You’ve probably seen the recent news in which a Lakewood rabbi, his wife, and another Orthodox Jewish couple were arrested in simultaneous federal and state raids on charges of public assistance fraud on an unprecedented scale. Authorities reported that this was just the first wave of raids and that more arrests would be forthcoming. (This has since happened.)
I don’t normally take requests but a regular reader wrote me and asked if I would address this story. Two things were bothering her, both relating not only to the story itself but to the way people are addressing it on social media.
First, she was disturbed that people are accepting the story as fact and condemning the accused without a trial. I relate to this because, days earlier, I shared a story about Bernie Sanders being investigated for bank fraud. I had commented, “So much for the last honest politician” and was upbraided for prejudging him. (I explained that I did not assume that Sanders was guilty per se, I was merely lamenting that a politician generally accepted by both sides to be honest was embroiled in such a thing.) The things that people are saying about these couples, however, are beyond the pale including, but not limited to, condemning them to literally burn in Hell.
As much as some people rush to judgment, others are in denial: “I’m sure there’s some reasonable explanation,” “It’s all a mistake,” “Heimishe Yidden wouldn’t do such a thing,” etc. We have an obligation to be dan l’kaf z’chus (to judge others favorably) but that just means that we should give others benefit of the doubt, similar to the American concept of a presumption of innocence. It doesn’t mean that we put on blinders and naively assume that crimes are incapable of being committed. Even in halacha, there’s a reason people are summoned to beis din. The courts don’t just say, “I’m sure it’s fine” and dismiss all charges unheard.
Whether the accused are guilty or innocent, this whole incident is a huge chillul Hashem (desecration of God’s Name) and the community as a whole will spend a long time living it down.
What I’d like to focus on is the reader’s second complaint, that people are criticizing the accused for how they dress. Specifically, “they dress so religious and yet this is how they act!” (That’s the gist of it. She forwarded me some quotes and they are wayyyyyy harsher than that!) Haven’t people heard the old maxim about judging books from their covers?
I fail to see how the accused’s dress is relevant. The way one dresses can be a convenient shorthand for their philosophical alignment, though such is not always necessarily the case. For example, whether one wears a black velvet yarmulke or a white knit kippah might be a symbol of one’s particular religious affiliation, but it could also be strictly a fashion choice. The same is true when it comes black suits and white shirts vs. jeans and sweaters, tights, socks or bare legs, hats for davening (for men), hats, wigs or bareheaded (for women), skirts vs. pants (for women – although such a choice would also be a statement for men, I imagine!), and many other things that may (or may not) reflect one’s Jewish communal association. We can generally infer that one who dresses a certain way identifies with a community that dresses in that manner, but that’s about all. (Who here would let their teenage daughter accept a ride from a strange man simply because he’s wearing a long black coat and a big fur hat? If you raised your hand, please put it down and rethink that decision.)
Logically, it would be nice if frum people never committed crimes (it would be nice if nobody committed crimes!) but if they do, what do you expect them to do? First of all, some modes of dress are based upon religious obligations. Falling short in one area does not exempt you in other areas. If one speaks lashon hara (gossip), he still has to keep kosher. If a person violates Shabbos, that’s not license to kill. Similarly, if someone gives into temptation to steal, what does that have to do with whether he wears tzitzis or whether she wears a sheitel? You can’t even expect them to change the things that are strictly a sign of communal affiliation. Think about it. Rabbi Accused is committing fraud and thinks, “I am no longer fit to wear the uniform of my community” so he shows up in shul wearing iridescent socks with the same color shirt and a tight pair of chinos. Of course not! That’s ridiculous! Whether he’s wracked with guilt or justifies his actions, he’s going to want to be inconspicuous and such a radical change would be, if nothing else, conspicuous.
Obviously, what’s really bothering people is the perception of hypocrisy but accusing someone of hypocrisy is a tricky thing. Sure, if someone makes public anti-drug statements and is later found to be using drugs, that makes them a hypocrite but is any act of wrongdoing automatically hypocrisy? If Rabbi Accused publicly lectured against government fraud then committed government fraud, he would certainly be a hypocrite. But if he lived a moral life except for giving into this one temptation, does that make him a hypocrite or just human? We’re all fallible. It would be unrealistic to expect otherwise and if we commit one indiscretion – even an embarrassingly huge one as in this case – that doesn’t mean that all of our other actions are insincere.
The aron (ark) was coated with gold both on the inside and on the outside. From this, the Talmud (Yoma 72b) derives that any Torah scholar whose insides do not match his outsides is no scholar at all. The Maharsha points out that only the aron, which represents the scholars, was coated inside and out. The other vessels of the Temple, which represent the rest of the people, were only gold-plated on the outside. If Rabbi and Mrs. Accused are indeed guilty, then their insides don’t match their outsides. All this means is that they’re not good role models. They’re still people, entitled to identify with whatever community they choose and, hopefully, to strive to do better.