Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Response to Comments On Rabbi Dovid Cohen and the Jewish Week

My column criticizing the Jewish Week for its article on Rabbi Dovid Cohen has elicited an enormous response, a majority of it critical of what I wrote, and this is something that I did not expect. I haven’t read all of the comments. Those sent to me have been thoughtful and respectful. I am grateful for this and especially to Harry Maryles, a man who has demonstrated over the years that a blog forum for discussion of issues in Jewish life need not resemble a spitball fight. His comments and the long anonymous one that he posted have induced further reflection on my part.

Essentially, the criticism of what I wrote can be divided into two categories: My criticism of JW and what I wrote about people not paying all of their taxes.

I continue to believe that the JW article was disgraceful, even if what it claims Rabbi Cohen said is accurate. RDC spoke nearly two and a half years before JW published an article. There was nothing newsworthy to generate such an article and it was one more example of the tawdry journalism that constitutes too much of this newspaper’s reportage on Orthodox life. I cannot think of a parallel situation where JW or any other newspaper has allowed such a long gap of time before discovering that there is a story deserving of publication. This was an article that should not have been published, no matter what may have occurred in a Bergenfield shul in February 2007 and it was an exercise in character assassination.

The heavy involvement of Ohel in the story was an exercise in guilt by association. There was no reason to bring in Ohel, although it is apparent from what I have heard since the article was published that an effort has been made over an extended period to connect Ohel with what RDC said. Most of us have a plethora of associations including friends, relatives, institutions we are involved in and much else. What I think most of us have come to understand is the untenability of the notion that the friend of my enemy is also my enemy. We come into regular contact with people who are involved with persons whom we do not care for and there is some rational instinct in most of us which says that this is not something that we want to make much of. Ohel did not belong in the story not because there is no connection to RDC but because its connection to RDC was not germane. I must note that over a great number of years the impression that I and many others in Orthodox life have had is that RDC plays a creative and responsible role at Ohel.

Interestingly, several of those who have written have taken a hatchet to Ohel, apparently because they have other axes to grind. For sure, Ohel has warts and it cannot be otherwise in view of the territory in which it operates. Life is always difficult because there are unexpected happenings and because there is too much that does happen that has no easy approach or solution. Ohel operates in zones of family dysfunction, of deep and enduring emotional problems and pain, of difficulty in determining what the right course of action may be, etc. There is nothing easy about what Ohel does and while the organization is not immune from criticism, those who criticize need to be careful.

The implication of the Rabbinical Council in the article was a further act of guilt by association. I have heard different versions as to whether the RCA has disbanded its halachic body because of the RDC matter. If it has, our community is the loser.

I also criticized the article for its heavy reliance on anonymity, which is based on the claim that if persons spoke on the record, they would be subject to severe communal retribution. I imagine that my point of view was significantly affected by my willingness to take a position and never to hide behind anonymity. Since I am not afraid (but I am often angry) I cannot figure out why others might be afraid. In his post, Harry Maryles specifically took me to task, saying that if I do not think that Orthodox communities “contain individuals who will act in retribution, then he is living in a different world than the one I live in.” That may be the case; if it is, I must concede that in writing about retribution I ought to have recognized that there are people who are unwilling to be out front. Still, it’s hard to accept that every single source cited by JW against RDC remained anonymous.

This brings me to the tax portion of the column: I did not write about cheating as such but simply said that answering questions about paying taxes is a mine field and that there are powerful social realities that both impel many tens of millions to underreport and impel government to allow a fairly large amount of slack in the degree of reporting. I gave a number of examples and could have given many more, including the failure of most persons who have nannies (they may not be called nannies) to pay the requisite Social Security tax and perhaps other taxes and also the failure of most parents who gift to their children to adequately pay the gift tax. I do not regard such persons as criminals or, in fact, demonstrating severe ethical lapses. Rather, given the nature of the tax system, including complications in the tax code, as well as the feeling of many that ordinary tax on income that is recorded should be sufficient for governmental purposes, there is a powerful tendency to try to take advantage at the edges. Not only doesn’t government prosecute such “cheating,” it also makes no effort of consequence to prevent millions of persons to engage in such behavior.

A number of the comments link the tax issue to gezel akum and also to the more general notion that prevails in some quarters of eisav sonei es Yaakov, arguing that it therefore is permissible to be antagonistic to Gentiles, to cheat them, etc. For many more years than I can remember I have been strongly influenced by the words of Maharsha in Kesubos on the incident involving the daughter of Nakdimon ben-Gurion. Gezel akum is a sin and those who justify it are committing a chillul hashem and impelling others to sin. It is reprehensible for any rabbi to take the opposite position.

Worse yet because of the global implications is the sophomoric, ignorant, stupid, false and odious notion that eisav sonei es Yaakov means that every non-Jew hates us. This is a formula for tragedy and disaster and it is also a mind-set that runs counter to truth. As I have written quite often over a number of years, it should be obvious that G-D did not place us on this earth to be at war with billions of other people.