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Religion Is Sick


Yet another case has been revealed of Orthodox corruption. A rabbi, very strict on conversions but lax on morality, was taped offering “Orthodox” conversion for sex. This comes after a yearlong litany including the trial of Charedi youngsters sent by other Charedi bosses out to Japan as drug “mules”, another Charedi “rabbi” accused of dealing in sex and drugs, the conviction and sentencing of a Spinka Chasidic Rebbe, the arrest of Sephardi rabbis on charity fraud, the conviction of a Lubavitch magnate on bank and other financial illegalities, the Chasidic Square Town in breach of numerous laws and an Orthodox Lakewood businessman accused of massive fraud.

I am sorry to have to tell you that this is only the tip of the tip of a huge iceberg of corruption that is endemic in the Charedi world. Don’t even try to justify it by saying the whole world is corrupt so why pick on a few bearded Jews? The Torah commands us to pursue “that which is upright and good” and even if everyone around you is corrupt, in the words of Hillel, where there are no men, at least you should try to be a man.

This disease within Orthodoxy is corrosive, widespread, and endemic. It has reached the highest levels of our religion, Ashkenazi and Sephardi, Lithuanian and Hassidic. It knows no borders, no limitations, America and Israel and all points between. And what makes it even more disturbing is that the few honest good and spiritual men at the top who are untainted are too scared, weak or feeble to make a stand. I won’t even begin to mention those who have political agendas. It is all as corrupt as the sex crimes of the Catholic Church and the hypocrisy of many Evangelical preachers. It is the result of exaggerated worship of holy men who seem to think this allows them to get away with anything.

Of course the usual response is to condemn the messenger as an ignorant, backsliding, heretical criminal, himself, who is contravening the Biblical and rabbinical laws of gossip and giving people a bad name. The wagons circle and the criminal is said to be the object of the envious, the uncomprehending and anti-Semites. Adverts appear in the Orthodox press calling for meetings of prayer and support for the poor victims–not the victims of the crimes, but the perpetrators. In Israel any case of prosecuting or convicting an Orthodox person of any misdemeanor is of course put down exclusively to secular bias and antagonism.

Anyone familiar with the murky world of kashrut supervision knows how much monkey business is involved. Backhand payments to kashrut supervisors, deals made between and against rival supervising bodies. “Kosher” sometimes has relatively little to do with the actual laws and more to do with who is paying whom for what. The result has been endemic fraud. Honesty is rare.

It is not easy to find a Bet Din that is not corrupt in one way or another. Money often decides the outcome, rather than the law. Or who knows whom, or who owes something to someone–all matters specifically proscribed in Torah, which is somehow forgotten or ignored. Interested parties can often bribe or bring pressure to bear on Dayanim. One sees it at its worse when it comes to Jewish divorce and the way men often refuse to give a Get unless they are paid blackmail money and many rabbinical authorities at best turn a blind eye and at worst actually encourage it.

As for conversions, the system (where there is one) is riddled with abuse–rabbis prepared to convert for money, expecting kickbacks, applying different standards and criteria, refusing to convert in one country, arranging an easy way out with a friend or relative in another, and indeed expecting sexual favors from the vulnerable. This is not hearsay, I assure you, but something I have come across.

Rabbis seeking sexual favors is typical of male-dominated hierarchies the world over. The underlying animation seems not Torah, but rather personal concupiscence. And this probably explains why there is so much financial corruption and dishonesty in religious circles. It might start off stealing from the State but it invariably ends up stealing from family and friends too. It is like terrorism. Theorists start off by explaining it all away as the result of poverty, deprivation, discrimination, ignorance, and alienation—but then one comes across perfectly well educated, comfortable, apparently stable people who do the same.

So why has this not turned me completely of Orthodoxy? For one thing, of course, I also have firsthand experience of the beauty and inspiration of living a religious life, and I am also fortunate to know enough really honest, sincere, and good Orthodox people to know there is another side.

All religions, like the Parson’s Egg, are good in parts. But that of course means other parts are foul. All organizations, parties, indeed any agglomeration of human beings, has its rotten eggs.

Hans Eysenck got into trouble many years ago for suggesting that criminals had an extra chromosome. I am coming round to the view that being good is genetic. Some people just have the good chromosomes and genes and others don’t. Just as some are willing to teach and serve and others are interested in accumulating wealth and are motivated by greed. Some will argue it is environmental, and that makes a difference too, but I have seen the same ghetto produce saints and sinners.

Now I know we believe in free will and repentance and change. And indeed I have seen it happen, both ways. But the percentage of those who do actually change is very small. Being religious is like supporting Manchester United. You do it not out of any moral, spiritual animation, but it is a result of accident of birth and loyalty to tradition. No one expects Manchester United supporters to be ethical, good human beings, but we do expect this of people who outwardly adhere to a religion. That is why Maimonides starts of his book of law by dealing with the halachic subject of Chillul HaShem (desecrating God’s name). But then what is written is of course irrelevant to those so blind they cannot see.

56 thoughts on “Religion Is Sick

  1. The bit about genetics has very serious implications for religious teaching and practice. Because if people are simply born good or bad, what is the purpose of trying to help others, or even ourselves, learn to overcome destructive tendencies and focus on the spiritual? Obviously you must be trying to provoke a response, so here's mine:

    Rather than saying that everything is simplistically determined by either genetics or environment, or that everything is completely a matter of free will, why can't people recognize and accept that each individual may have different inherent struggles that must be dealt with in order to live a good life?

    For a classic example, we know that some people have a strong genetic tendency to alcoholism, but some of those people manage to overcome that and live sober lives, through personal effort.

    Each of us struggles in particular areas. As you mention, some people have a tendency to greed and materialism–but that doesn't mean that they are destined or doomed to a shallow life. As it is described in our tradition, a person has a given nature, but he may channel that nature into a variety of directions, some of which go contrary to Torah, some of which are within the halachic framework, and some of which might be make a positive impact on the world and be a spiritual victory.

    To me, it is a deep and important principle of our religion to recognize that our faults and weaknesses can be worked with in this way, so we don't either become discouraged and feel it is futile to try, or think that we can only succeed if we eradicate that feature of our personality and character.

    You, Jeremy, are a person who enjoys attention and interacting with people. In order to satisfy that need for interpersonal stimulation and praise, some people will do all sorts of negative things, or even neutral but meaningless things. You, however, have used that characteristic as a tool for teaching Torah.

    So, in fact, these things that we see as flaws can even be considered gifts. A person who would be content to sit in a room and meditate, who shies away from crowds, who dislikes being the center of attention, would be poorly equipped to be a teacher and preacher. Likewise, a person who eschews material wealth seldom manages to be in a position to help the needy, provide jobs, or fund charitable institutions. (Of course, this is reflected in the Talmudic murderer/shochet/mohel example, and Maimonides has discussed both innate personality traits versus ultimate destiny in several places.)

    And if you want to look to science for support, we can point to the fact that the bulk of personality research shows a significant interaction between predisposition and "environmental" factors. (I put that in quotes because even attributing something to environment is deterministic, and I'd like to leave room for free choice or spiritual influence.)

    (continued in next comment)

  2. (continued)

    Ironically, you acknowledge the power of environment within this very piece:

    >Being religious is like supporting Manchester United. You do it not out of any moral, spiritual animation, but it is a result of accident of birth and loyalty to tradition.

    You are not saying there is a Manchester United gene, you are saying that it is a matter of training within one's family and culture. You are showing the strength of exposure to tradition.

    I suppose this may be why so many FFB's think that a BT or convert can never reach the same level as they can (because of not having lifelong exposure to the tradition), but you and I both know that, in fact, a person can become a die-hard fan (of Torah) without having been brought up that way, and without having been born from such a lineage.

    And we both know that the corrupt behavior you describe is does not always correlate with a family history of corruption and crime. Indeed, just as you say the same ghetto can produce saints and criminals, the same family can also, even the same parents can.

    It all goes back to the old adage about the meaning of training a child up in the way he should go, and the example of Yaakov and Esau. Don't the rabbis tell us that Esau had the capacity to be a tzaddik, just as Yaakov did, but that his temperament and personality required a different approach, required his knowing that his particular traits could have been used for good, and he didn't have to be carbon copy of Yaakov? (Recalls to mind that old joke about Jeremy (or whoever) not being asked why he wasn't more like Moshe, but rather why he wasn't the best Jeremy he could be.)

    Of course, we have similar teachings concerning environment—that the generation in which we live, our upbringing and culture, and personal circumstances all affect how difficult it is for us to fulfill our role in life. Like Noach being the tzaddik of his generation, because in the time and place he lived standards were different, as compared with Avraham's time. When we judge others, ourselves, or when Hashem judges us, we are told these things must be taken into account.

    So for all of these reasons, I feel the bitter statement that genetics determines who's good (and luckily you have the eugenically superior position, yourself, being a good guy), is misleading and potentially damaging.

    Word Verification: puluer
    "Your comment about genetics leads me to suspect you are a jambe-puluer, as the French say."

  3. Rather than leaning towards a genetic explanation although there is some degree of inbreeding in the charedi community, I would prefer to see these disgusting criminals as typical of the abuse of power. Their only interest is in the acquisition of money to further increase said power. They are morally blind and bring shame on the whole Jewish community. What is truly reprehensible is that no-one amongst their own is prepared to shop them or criticise them.

    They are no different from the imams who send their young men out to be suicide bombers while they stay at home and pontificate (sic) about the religion, while those who know better keep shtum.

  4. In line with the attitude of the London Beth Din towards conversion it is obvious that the Rabbi who "was taped offering "Orthodox" conversion for sex" is testing the sincerity of the convert. If she agreed to give him sex she would not be suitable for conversion as she was insincere in here commitment to Halacha as he knows it. After all he is a Rabbi so he should be given the benefit of the doubt.


  5. ss:
    Yes, of course you are right, but the number who actually do succeed in changing is very small. Just look at the Jewish world where despite Rosh Hashana and Yom Kipur (let alone each Rosh Chodesh) such a small proportion changes. Even the much vaunted Baal Teshuva movement affects less than 10% of Jews.

  6. Jeremy, you wrote:

    >I don't know why you think I give no credence to environmental influences or to the power that some people have to change.

    The reason I think that is because in the piece you wrote:

    >I am coming round to the view that being good is genetic. Some people just have the good chromosomes and genes and others don't.

  7. We are agreed that genetics plays a significant role in personality and behavioral predispositions.

    The distinction that I am making is that genes are not determining whether a person is "good" or "bad", but rather what particular struggles that person will encounter if she is trying to follow a "good" path.

    My genetic inheritance can have an influence on how aggressive I am, for example, but I can channel my aggressive nature to stand up for what's right and protect the innocent, or I can use it to abuse others.

    Like all the tools G-d gives us–water, fire, chemicals, and so forth–personality traits are neutral in themselves and only acquire a moral meaning in how they are used.

    According to the Vilna Goan, this is even true of Torah. Which, to use his analogy, may be why we are seeing some of the weeds grow up so strongly in intensely religious communities.

  8. Man U means nowt 2 me R,R!
    but … religion is either frolicking on the waves – or recognizing the force which drives them onto the shore…..time & time again
    the surfer returns to the sea – to ride the visible and impressive surface into destruction whereas
    the pertinent wader need not do so….and might just attain the dunes – to dry off
    present v presence

  9. "When the seagulls follow the trawler, it's because they think sardines will be thrown into the sea" – Eric C.antona!

    Sorry to be so trivial on such a serious subject.

  10. Jeremy:

    So you are saying that your piece meant to express the idea that "people are born with their own peculiar set of characteristics that can be used for good or abused for ill purpose", rather than "people are simply born good or bad"?

    Because I definitely got the impression it was tending more toward the latter than the former, and I do not consider that a minor distinction.

  11. ss:
    Precisely. I often comment on how I do not agree with the Catholic idea of original sin. The Jewish ideas of two inclinations does not preclude the idea that some may be burdened at birth with a bigger or smaller Yetzer Hara in the same way that they may have more effective or less effective brains (or bone structure).

  12. You say "precisely", but what you describe still sounds a bit different from what I am saying. I am saying that the various character traits are gifts or tools, not automatic negatives.

    You mention the so-called yetzer hara–but don't we have the teaching that the "yezter hatov" is equally strong, such that a person with a strong yetzer hara must also have a strong yetzer hatov? Isn't this very similar to what I am saying–the genetic aspect is neutral and that it's what you do with it that counts?

  13. ss and Jeremy,

    According to my understanding of the ss view, a capacity for example, to learn Russian is a neutral language ability but the presence or absence of an inclination to put it into action is what makes the difference. The Jeremy view seems to label all of this, the capacity and the inclination to act, as genetic.

    If that is an accurate summing up, the Jeremy view seems to be heading in the direction of predestination, surely not the intention, while the ss one leads us off on the brighter (but more difficult and complicated) path of self-improvement and other personal discipline areas.

  14. Anonymous:

    I agree with your summation of what the ss position leads to. But I would express the ss view of the genetic traits a bit differently.

    Yes, it could be a capacity that one chooses to use or not, but even when the capacity is used (you learn Russian), it is neutral in itself and the results are up to you, depending upon what you choose to say in Russian!

    If genetic makeup were an egg, you could either cook it up to make a nice meal for yourself, or you could throw it at someone's head, or you could even use it to make food for someone who would otherwise go hungry. Among, of course, many other possibilities, which from the perspective of Torah we would label as bad, good, or indifferent.

    Even the things that we normally think of as inherently bad (as Jeremy mentions, weakness in particular limbs or organs) can have a positive purpose–such as the example of Ehud's withered right hand working to his advantage because his attack was unexpected.

    If it is true, as you suggest, that Jeremy's position is that the *inclination* to use one's genetic traits for good is itself inherited, then that is surely a crucial difference in our positions.

    Word Verification: materes
    What materes is how the materes is used.

  15. ss:

    Yes, I do indeed think that some people seem genetically predisposed, for example, to be depressive or optimistic. Some more prepared and suited to battle their demons than others. And of course Torah is a useful tool for those willing to go into battle (and even for the others too).

    I do believe one can work on traits, inherited, etc., and one can overcome tendencies, etc.; but in general I believe most humans do not.

    I assume no one denies that intelligence is inherited, genetic. There are intelligent criminals as well as Nobel Prize winners. And there are intelligent Baalei Teshuva. There are also stupid ones. Mystically of course the argument goes that they have inherited the sparks from Sarah and that explains why some make it and others don't. Isn't that a sort of genetic argument? Not that I buy that particular one, incidentally. I await evidence that genes or the soul are transmitted through milk!!


  16. Leila: touché!

    – but unlike the Glazers I know nothing of profit about ManU and even had to "Google" Eric Cantona – whom I had never heard of – to see what you meant with "Seagull"

    Soccer passed me by as it was not played at my school – and my memories of rugby are not too pleasant. I prefer running as it seems to be logical.

    so I didn't mention a seagull as it plays its role in creation well enough without religion.


  17. Perhaps if one has been taught that within evil there is good – then maybe the imperative to overcome the evil inclination to which one has succumbed is conveniently "forgotten" in the shared "Genuß" of that underlying goodness?


  18. I think between us we're getting there and basically it all comes down to self-control, a concept which seems to have gone out of fashion in recent years.

    As far as I am concerned self-control is synonymous with civilization.

  19. Hi Rabbi,

    Jeremiah and Ezekiel the Prophets in chapters 31.31 and 11.19 respectively would answer. 'You must be born again!' The answer (in part) is regeneration, a new heart given by G'd. Didn't some other Jewish rabbi say something like that – in the B'rit Hadashash, Gospel of Jochanan chapter 3 to a leader in Israel called Nakdimon? Oh yeah, what was his name again?

    Best wishes,
    Mark Troughton
    York GB

  20. Leila:

    And apparently Jeremy is saying that self-control is something one must be born with. 🙂

    I would agree that some people have a much harder time with self-control than others, that some struggle with impulsiveness or very strong inclinations that may require great effort to rein in and channel in a positive direction.

    But I am not sure I agree that whether one will choose to try to develop self-control is determined by genetics.

  21. ss:
    No, I'm not saying one must be born with self control, just that some people are born being better able to exercise it and others are better trained, but most only do when there's an obvious and immediate gain or there's some sort of policing around!

  22. This "Rabbi" is a fraus. He claims ordination from institutions that have no record of same. His auto biography on wikipedia reflects disdain for orthodox jews. Hes a conservative jew saying whatever is politically correct to make a buck. For shame

  23. Shame on you, Anonymous – too afraid to sign your own name?

    This Rabbi speaks more sense than you and your ilk and works from a huge body of knowledge. I'm sick of blinkered fanatics!

  24. Re Anonymous's post:

    Isn't it sad that typically the reaction of zealots is to besmirch the messenger?

    He emailed me asking where I had Semicha from.

    I replied from Rav Chaim Shmuelevitz of Mir, Rav Dovid Pavarsky of Ponevez, and Rav Moshe Shapiro of Beer Yaakov.

    He replied that I was lying and he would give me $5000 if I could produce the Semicha.

    I replied I would happily fax or email it to him as soon as a he confirmed that on receipt he would send $5000 to Beer Yaakov Yeshiva (which needs it).

    He replied it was a forgery! And indeed that is also a typical response to any text such people do not like.

    It is difficult to forge a full page of close handwritten text, but still I am happy to submit my Semicha to any Beth Din he suggests, only providing they accept evidence from any professionally trained graphologist…and he agrees that if it is confirmed he will send $5000 to Rav Refuel Shapira at Beer Yaakov Yeshiva.

    Now couldn't be fairer than that, could I?


  25. The trouble with fanatics is that they defame anyone who does not agree with their particular philosophy. Openmindedness is a sin in their eyes, which personally, I should like to blacken.

  26. R.R,
    I disagree.The awful examples which you list show that – despite upbringings in a "good" environment – the wrong choices are not only made – but avidly pursued. The erroneous selection of selfish against selfless does not explain why the culprit re-offends – so I only suggest that the complying communal mindset is a factor. They are so convinced of riding the right wave that they do not see that they have massively dinked their board….

    round round getaround i getaround

  27. Rabbi Rosen, I normally really love things that you've written but I really take issue with your assertions regarding some people being born bad, or having a greater inclination to evil than good, or less opportunity to overcome their evil inclination, or whichever explanation.
    I think SS makes excellent points.
    It doesn't make sense- it smacks of injustice.
    Do you really believe that Hashem would create some people with less opportunity to be close to Him?

  28. JvL:
    But why is it any more just that God creates some of us wealthier, stronger, and more intelligent than others? Isn't THAT unfair too? In the end we are each judged according to what we ourselves make of the gifts, burdens, and circumstances we have to deal with. We are not all expected to become Moses. But neither can we just throw up our arms and claim there's nothing to be done.

  29. Rabbi Rosen, quality of life is a different issue than whether someone is born with a greater evil inclination than a good one. (You may be richer than me, for example, but how do you know whether my quality of life is any less than yours.)

    As I understand it, the evil inclination is not 'really' evil if channeled in the right way, so imho it mainly boils down to people taking personal responsibility for their choices. If somebody has been dealt a poor hand, genetically, it will be unjust of us to expect the same good conduct that we would of someone with a bigger proportion of good inclination . Is that what you want? A world where some have a justification for their evil actions?
    Imho, it doesn't make sense that God would do that. How do you reconcile it without logically accepting a degree of moral relativism?

  30. JvL:

    I'm not arguing about quality of life, because that is impossible to evaluate in so many instances. That is why Chazal say that happiness is being satisfied with whatever one's "lot" is.

    But I do think life is a struggle. Hence Beit Hillel winning the argument (Talmud Eiruvin) that "it would be better had humans not been born." However, they conclude that having been born (and that with all the subjective negatives and plusses), one simply has to get on with the struggle and do one's best. And clearly some humans do do a much better job of overcoming handicaps of all sorts than others.

    Moral relativism, as I understand it, involves changing the rules, perhaps ALL rules, to suit different human conditions and circumstances. Torah does not do this with Law, Mishpat, though it might do it with Chesed and Tzedakah. The only circumstances I can think of that are relative in halacha are decisions to be strict or lenient, where the law itself has options.

    My essential point is that some people do have to struggle harder than others and that one of the contributory factors might well be genetic.


  31. I suppose it is like a jigsaw
    2000 separate pieces – some have the same silhouette, most have the same colours, none have identical patterns – together they can attain the big picture – apart they beg to differ – some have more "notches" whilst others have more "limbs"


  32. I'm lost, anonymous. Your message is too abstract for me.
    Rabbi Rosen, I'm going to give what you said a bit more thought, before I reply. (Why is it that questions often lead to more questions rather than conclusions?)

  33. ss has left a new comment on your post "Religion Is Sick":


    Based on Rabbi Rosen's responses to comments here, I have the impression that he may not have meant to say what some of us have understood the wording of his blog post to imply. (Or perhaps he did mean it that way at the time, but has modified his position somewhat since then.) If so, that could be a source of confusion about his position on this issue.

  34. Every institution Religious or not, has it's power struggles.
    This includes Marriage, Beth-Din Schools, Yeshivas etc

    They involve money influence etc.

    The more successful the establishment is the more powerful and immoral it’s leaders are.

    Unfortunately this is how G-D created the world.

    Running a successful Mosed, Kashrut establishment etc involves being single minded built on a network of cash and influence. People rarely matter.

    Running a community based organisation especially a small community such as a Charadi one is impossible without all these influences.

  35. A friend has asked me to post this here:

    The following appeared in the Jewish Telegraph in March 2010:

    Always something that we ourselves can do to resist evil
    by Andrew M Rosemarine

    Rabbi Jeremy Rosen’s exposure of the hypocrisy and evil of some "religious" leaders in our own communities ("Orthodox corruption can never be justified") possesses the courage of a martyr, for he will never be forgiven for it by some of his colleagues. His condemnation is reminiscent of the reproaches of the Biblical Prophets and of other great Religious Teachers.
    But his demoralising belief that some people are innately evil through possessing an evil gene, is dangerously deterministic and fatalist, and wrong. There is no scientific evidence in support of his view. "The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars, But in ourselves, that we are underlings." Shakespeare means here, that we can change, that which is in ourselves. And Shakespeare is a perspicacious man.

    We should all recognise that we all have good as well as bad impulses, and we must do what we can to strengthen our own good ones, and to encourage those of others. Judaism wisely points out that we are all responsible for one another. We must remember this, and not given in to despondency, or to fears that nothing can be done to stop evil. There is always something that we ourselves can do. Always.

    Andrew M Rosemarine, Barrister
    MA (Juris, Oxon) BCL (Juris, Oxon) LicSpecDrEur (ULB)

    Jeremy, do feel free to add it to your blog. I sent it simultaneously to Paul Harris and to at the time, as it was important to me that you had a chance to respond!

    Don't be discouraged by whatever your detractors say. The fight for pluralism within our community is of the greatest importance.

    with affection and deep respect,

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