Lakewood Scandal: an Opportunity for Change, not Deflection

Written by Daniel Moshinsky on . Posted in Op-Ed

More than two dozen people — fathers, mothers, a rabbi — were recently arrested in what appears to be just the beginning of FBI’s crackdown on benefits fraud. The Orthodox world must now grapple with the human and moral cost of the community’s reliance on government assistance and its posture toward broader secular society.

There is a simple economic explanation for what transpired in Lakewood. Its culture depresses income by asking men to devote valuable career-building and wage-earning years to yeshiva study instead of college and the workplace. Living expenses, however, are onerous, as community members are encouraged to have many children, choose private schools, provide dowries, host “respectable” simchas and impressive holiday meals, and live a middle-class lifestyle in an expensive housing market despite not having the education typically needed to earn a middle-class salary.

The gap between income and expenses is filled by a few wealthy benefactors, and by generous government benefits. Once a dependency on government programs is integral to the community balance sheet, it is only a matter of time before the thin line separating utilization and fraud becomes blurred; but perhaps even those who have not crossed into criminality are nevertheless responsible for making the morally dubious choice of intentional dependence on charity and government.

One way to balance the fiscal ledger is to increase communal income by reorienting toward work as an a priori value. The other approach is to reduce expenses. A community can forego its dependence on welfare by embracing virtues of self-reliance and simplicity. It can cast aside the expectations of the American middle class, leaving behind the trappings and excesses of frum kitsch(en). 

But there is more to the story than the arithmetic of income and expenses. This is a story about community’s identity and relationship with American society.

Many Orthodox leaders do not tire to remind us of the dangers and corruption rampant outside the communal walls. If the outside world is seen as a dark forest teeming with wild beasts, can the education and career opportunities it provides ever be embraced? And if modern society is as depraved as portray it to be, then how much respect should we give to its laws?

Our community feels at once threatened by and superior to the modern American society, gripped by a sense of exceptionalism that places it above the law and beyond reproach. 

Consider the syllogism through which we arrive at moral exceptionalism. We are Torah-observant Jews, therefore Torah values are our values. Torah values are from G-d, and therefore they are perfect. Thus, our values are perfect. How convenient.

This self-serving and fallacious appeal to Divine Authority makes our own life choices appear perfect in our eyes, and precludes the possibility of constructive self-criticism, or any appreciation of dissent.

After all, if our values are perfect, how can they be critiqued by those who don’t share them?

The closing of the frum mind began with the declaration of its perfection. Our leaders support the communal status quo, and instead direct their scorn at those perceived to be outside or pushing against the electrified fence encircling the frum fortress.

In England, Rabbi Joseph Dweck, a rabbi of a prominent Sephardic synagogue, was recently attacked as a defender of “abomination” (“toeva”) after speaking about the need for acceptance of gay Jews in our communities. Rabbi Dweck questioned prejudices entrenched in our religious world, even as he upheld the relevant Torah and rabbinic laws. He argued that the singular stigma and shame associated with homosexuality are not a part of the halachic tradition, and the lifting of that stigma is a positive societal development.

Rabbi Dweck’s attackers did not engage with the substance of his presentation.  He was misinterpreted as placing modern values ahead of Torah ones — the most serious offense in a world obsessed with its boundaries.

And so, the pitchforks came out for Rabbi Dweck, denouncing him, shaming him, and — most tragically — further marginalizing the gay Jewish people Rabbi Dweck had tried to speak up for and embrace.

This kind of reflexive circling of the wagons is tribalism, not Torah. Real Torah values call for introspection and self-criticism. Torah values take stock of the effect the negative speech has on the human beings on the receiving end of fiery denunciations from the bully pulpit.

A different sort of “toeva” — the “toeva” of fraud — and the scourge of dependence have gained a foothold in Torah communities. So far, the reaction from the Orthodox leadership and in the Orthodox press has been muted, equivocal, and focused far too much on “media bias” and the “negative publicity” that resulted from the arrests. These arrests are not a public relations problem. It is like a builder of a crumbling structure managing his reputation instead of repairing the building’s cracked foundation.

The jolt of multiple FBI raids ought to force a shift of gaze from outward to inward, from Grand Denunciations of outsiders to self-examination and problem-solving — because while there are no quick fixes to financial struggle, there is just as surely no free lunch.

By Daniel Moshinsky

 Daniel Moshinsky grew up in Kiev, Ukraine. Interested in psychology and Jewish thought, he works in the IT field. Daniel lives with his family in the Kemp Mill neighborhood of Silver Spring, Maryland.