The primary focus of news coverage over the past few weeks has been the escalating violence spiraling out of control in Gaza, Syria, Iraq, and Ferguson, Missouri. However, there were other news items that made my hair stand on edge, yet got little publicity and thankfully did not rate as newsworthy in international media. Sadly, it involved arrest warrants and extradition requests for a number of prominent and pious looking individuals including a Chassidic rabbi on the lam in South Africa, an ex-principal of a Chassidic girl’s school in Australia residing in Israel, and the current head of a yeshiva in Monsey, New York. Each of these cases involved sexual impropriety and threats against the innocent victims and their families. Although everyone is innocent until proven guilty, the mere surfacing of multiple allegations should be of grave concern to the Jewish community and demands answers to questions that we are often too uncomfortable to ask.
How is it possible that individuals whose daily lives are meticulously structured down to the finest religious detail are capable of behaving in a manner so incongruous to the basic tenet of their faith? How can it be that those who mask themselves in a veil of modesty and piety can perform acts that are vulgar and immodest? How can we accept the hiring of leaders who prove to be negligent in ensuring our children’s safety? It was so much easier when it was only the Catholic clergy who were guilty of systematic abuse.
To find the answer to our difficult questions one can turn to this week’s Torah portion which subtly juxtaposes two random commandments. The Torah states “that it is forbidden to add or subtract to any mitzvah”, in other words, it is forbidden to play the GOD game. We are encumbered by the limitations found in the Torah and are not entitled to imagine what God would have wanted. (Had He had free reign to choose.) We are unable to promote random rules of modesty and piety over and above what was already commanded. To do so would be a flagrant violation of one of the 613 commandments that we try diligently to uphold. Even if our motivation is pure, it stems from an impurity and misunderstanding of God and the Torah. We are forbidden to maintain a holier than thou attitude because that mentality places one’s moral compass in a direct collision course with a higher spiritual magnetic force, ultimately leading the path of least resistant to veer off target.
What occurs if one chooses to reduce the moral commission from God and exchange it for one’s personal comprehension? The torah states, “if there arises in your midst a (Navi) prophet or a dreamer whose prophecies indicate that we should behave in a manner contrary to the Torah, then that person is a false prophet.” Some commentaries understand this verse as referring to an individual who was previously a genuine prophet but then went to the so-called dark side.
Could it be that the correlation of the two chapters explains a cause and effect? Could it be that for all the moral clarity that is being espoused it is actually a form of moral confusion? Could it be that when we start imagining that we know more than God, the next step is that God’s laws themselves hold limited sway or value?
The Torah portion this week starts with the words, “Behold, I place before you today a blessing and a curse,” and indeed, that is exactly what the torah is. All I can ask is that those who choose to make a vocation out of promoting and furthering the study and beauty of Torah will limit themselves to upholding the moral and legal rulings found within the torah itself. As our history unfolded, the false prophet was an enigma that was a rarity. If we stand united and fearless against any sexual impropriety, these stains on our educational system will hopefully be a rarity in our future.
Rabbi Jack Engel