Con­fronting Scan­dal: How Jews Can Respond When Jews Do Bad Things

  • Review
By – August 31, 2011
Since the advent of Chris­tian­i­ty, the Jew­ish peo­ple were an insignif­i­cant foot­note on the world’s stage. To be sure there were expul­sions and pogroms, but by and large Jews were large­ly ignored and kept to them­selves. Jews lived in an insu­lar and iso­lat­ed world. Their way of life was not suit­ed for soci­ety at large, and that same soci­ety often pro­mul­gat­ed laws to keep Jews out. Once these bar­ri­ers began to fall, start­ing with the French Rev­o­lu­tion and lat­er Eman­ci­pa­tion and the Enlight­en­ment, Jews very quick­ly assumed their place in the world.

In the 21st cen­tu­ry Jews are not only well rep­re­sent­ed in all pro­fes­sions, acad­e­mia, gov­ern­ment, arts, and enter­tain­ment, but it is now not unusu­al to see not only the Ortho­dox, but even the ultra-Ortho­dox rep­re­sent­ed in the main­stream. With great pride Jews can claim to have made it. Along with the Nobel lau­re­ates, busi­ness mag­nates, authors, sci­en­tists, etc., Jews are also able to boast of mul­ti­ple minyan­im, Daf Yomi, and glatt kosher meals in pris­ons around the coun­try. There are now Jew­ish addic­tion cen­ters and shel­ters for bat­tered Jew­ish women. Sto­ries about Jew­ish sex offend­ers and embez­zlers are splashed across the newspapers.

Eri­ca Brown con­fronts the issue of con­tem­po­rary Jew­ish scan­dals head on. She defines the prob­lem and offers sug­ges­tions. She iden­ti­fies the mal­adies of moral com­pla­cen­cy, eth­i­cal bifur­ca­tion, the dis­con­nect between rite and right, and the moral cal­i­bra­tions that some­how allow oth­er­wise Jew­ish­ly obser­vant indi­vid­u­als to become moral degenerates. 

Moder­ni­ty and its chal­lenges are not sole­ly respon­si­ble for the cur­rent cri­sis. Human beings by def­i­n­i­tion have weak­ness­es. Start­ing with the Bible in Gen­e­sis, through the Prophets, the Tal­mud, and the clas­sic medieval eth­i­cal lit­er­a­ture, Jew­ish tra­di­tion grap­ples with this ten­sion and offers many ways to deal with the temp­ta­tions that con­front us. Dr. Brown very effec­tive­ly sum­ma­rizes the tra­di­tion­al Jew­ish posi­tion by stip­u­lat­ing that eth­i­cal and moral behav­ior requires stren­u­ous effort and dis­ci­pline to learn to oppose our baser instincts. Jew­ish law pro­vides an intri­cate sys­tem to nav­i­gate the com­plex­i­ties of human inter­ac­tion and we are expect­ed to over­come avarice, jeal­ousy, dis­hon­esty, libido, and enmi­ty. Jew­ish rit­u­al behav­ior can­not be divorced from moral and eth­i­cal behav­ior. The same Torah that pro­scribes pork and Sab­bath vio­la­tion also pro­hibits theft and immorality.

Sin­clair Lewis was pil­lo­ried by Chris­t­ian evan­gel­i­cals after pub­lish­ing Elmer Gantry in 1926. Eri­ca Brown has sim­i­lar­ly (and unfair­ly) tak­en heat for air­ing our dirty laun­dry in pub­lic. This book is not intend­ed to malign but to instruct. The clas­sic medieval eth­i­cal works by the great rab­bis and even the essays on repen­tance by Rab­bi Joseph Soloveitchik may be too tech­ni­cal and dense for the aver­age read­er. How­ev­er Con­fronting Scan­dal is writ­ten in a forth­right and clear style. It is a mod­ern work of mus­sar, self improvement. 

Jews are called upon to be a holy nation and a king­dom of priests.” Jews are also sup­posed to be a light unto the nations.” The Jews’ rep­u­ta­tion as law abid­ing, eth­i­cal, and moral indi­vid­u­als has been par­tic­u­lar­ly sul­lied of late. Eri­ca Brown takes an hon­est look at our short­com­ings and sug­gests ways that we as a com­mu­ni­ty can go forward.
Wal­lace Greene, Ph.D., has held sev­er­al uni­ver­si­ty appoint­ments, and cur­rent­ly writes and lec­tures on Jew­ish and his­tor­i­cal subjects.

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