Wednesday, Jun 19, 2024

Life is Not a Popularity Contest

“Jews in the news” lately pose a disturbing trend. The portrayals are far from flattering and thrust us into a dilemma. Do we ignore the unsavory stories or do we report on them? Do we publicly dissociate ourselves from individuals who have brazenly betrayed Torah ideals but continue to claim to represent our community? We educate our children to be upstanding members of the community and to do what is correct and proper. We teach them to live honestly and never to steal, lie or abuse others. We teach them respect for authority and strive in our own lives to exemplify the ideals we extol. But we can no longer take it for granted that everyone is inherently good or deserving of our trust and respect. This means that, at times, we are preaching one thing to our children and thinking and doing another.

How do we deal with the problem of people in our community who engage in dishonorable conduct? By ignoring it and by remaining silent, we are communicating a message that we tolerate and even condone the conduct. Is that the message we want to send?

I’m not advocating that we join the muckrakers and sensationalists who thrive on gossip. But we must conduct an honest appraisal of where our say-nothing-do-nothing policy is leading us. We need to assess what we are doing wrong so that we can halt a pernicious trend and improve our people, their future, and the way we are being perceived by the world around us.

This process does not need to be played out in public or reported on in the media. It can be done quietly and internally. The effects may take time to be felt, but at least the graph will be moving in the right direction.

We also need to distance ourselves, publicly and privately, from people whom we know to be engaging in improper conduct and giving us all a black eye. There are prominent people who speak in the name of our community, whom we are quick to criticize and disown when speaking among close friends, but whom, for some reason, we never condemn publicly.

The media and bloggers have a field day painting these miscreants as representative of all religious Jews and rabbis. While many of them are motivated by pure hatred, how can we condemn them, as long as we continue to convey the impression through our silence that we are all of one stripe? If we do not disavow them, how can we expect the media and people removed from our community to differentiate between us?

Perhaps we remain silent out of fear. The notion that these people are arrogant and vindictive and will come after us is intimidating. Also, no one wants to be seen as a troublemaker. It can ruin our children’s prospects for shidduchim if we engage in activities which would allow unscrupulous people to paint us as baalei machlokes. People will say that we are negative, cynical, obstinate and arrogant. So we sit off to the side and permit these frauds to parade as Orthodox Jews in good standing.

It is almost as if we care more about our own kavod than that of Hakadosh Boruch Hu, as our silent acquiescence leads to repeatedchillul sheim Shomayim.


The sefer Chovos Halevavos, in Shaar Habitachon, states that at times we see a righteous person who cannot make ends meet and we wonder why that is. Hashem provides for all who trust in him; why is that person unable to earn a living? The Chovos Halevavos answers that it may be because the person was not zealous and outspoken enough in taking up Hashem’s cause by protesting vehemently and vociferously against the misdeeds of his generation.


This is based upon the Gemara in Maseches Shabbos (55b), which states that even though Pinchos didn’t sin, “mitoch shehaya lo l’Pinchos limchos velo micha, maaleh alav hakasuv ke’ilu chatah – Because Pinchos should have protested against the sinful actions of Chofni and didn’t, the Torah considers it as if he had sinned.”

In the face of this intolerable situation, one feels the painful absence of Rav Elazar Menachem Man Shach and Rav Elya Svei, zichronam livracha. These two individuals impacted this newspaper more than anyone else and therefore I am using them as an example to make this point. This is not to infer that we are not blessed with giants of high moral fiber and character at the helm of our community. May we merit to benefit from their wisdom, acumen, and leadership for many years to come. These giants knew and know that leadership means taking unpopular stands. It means shining the light on improper behavior, demanding the best, and demonstrating how to achieve the standards expected of us.

These troubling reflections were spurred by the awareness of Rav Elya’s approaching yahrtzeit. His absence continues to leave a void in the hearts of his talmidim and followers. This is not because we don’t know how he would have reacted to the troubling situations that plague us. It’s not because we don’t know what he would say about people who abuse their mandates, are irresponsible and are dishonest. We know that he would move heaven and earth to see them dismissed from their positions. We know how intolerant he was of aberrant behavior. We know how he would speak, fiery and fearless, in the way of his great rebbi, Rav Aharon Kotler.

We know only too well what he would say and how he would guide us in dealing with them, yet, we talmidim, and askonim who basked in his glow, who are in a position to do something, sit by silently.

Prominent shady characters are given carte blanche to enact their agendas and the dishonest are permitted to continue their detrimental behavior and actions. We beat gingerly around the bush, dancing around the edges, afraid to proclaim the truth.

What are we afraid of? Why are we silent? How can we live with ourselves as we see yet another rabbi or religious Jew creating yet another chillul Hashem? It would be bad enough if we waited until the scandal hit the papers and only then took corrective steps, but we haven’t mustered the courage to do even that.

There was an American rabbi who grew close to the Ponovezher Rov in the course of the Rov’s travels to America to fundraise for the Ponovezher Yeshiva. This rabbi would drive the Ponovezher Rov around town and take him to his fundraising appointments. When visiting Eretz Yisroel, the rabbi always made a point of traveling to Bnei Brak to visit the Ponovezher Rov and the yeshiva.

When the Rov passed away, the rabbi made his customary detour to see the yeshiva, marveling at its growth and at the amount of Torah being studied by its talmidim. He went in to see the rosh yeshiva, Rav Shach.

The rabbi introduced himself to the rosh yeshiva and told him of his past closeness to the Ponovezher Rov, stating that he hoped to establish similar ties with Rav Shach.

With great love, and without a drop of condescension, Rav Shach responded that he would have to find someone else to maintain that relationship with. “I see,” Rav Shach explained gently, “that you are an American rabbi. A rabbi needs everyone to like him. It is nothing personal against you, but I don’t think you will feel comfortable with me.”

Rav Shach was an overarching gadol baTorah and he wasn’t afraid to be unpopular. He wasn’t afraid to take stands that would not endear him to the masses. He did what was right, and if that meant that his “poll numbers” dropped, so be it. It was because of his fastidious loyalty to the truth and because he took his responsibility as a leader so seriously that he went on to become the leading Torah authority of our generation and the father of bnei Torah the world over.

We are beset by so many problems in our community, but if we are prevented from honestly assessing and addressing them, we will not be able to solve them. As any edifice built on a shaky foundation cannot endure over time, an ideological house of cards built on illusions will not survive. Closing our eyes to the facts won’t change them and will not remove the rot at the core.

Dealing with superficial issues which are merely symptoms of the malady while failing to invest time and energy in remedying the underlying causes is as effective as slapping a band-aid over gaping wounds.

Megillas Esther, in its final posuk, states that Mordechai was “gadol laYehudim, veratzuy lerov echov, doreish tov le’amo vedoveir shalom lechol zaro – Mordechai was a great man among the Jews, and found favor among the majority of his brethren; he sought the good of his people and sought peace for all his children.”

The Megillah ends by informing us that Mordechai was not appreciated by all the Jews, only by a majority of them. And why was that? Perhaps, as the posuk continues, it was because he sought the good of his people and took whatever measures he could to increase peace and brotherhood.

Mordechai at times had to take actions which were controversial. In order to maintain peace, he had to be forceful and advocate for the downtrodden and forlorn, at times spurning the wishes of the rich, famous and powerful. In all his actions, Mordechai Hatzaddik always remained loyal to Torah and its supreme system of justice, even at the expense of his own popularity.

The Megillah considers it a virtue that he was not universally adulated and includes this fact as a lesson for us in our exile. We, too, need to put aside our concern with what others think of us when facing important choices regarding the complex issues that confront us. Let us seek the direction of our gedolim and pray for siyata diShmaya in standing up for what is right.



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