Orthodoxy and ethics

One of the most prominent Orthodox rabbis of our time, Rabbi Shlomo Riskin, chief rabbi of Efrat, related the following story in the July 12-18 issue of the International Jerusalem Post:

“Let me tell you a true incident which for me is a metaphor of our times. A young man attended a yeshiva in Safed.

“The first morning, he arrived a bit late for breakfast and there was no milk left for his coffee. He went to the grocery, purchased a container of milk and placed the container in the yeshiva refrigerator with a sign, ‘Private property.’

“The next morning, the container was gone.

“He bought another container, on which he added to the previous sign, ‘Do not steal.’

“The next morning, that container, too, was missing.

“He purchased a new container, adding to the sign, ‘Questionable gentile milk’ (halav akum). This time no one took his container; he left the yeshiva.”

A year and a half ago in this column, I recounted a similar story that Rabbi Riskin had told me many years ago. It was about 10 candidates — handpicked talmudic scholarshe interviewed for the position of rosh yeshiva (head of yeshiva). Nine of them said that they would not return an extra electric shaver accidentally sent to them by a non-Jewish-owned department store. They contended that the halachah — one does not return a lost item to an idol worshipper — forbade them from doing so.

Unfortunately, pointing to Orthodox Jews who are not ethical in order to dismiss Orthodox Judaism has always been a popular pastime among many non-Orthodox Jews. One would have more respect for such criticisms if non-Orthodox and irreligious Jews were equally critical of themselves. The secular Yiddish press comprised the West’s most supportive group of Stalin and communism, and radical Jews were disproportionately involved in supporting that movement, one of the two monstrous, genocidal evils of the 20th century. Today, the Jews who are among the leading anti-Israel activists in the Western world are virtually all non-Orthodox. And the assimilation rate among non-Orthodox Jews is incomparably higher.

So no group of Jews ought to be casting stones, since all of us live in glass houses.

Moreover, at least the Orthodox have important voices like Rabbi Riskin, who criticize fellow Orthodox Jews on ethical grounds. Where are analogous Reform, Conservative or secular Jewish voices? One regularly hears liberal Jews — Reform, Conservative and secular — denouncing the Orthodox and denouncing political conservatives, but what about criticism of their own? When was the last time a liberal Reform rabbi spoke of the moral dangers of secularism? Or attacked the left for its widespread Israel-hatred? Is there a Reform rabbi who criticized the Reform movement’s former head for telling a Muslim audience that he “respects” the Muslim veil?

Nevertheless, the ethics problem within Orthodoxy is real.

I first confronted this dilemma when I was a student at a prominent yeshiva high school.

My classmate Joseph Telushkin and I conducted a survey and found fewer than five students among the 120 students in our grade whom we could identify as not cheating on tests.

When I later taught at Brooklyn College, I was told by Jewish and non-Jewish faculty that graduates of yeshiva high schools were the students most likely to cheat on tests.

A non-Jewish listener once called my radio show to ask me if Orthodox Jews are permitted to speak on the Sabbath. I asked him why he asked such a question. He told me that he lives in an Orthodox Jewish area of Los Angeles and that on Saturday mornings, when walking his dog, he would say “Good morning” to Jews wearing black hats walking to synagogue. They just don’t respond, he told me, and that’s why he wondered if speaking on the Sabbath is forbidden to Orthodox Jews.

In Israel, the ultra-Orthodox Charedi community comprises about 9 percent of Israel’s population and receives about half of the country’s welfare payments — despite the fact that the recipients are nearly all healthy and young.

Charedi men who serve in Israel’s armed forces are increasingly humiliated, ostracized and even beaten when they return to their Charedi communities (see the Jerusalem Post, for example).

It would be very valuable to see data — if such data exist — on how many Israeli Jews in the 65 years of Israel’s existence came to Judaism and how many were alienated from Judaism as a result of observing how Orthodox Israelis lead their lives. 

To many Orthodox Jews’ credit, these examples are troubling. Also, one should not forget the role played by the Charedi first-responders to terror attacks in Israel, as well as the low incidence of drug use and the strong family life that characterize Orthodox Jews. And, among the ultra-Orthodox, there is a group, Chabad, that does stand out for its nonjudgmental love of Jews and for acts of kindness.

But Orthodoxy must address the ethics problem, if for no other reason than to preserve its own credibility. If Orthodox Jews are merely ethically no better — forget worse — than non-Orthodox Jews or, for that matter, religious Christians, what does that say about Orthodox Judaism? If its huge number of laws don’t generally produce better people, what’s the point of Orthodoxy? 

Dennis Prager is a nationally syndicated radio talk-show host (AM 870 in Los Angeles) and founder of PragerUniversity.com. His latest book is the New York Times best seller “Still the Best Hope: Why the World Needs American Values to Triumph” (HarperCollins, 2012).