Lack of Ethics

a sermon by Rabbi Marx

I have a confession to make.  I read the newspaper Jewish-style.  I look for those articles that are about Jews and things that affect Jews.  All events can be interpreted by the question, “Is it good for the Jews?”  “Economy falters.”  Is it good for the Jews?  Middle East flare up…Is it good for the Jews?  All heroes and criminals are subject to that probing question: are they Jewish and will their behavior influence public opinion about the Jews?

For years, I never knew whether the public figure, Benjamin Jacob Grimm was Jewish.  He had a Jewish sounding name, but he never identified himself as a Jew.  True, he came from Manhattan’s Lower East Side, to which so many Jewish immigrants came fresh from Elllis Island, but I wasn’t sure.  Ben Grimm was not a real person.  Two Jewish men, Stan Lee and Jack Kirby produced him in 1961in a comic book.  They, as we might remember, created the Fantastic Four.  One man had limbs that could stretch to preposterous lengths.  One could light himself on fire; a woman could become invisible.  And then there was Ben, “The Thing,” who was a superhero with rocky orange skin.  Over the summer, it was revealed to comic book fans, that Ben came out of the closet to reveal his Jewish roots.  Standing in the lower parts of Manhattan, a villain asks, “You’re really Jewish?”  “There a problem with that?” replies the Thing.  “No,” says the bad guy looking into Ben’s craggy, orange facade.  “It’s just… don’t look Jewish.”

Readership has been overwhelmingly positive.  We take pride in our Jewish heroes.  Don’t we?  Tonight, I want to talk about other types of Jews who are in the news.  And it doesn’t make me proud.

I read recently that Jews from Israel are the leading importers of Ecstasy into this country.  That’s right, the drug lords of New York speak Hebrew.  Last summer, New York police seized over one million Ecstasy pills from Israelis David Roash and Israel Ahkenzi.  They had a street value of forty million dollars.  Those of us who travel on El Al, are not only with Yeshiva students and Zionists, we are traveling with drug dealers as well.  And who are the carriers?  According to the Jerusalem Report, Bobover Chassidim are paid $1500 and a free trip to Europe for carrying up to $500,000 in cash to Amsterdam and returning with a load of Ecstasy.  They travel back to Israel with 30,000 to 40,000 aspirin-sized pills, which are then sent to America, Australia and New Zealand for sale.

Colleagues that I work with have deeply disappointed me.  In Florida, a colleague of mine is currently in prison, serving a multi-year term for soliciting minors on the Internet.  He solicited a 14-year-old boy and was caught establishing a liaison with the youth.  In his depravity he decided not to prey on his Bar/Bat Mitzvah students, but went instead to outside youths that he met in Internet chat rooms and subsequently dark parking lots.  We still await the beginning of the retrial for a south Jersey rabbi who is accused of hiring a troubled man in his congregation to bludgeon his wife to death.  Then there are the cantors from New York and Harrisburg who are accused of molesting young boys in their own family and beyond.  And of course, a neighboring synagogue suffered for the past year, having discovered that its trusted employee allegedly embezzled over $1.2 million.  While the staff was taking pay cuts in order to stem the financial hemorrhage, two employees were allegedly cutting checks to themselves for thousands of dollars a week.  [i]

More often than I care to admit, Jews in the news are not making us proud.  There was a time when Jews sought pardons in synagogues.  They prayed before an open ark, to right their wrongs, before the most important Judge of all.  Now, that’s passé.  Jews from Brooklyn and beyond sought pardons another way: they bought them last year from the President of the United States just before he left office.  They were seeking to buy their forgiveness.  Aren’t we supposed to earn it?  Aren’t we encouraged to take restitution seriously?

Four Chassidim ripped off the government to the tune of millions and millions of dollars by getting federal grants for schools that didn’t even exist! And that didn’t stop their fellow Chassidim from coming to the defense of their cohorts by claiming they didn’t keep any of the money for themselves.  The chief rabbis of the community defended their actions, because it was strengthening the religious efforts of the community against the evils of secularization.

What is happening to our community?  Rabbi Elimelech Naiman was given a prison sentence for mail fraud and misappropriation of government funds.  He was the deputy director of the Council of Jewish Organizations of Borough Park.  Rabbi Jacob Lustig got 3 years’ probation and a million-dollar fine for skimming more than 2 million dollars from his synagogue’s bingo proceeds.  Rabbi Hertz Frankel got nabbed for cheating the government out of six million dollars. Recently, Rabbi Yizchok Fried was arrested for dealing in drugs.  Two Chassidim were jailed for rigging an election in England! And headlines in the New York Post and Daily News told the world of the arrest of 14 Satmar Chassidim of running a multi-million dollars “full service fraud factory,” which bilked banks, credit card companies, individuals and the IRS of millions of dollars. These are just a few from within the Orthodox community!

And there’s no comfort in knowing that it’s found amongst non-Orthodox Jews as well – like financier Martin Frankel, who was accused of stealing more than $200 million from insurance companies.  And a Chicago area Conservative cantor and his wife who recently pleaded guilty to charges of involvement in a prostitution ring.  Let’s not forget Ira Einhorn, who promises to embarrass our community for years to come.  Do you remember this annoying little man’s hunger strike at Graterford prison?  He was protesting his high carbohydrate diet.  What did he want salad nicoise?  And look at Ed Mezvinsky, who took refusal to accept blame to extreme lengths. This first generation American Jew rose to prominence as a congressman and chairman of the Pennsylvania State Democratic Committee, only to go down in disgrace.  When faced with a federal indictment for defrauding friends and family out of more than $10 million, he frivolously blamed his behavior on mental illness and an anti-malarial drug.  Not only have Jews in the news sunk to moral lows, but worse still, they have failed to accept responsibility for their moral wrongdoings.  I will never forget officiating at the funeral of a mother of two infants who was allegedly stabbed to death by her husband.  Her two children are too young to remember the events that changed their lives, but when they mature, they will sadly come to understand their loss of innocence, the intrusion of violence and the betrayal of trust that turned their lives upside down.  One parent gone, another in jail for the murder.  I know that it goes on all around us.  It’s part of the daily news that makes up Philadelphia and the larger world.  But I’m not talking to the larger world.  I’m talking to our community.  You’re the only ones who will listen.

We Jews are supposed to be a light unto the nations.  We are supposed to define our characters by our behavior.  And judging from the past years, we are in terrible shape.  We are not here to carry on our traditions at all costs, to get the best of the situation no matter what.  We are here to be a kingdom of priests, a holy nation.   That’s why God brought us out of Egypt.  Indeed, according to our sages, that’s why God had us go through the whole Egyptian experience.  In the words of Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik, “Our bondage in Egypt – the Galut experience – was meant to sharpen and refine the Jews ethical sensitivity and moral awareness.”   Thirty-six times in the Torah we are told to be just and fair and moral and sensitive, “ki gerim heyitim b’eretz mitzrayim – because we were strangers in the land of Egypt.” We, who experienced oppression and discrimination and injustice and being taken advantage of, are expected to know how it feels, and are expected to make sure that we don’t act in that very same way.  God took us out of Egypt because more was expected of us.  Our conduct was supposed to be sacred and holy, as an example for others.  We were taken out of Egypt not simply to no longer be slaves and act as we want, but in the words that God spoke to Isaiah, “Avdi attah Yisroel asher b’cha espaar – you are my servants Israel, in whom I take pride.”  Is the behavior of Jews these days something that God can take pride in?

When I speak with families at Beth Or and beyond, and I ask them about the purpose of Judaism, most will tell me that our purpose is to survive as Jews.  Survival is essential, especially as our numbers decline, but I don’t for a moment worry that Jews will cease to be.  When we finally colonize Mars, there will be some Lubavitch Jew greeting us at the rocket port, asking whether or not we put on tefillin this morning.  Instead, I worry that our survival might become irrelevant.  We are here to improve the world, to share our prophetic message of goodness, righteousness and morality.  We are here to remind the world, that deeds not faith redeem the world.  If we lose sight of this teaching, if we forget to live like decent people, then we loose the essence of our faith.  We become irrelevant.  The world won’t need Jews anymore.

With all these recent revelations and scandals, it’s not so much my concern what God thinks about it, and it is not even my concern what non-Jews think and say about it.  My deepest concern is how our own Jewish children feel about it!  A congregant told me that she swelled with pride when she discovered her elementary school-aged children avidly reading a front-page story in the Philadelphia Inquirer.  But then she was horrified to learn what article they were reading.  It was the headline about jury selection for a rabbi accused of murdering his wife.  Who would have dreamed that a Jewish standard bearer would gain national prominence before children’s eyes in this way?[ii]

Over the summer, I met with one of your children, who asked me why he should remain a Jew.  It’s a legitimate question in this age of choice.  After all, today non-Jews eat bagels and Jews eat sushi.  More and more Christian churches sponsor Pesach Seders and more and more Jewish homes have Christmas trees.  So yes, “Why be Jewish?” is being asked by many.  And “Why marry Jewish?” is being asked by many more.  Can I still say because of our moral passion?  Can I still say, that it’s because we Jews have historically taken the ethical high road?  What do I say when our children are bombarded every day with stories of Jews who are corrupt and murderous.

The fact of the matter is, sad to say but it must be said, our people are no longer known chiefly for our goodness.  We ain’t what we used to be!  We Jews used to produce idealists by the bushels.  Our kids marched for social justice.  Our lawyers were fighters; our doctors were there to help those who couldn’t pay.  Our artists inspired us to repair the world, and our social workers actually did.  We used to feel good about the ethical underpinnings that commanded us to help those less fortunately endowed than ourselves.

Hillel, one of our greatest teachers wrote, “In a place where no one behaves like a human being, you must strive to be human.”  Even if we are surrounded by immorality, even if everyone else is failing to live up to even the lowest ethical standards, even if we honesty is scarce in the corporate board rooms of America, that is no excuse to lower our standards.  The Jewish people have a calling to do the right thing.  The essence of Torah is to behave like a mench.  You don’t have to be perfect.  But you do have to hold your head up high and do the right thing.

When we fail, and we will fail, we can and must repent.  That is the very purpose of these High Holidays.  We recite a long list of our failings, Al cheit……For the sin we have committed against You by fraud and falsehood, and by exploiting the weak and by giving and taking bribes, and by giving way to our hostile impulses and by running to do evil.  But then we read, “It is not the destruction of the sinner that God seeks,” but that we look at the paths we have chosen, and when we can, come clean.  We come for serious introspection, prayer, reflection and repentance.  I am proud to know many in this shul who have done just that.  We must and should judge ourselves for our sincere desire to make amends.  All of us have sinned.  Maybe that’s why there are so many of us here today.  It’s not just to see our friends, as good as that is.  In truth we’re here, because we know in our hearts, that we have sinned.  No one is immune.  While our sins may not make the evening news, neither is any of us above reproach.  We don’t need the evening news to take notice, before we acknowledge our own personal need to atone.  This sacred day comes, so we can think about our sins and the sins of our people and do teshuvah.  I believe in the power of atonement to transform lives.  Now is our sacred time to search our souls and atone, seeking to be better in the coming year.  Only then, once we have owned up, before our community and our God, for our breaches, can we hope for the forgiveness that these Days of Awe offer.

If we want our children to know that Jews are covenanted to maintain a high moral and ethical standard, it does not depend upon the behavior of others in this world.  It depends upon the behavior of each and every one of us in our own homes.   We are not here to condemn the sins of others, but to censure them in ourselves.  We must set personal examples of upright character, and we must take responsibility for our acts.

We Jews are the possessors of a beautiful heritage, a moral heritage grounded in the principled teachings of Sinai.  It is that heritage that made us an ohr lagoyim – a light unto the nations.  It is that heritage that provided us with the mandate: l’takein olam b’malchut Shadai – to make this world perfect under the kingdom of God, for Jew and Gentile, white and black, Israeli and Arab. God willing, we will teach our children, by shining example, to remember who we are and what our tradition and God demand.   It is our sacred trust to infuse our children with this rich and ancient heritage, for us in this Beit Or, this House of Light, Beth Or.


[i]  Rabbi Jack Reimer

[ii]  Rabbi Mitch Wohlberg


Gregory S. Marx Rabbi, Yom Kippur Sep ‘02