In search of personal and communal integrity

26 Jul
Ryan Braun (top left) and Anthony Weiner (bottom left) are confronting their personal scandals, while Yeshiva University (right) confronts a communal scandal

Ryan Braun (top left) and Anthony Weiner (bottom left) are confronting their personal scandals, while Yeshiva University (right) confronts a communal scandal

There’s a story about a group of people who made a wager with a notorious liar that they could trip him up in an untruth. They said, “We’ll give you a hundred dollars on condition that you tell a lie. He responded, “I would gladly take the hundred dollars, but I am sorry to say that I cannot meet the condition. In my entire life, I have never told a lie” (Stanley Schachter, Ed. “Laugh for God’s Sake: Where Jewish Humor and Jewish Ethics Meet,” p. 108).

This week, unfortunately, we have encountered a nexus of three stories in the news involving Jews and deceptive practices. First, Ryan Braun, the slugger for the Milwaukee Brewers also known as the Hebrew Hammer, admitted to using performance enhancing drugs and is suspended for the rest of the season.

In New York City the mayoral race is heating up, and Anthony Weiner is once again mired in controversy. He resigned in disgrace from Congress two years ago after revelations of lewd encounters he had with women over the Internet. After two years of trying to convince the public that he got help and had cleaned up his act, it was revealed this week that his lewd Internet postings have continued.

The news story of greatest concern in recent days is the lawsuit brought against Yeshiva University by 19 former students of YU High School who were allegedly sexually abused by two rabbis and a former student who was not on faculty allegedly known to be a danger to children who was, nonetheless, allowed in the school’s dorms by administrators.

Rabbi Norman Lamm, former YU President, under whose watch the alleged crimes took place, resigned his honorary position of Chancellor earlier this month acknowledging his mistakes in not cracking down on the pedophilia. His long and distinguished career is now tarnished by what appears to be a decades-long cover up.

Many of us might be thinking, “How can this happen? How can Jews do this?” The simple answer is that Jews are people subject to the same human frailties as anyone else. The confluence of these three stories merely reminds us of this fact. David Ben Gurion, first Prime Minister of Israel, understood well the notion that Jews are humans like anyone else. A famous quotation attributed to him is “We Jews will finally have ourselves a ‘normal’ state when Jewish policemen arrest Jewish prostitutes.”

We may be as normal as anyone else. Nevetheless, we can and do cringe when scandal taints our community. This is not an accident.

In this week’s Torah portion, Eikev, Moses says explicitly, “Yet it was to your fathers that the Lord was drawn in His love for them, –vayivhar b’zara’am ahareihem bachem mikol ha-amim–so that He chose you, their lineal descendants, from among all peoples — as is now the case.” If we are chosen, we must be worthy of choseness. Moses himself warns the people not to take choseness for granted. The second paragraph of the Sh’ma that is taken from this parashah (Deut. 11: 13-21), stresses that for adhering to the mitzvoth, the people will be rewarded. If they stray from the mitzvoth, they will be punished.

The second paragraph of the Sh’ma describes a sense of national accountability. We are all responsible for one another. If we give harbor to individual wrong-doing in our midst, we are all liable in some way. While calling for national accountability, each one of us is also personally accountable for our actions. In Chapter 10 (v. 12), Moses says, “And now, Israel, what does the Lord your God require of you, but to fear the Lord your God, to walk in all His ways and to love Him, and to serve the Lord your God, b’khol levavkha uv’khol nafshekha, with all your heart and with all your soul. The great Hasidic master R. Naftali of Ropshitz commented on this verse: “What makes Him the Lord your God? What good deeds have you performed that you may be worthy of having God referred to as your God? That is the question God asks of you (Torah Gems, Vol. 3, p. 220).

This statement is a call for personal integrity. Each one of us must answer for our own actions. These three stories in the news this week all involve egregious breakdowns in personal and communal integrity. Ryan Braun cheated in a game, taking performance enhancing drugs that gave him an unfair physical advantage. Moreover, he lied about it. One might say, it’s baseball, it’s only a game. However, if such behavior is tolerated in baseball, where do you draw the line?

Anthony Weiner’s case is interesting because here too, thank God, no one was physically hurt. But a married man sending lewd photos of himself over the Internet to other women would be inappropriate for anyone, let alone a public servant. Weiner may claim he has no sex addiction, but do you and I actually believe it? It’s clear that he is a reckless person unfit for public office, and I hope for his sake that he steps out of the public spotlight and gets the help he needs. If our society tolerates his behavior, where do we draw the line?

As for the Yeshiva University scandal, here, tragically, young men were hurt by a few sick individuals who were then given cover for their actions by administrators who wanted to keep things quiet. There are striking parallels to similar scandals that have plagued the Catholic Church. The actions were bad enough but the institutional cover up is a great stain on a prestigious institution.

Parashat Eikev articulates the importance of personal and communal integrity. The parasha also articulates accountability. There are both personal and communal consequences for straying from a path of integrity.

Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel wrote: “A religious man is a person who holds God and man in one thought at one time, at all times, who suffers harm done to others, whose greatest passion is compassion, whose greatest strength is love and defiance of despair.”

The Torah and our tradition call upon us at all times to see the tzelem Elohim, image of God in our fellow human beings. These include people with whom we play ball, exchange email and attend school. We are responsible not only for our own actions but for the effect our actions have on the entire community.

May God grant us the strength and courage to live up to personal and communal integrity so that we may be worthy of choseness.

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