as crisis management, the core of her book is moral instruction. “I firmly believe that most people who serve the public in a political or religious capacity start out fired by the greatest of ideals,” she observes. “But something does happen to their own sense of inflated power as they travel down the road to success.” They sometimes stumble into what she calls “moral quicksand”: “Entitlement,” as Brown puts it, “grows egos too large to fit within the moral standards that everyone else observes.”
She argues that Jewish misconduct is especially consequential because of the tradition of chosenness that is woven so deeply into the Tanakh. “We are a light unto the nations,” she writes. “Isaiah told us so.” Like Hebrew National, she quips, we hold ourselves to a higher standard. Then, too, we seem to carry a gene for anxiety that prompts us to fret whenever a fellow Jew does something wrong: “It is bad for the Jews” is the old refrain. And so the stakes are especially high when the names in the newspaper headlines are Jewish names.
Brown calls on her Jewish readers to own up to the communal issues that arise when a Jewish person goes famously wrong. “”Without naming the problem, we will not take the necessary steps to ameliorate it,” she writes. “Facing, naming, and tackling scandal empowers us for goodness.” She points out, for example, that when the undeniable fact of Jewish participation in organized crime in the’20s and’30s was finally confronted in the Jewish press, the “Jewish gangster movement” came to an end: “Reporting Jewish crime,” she points out, “led to Jewish respectability.”
Brown draws on Torah and Talmud to explain her attitude toward sin, repentance and redemption, and her analysis is often both profound and shocking. She cites one passage of the Talmud, for example, to illustrate the “moral fragmentation” that sometimes accompanies the practice of religion — the passage depicts one priest stabbing another priest on the ramp to the sacred altar and addresses whether the knife is rendered ritually impure — and she uses it to make the point that “on closer examination of scandals in houses of worship and life as we know it, we frequently find moral vacuums in supposedly ethical people.”
This brings her to the volatile subject of abusive behavior by rabbis. She considers, for example, the shattering experience of one woman who learned that her childhood rabbi had been charged with involvement in child pornography and pedophilia, something that ultimately led her to join a lay-led minyan, because she no longer trusted the rabbinate. Brown herself writes that “[t]he search for holiness, when it infuses our lives in its totality, becomes an irresistible force that brooks no entrance for immorality.” But, of course, the whole point of her book is that there are many opportunities for immorality to enter any human life, even a rabbi’s life, and the real question is what to do when it happens.
Indeed, the touchstone of Brown’s book is the Yom Kippur liturgy, which invites us to engage in an annual public ritual of repentance. But she warns against “teshuva-lite,” and she makes a distinction between forgiving and forgetting. “Forgetting an act is impossible,” she insists. “Forgiving someone so that a relationship can continue to exist is possible and, from a Jewish perspective, both desirable and a moral responsibility.” Above all, she calls on her readers to “make morality in the highest form of art.”
Although “Confronting Scandal” addresses some of the most challenging issues in Jewish life and Jewish religion, it is also lively, provocative and witty. “It’s Judaism in the public oy!” cracks one of Brown’s acquaintances, and the quip captures perfectly what her compelling book is really all about.
Note: For the sake of full disclosure, I need to let my readers know that I have had business dealings with Jewish Lights, the publisher of “Confronting Scandal.”