THE COLLECTED WRITINGS OF RABBI PINKY SCHMECKELSTEIN
This has been a dark week for Klal Yisroel:
-- The stock market has been volatile.
-- Eretz Yisroel has been suffering a heat wave.
-- Oh, AND YESHIVA UNIVERSITY HAS APPARENTLY COVERED UP SEXUAL ABUSE FOR OVER THIRTY YEARS!!!
I have been searching for a Minyan of ten rabbis to pray for the future of Klal Yisroel, ten rabbis who are neither guilty of abusing children or covering up such abuses. But I cannot find them. I have found five so far, including one who is in prison for embezzlement, one who is a female rabbi ordained by Avi Weiss, and one who has converted out of Judaism and is now a practicing Buddhist. If you know of any rabbi who is truly pure, please send them my way. These days it seems that we can no longer assume on the moral purity of any rabbi.
All joking aside: I must make share some very serious thoughts on the actions and inactions of Yeshiva University. They have brought shame upon their university. They have brought shame on their alums. They have brought shame upon the enterprise known as Modern Orthodoxy. And they have brought shame upon all of Klal Yisroel.
It is said that the Greek enemy remembered at Chanukah is considered to be worse than the Persian enemy remembered at Purim. How so? The Persians only went after our ancestors' lives, while the Greeks went after our souls.
Apparently, the YU administration was complicit in destroying the souls of many children, and left permanently damaged people in their callous wake. To whom can they be compared? To the Greeks? To the Persians? To the Nazis? The harm they caused was perhaps not on the same scale, but the damage their have wrought will remain with us for generations.
When we pray on Tisha Ba'av, when we listen to Eichah and recite Kinois, let's not only focus on the enemy outside. The enemy inside -- Sexual abusers of children and those that enable them -- are no less an enemy.
Perhaps the Roman general was right in his assessment of the Jews during the siege of Jerusalem: Why expend the effort on attacking the Jews? Wait for them to destroy themselves.
I had the good fortune of being designated the Chief Rabbi of last year’s Oktoberfest in Munich, a hearty celebration of creation: The men celebrate the creation of beer by consuming excessive amounts of overpriced lager while walking around in Lederhosen, leather Gatkis held up by suspenders, looking like overgrown little boys. (This was Michael Jackson’s favorite annual holiday, they say.) And the women celebrate creation by prominently displaying the excessive cleavage with which the Aimishteh generously endowed them. “Boruch Oiseh Maisei Beraishis!”
It is odd to visit Germany during Tishrei, the month that begins with Roish Hashanah, includes Yoim Kippur, and ends with Sukkois. According to Chazzal, the book of life is written on Roish Hashanah, it is signed and sealed on Yoim Kippur, but it is only picked up by FEDEX on Shmini Atzeres. So nearly the entire month is dedicated to contemplating the past and repenting, as well as spending many, many hours in Shul to avoid having to spend time with your mother-in-law.
When visiting Germany at this time of year one cannot help but think about the broader theme of repentance and forgiveness, not the Teshuvah of an individual, but the repentance of a collective, of a whole society. Can a society which committed such extreme crimes truly repent? And at what point does forgiveness become manifest?
I must say that today’s Germany is a beautiful country. The people are largely very nice. Some of the architecture is magnificent. Germany is clearly the economic engine of the whole of Europe, propping up the Continent in its moments of crisis. And, if we are honest, it is a country whose actual sinners are no more. Any remaining Nazis from World War II are infirm, are in hiding, or are institutionalized at Saint Adolf’s Home For Retired Nazis, whiling away their time playing checkers.
So, in day to day in Germany you are highly unlikely to meet a person who has Jewish or Russian or Polish or Gypsy or Communist or Homosexual blood on his hands. In that sense, a chapter of history is over.
And let’s face it: They may have killed my grandparents and my aunts and uncles, but any society that produces the greatest beer in the world and eats soft pretzels for breakfast cannot be all bad…
So the notion of individual sin in Germany is no longer relevant. But yet, there is a collective legacy .
Truth be told, Germany is a society which has struggled to come to terms with its legacy. Reparations were paid in the billions to individuals and to the State of Israel (and continue to be paid). Germany is an anchor of support for the State of Israel in many quiet ways that are not well know, such as serving as the conduit for negotiations for Israeli soldiers being held captive, including Gilad Shalit. And, indeed, Jewish life has undergone a renaissance in many cities throughout Germany, especially in Berlin. In Munich, the new Jewish Cultural Center is a museum that houses the city’s central synagogue and is broadly celebrated for its architecture. This in a city that is famous for its grand architectural tradition, as well as its Beer Hall Putsches.
Not all is perfect of course. There are Neo Nazis. There are extensive business dealings with Iran and other countries that are not our friends. But one can say the same about any Western country. And if you are looking for places where Jew hating is a daily sport, you need not look beyond Mea Shearim, Bnei Brak, Williamsburg, or Boro Park.
And one must certainly contrast the German approach with the Austrian approach, where denial of complicity in the Shoah continues to this day. So on the whole, guilt has been acknowledged and repentance has been manifested. Teshuvah has been performed.
But is there forgiveness?
I recall a recent e-mail debate about whether the Yeshivah’s Kiddush Committee should participate in a boycott of certain brands of scotch that are either manufactured or bottled in a specific region of Scotland that is boycotting Israeli products. I was a strong advocate of the scotch boycott, though one detractor argued that if one buys German products, why shouldn’t they also buy these specific brands of scotch. So a debate ensued in which discussion of a contemporary issue morphed into a discussion of how one should relate to historical crimes. Do all of the reparations, all of the political and social measures, compensate for all of the loss of life? Can you put a price on loss of life and human suffering?
So forgiveness, like beauty, is in the eye of the beholder.
When we contemplate our own repentance, we tend to focus on Teshuvah as an individual act for individual sins. But we should not forget communal Teshuvah as well. How often have we looked the other way within our own community when we knew of people cheating the government in areas like taxes and social welfare programs? How often have we ignored the silent victims of sexual and child abuse, because to address the issues face on would be a “Shanda for the Goyim”? How often have we fallen into the trap of arrogance or self-righteousness? “They persecuted us.” “We are only doing what others do.” “I put on Tfillin, I am Chosen, therefore I am exempt.”
Teshuvah, you Minuval, is not a simple formula,. It is not that the Klopping on the chest and the recitation of endless Al Chayts naturally guarantee forgiveness. These are formulas designed to create a state of ,mind, a sense of humility, as well as countless black and blue marks. But insincere words and deeds do not constitute Teshuvah.
I am reminded of a Maiseh Shehoya. The Kotzker Rebbe was once suffering from a toothache, so he went to visit the dentist. After the dentist performed a tooth extraction, he asked for a payment of fifty zloties. “I will give something even better than zloties” the Kotzker responded. “I will give you words of Toirah.”
So the Kotzker delivered a Drasha on the power of Kavanah and the seven levels of heaven, culminating in the secret formula for reaching Oilam Habbah, being rewarded in the World to Come.
“But Rabbi” the dentist said, “I am a Roman Catholic. I don’t believe in a word you said.”
“That’s OK” the Kotzker replied. “Neither do I.”
Rabboisai, Klal Yisroel is scarred by our collective history. Many of us struggle with keeping our historical legacy of persecution in perspective: The Romans, the Crusades, the Spanish Inquisition, the Poles, the Cossacks, the Nazis, etc. We retain grudges and prejudices against individuals over communal crimes, in many cases long in the past. It is a part of our own collective identity. I am persecuted, therefore I am. But while we need to retain the lessons of the past, we mustn’t be trapped in it. Your mother-in-law may have given birth to your spouse, but you certainly don’t want her to move in and sleep with you every night.
Ah Gutten Shabbos, You Minuval.