Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Weberman's Defenders & the Role of Dogmatic Belief

Like many, I've been following the developments of the Nechemya Weberman trial currently underway in Brooklyn. In short, he stands accused of sexually abusing a schoolgirl over a three-year period, starting at age 12, under the guise of "counseling."

One of the more disturbing things to watch as this case came to light has been the Satmar community's overwhelming support for Weberman, raising hundreds of thousands of dollars for his "defense fund" (which apparently was initially used to try and bribe the girl to drop the case and leave the country), as well as the constant harassing and bullying of the girl's family. In my mind, the girl's strength to persevere with her case under these circumstances is simply incredible - and incredibly inspiring.

The question I want to ask is this: Does having a culture of supernatural belief and metaphysical dogma make it more likely for a community to defend people like Weberman?

Well, it's certainly not required. Think of the OJ Simpson case, and how whites tended to believe he was guilty and blacks believed he was innocent. We tend to rally around people who are "like us". It's human nature. And think of the mafia and its policy of "omerta", the code of silence where people do not hand "their own" over to the police. The latter is similar to mesira, literally "handing over" a Jew to non-Jewish authorities, which in certain circumstances is prohibited in Halacha. In other words, you don't need supernatural belief to create a culture that protects its own. From an evolutionary point of view, it's probably built into us as part of our survival strategy.

But there's a difference between Satmar and the mafia. In the mafia, the idea is to protect your own even when you know they're guilty. It's a "family business" and it stays within the family. Now, the Satmar community has this mentality too (as do other insular Orthodox communities). But the difference is this: Not only does Satmar protect its own - they also believe them to be innocent. Mafia communities are not nearly so naive.

I would venture to guess that the knee-jerk "Weberman is innocent" reaction has partly to do with the dogmatic absolutism that "The Torah is from God and therefore perfect". And so it is impossible for Torah - or anyone connected and committed to it - to ever be wrong, or to ever commit such a heinous wrong. So the Satmar mentality is this: Weberman is a person who lives a "Torah life" (I know it's hard to stomach, but go with it), and in particular who holds the beliefs and stringencies of the Satmar world (which is seen in that community as the "true" Torah). Therefore anyone who challenges the "absolute truth" (and innocence) of this world is necessarily a liar and a rasha (evil person) who is against God and His Torah. So my hunch is that the community believes it is literally impossible that Weberman is guilty.

Now again, blacks defended the innocence of OJ. But that's arguably a reaction to years of victimization and unfair prosecution/persecution at the hands of whites. (That, and plain old racism, just like whites believing he was guilty.) Moreover, blacks would not take "offense" at the idea that OJ was guilty, as if it were a "sin" to say so. They would not think it would be logically "impossible" for him to be guilty. They wouldn't brand the prosecution as "anti-God".

So that's my thesis here: The belief in the Torah as God-given and "perfect" enables a mentality wherein anything or anyone connected with Torah is unassailable, thereby aiding and abetting accused sexual predators the likes of Nechemya Weberman. I say "enables", meaning even if you hold that the Torah is perfect, it doesn't necessarily follow that you'd believe people are perfect. However, the one belief enables the other, such that if you took away the magical "Torah can do no wrong" dogma, you'd undermine the magical idea that people connected with Torah can do no wrong.

Now I'd like to know: What do you think?

I also want to add that, assuming Weberman is found guilty, I hope that his case gives other victims the strength to come forward, and that it helps to prevent such horrific abuse from taking place in the future. As for the Satmar community engaging in any genuine introspection or "apologizing" to the victim and her family, I for one am not holding my breath. That's the frightening power of religious dogma. No "secular court" or evidence or truth can ever hope to prove it wrong.

UPDATE: (Dec 10, 2012) Nechemya Weberman was just found guilty on 59 counts, including sustained sexual abuse of a child, offenses which have the potential to land him in prison for decades. The defense plans to appeal the decision, and sentencing is scheduled for January 9th.

I imagine I'm supposed to be feeling happy, or at least relieved. But I find myself feeling decidedly melancholy, quiet, reflective. There is no "happy ending" to this terrible case. As I said above, I hope it results in less abuse, and I hope it gives the victim in this case (as well as other victims of abuse) a measure of solace.

UPDATE: (Jan 28, 2013) On January 22, Nechemya Weberman was sentenced to 103 years in prison.

Tuesday, November 6, 2012

Romney's Concession Speech: "Praying" for Obama

I was relieved to hear Mitt Romney's concession speech, on a number of levels. First, that he even made one last night, meaning that the election was decisive, rather than devolving into law suits, vote recounts, etc. That would've been a nightmare. Second, I thought it was gracious, as in:
"His supporters and his campaign also deserve congratulations. I wish all of them well, but particularly the president, the first lady and their daughters."
Given the often biting tenor of the campaign season, to bow out gracefully and wish your opponent well is a very welcome change of feel.

Third, which gets to the title of this post, there's the issue of prayer. Romney states:
"This is a time of great challenges for America, and I pray that the president will be successful in guiding our nation."
And at the end:
"I so wish that I had been able to fulfill your hopes to lead the country in a different direction, but the nation chose another leader. And so Ann and I join with you to earnestly pray for him and for this great nation."
Contrary to what you might expect, I was actually pleased to hear Romney invoke the language of prayer here. I'll tell you why. Just as in my previous post, where I explained how one can rationally say "thank God" as an earnest expression of gratitude, so too one can say "I pray for" or "I pray that" as an expression of solidarity.

The line I particularly liked was "Ann and I join with you to earnestly pray for him". Meaning, rather than come out and say something like, "The election is over, but we will keep fighting!" or say other things to the effect of "this is not my president", he instead invoked language of solidarity with the president, as if to say, "This is one country, with one president, and we're all together in this."

In a similar vein, Romney spoke about working together and getting past partisan politics:
"The nation, as you know, is at a critical point. At a time like this, we can't risk partisan bickering and political posturing. Our leaders have to reach across the aisle to do the people's work."
True, there's no reason to believe partisan bickering won't just continue as usual, but even to hear this "sentiment" coming from someone who was so involved in the bickering for the better part of the past year, is again a relief. It's a message that bears repeating - and taking seriously.

Now for a Jewish tie-in. Related to getting beyond partisanship, beyond extremist tendencies and toward moderation, I was thinking about the language and content that people tend to give over when talking "to their own" versus talking to people outside their circle. For instance, and this drives me nuts frankly, when frum Jews say the most preposterous, extreme and/or offensive things when they're speaking to a frum crowd. That includes of course rabbis and people in leadership positions. Bring these same people to an audience of non-frum Jews, or non-Jews, and they would not dream of making similar remarks. They'd be forced to articulate themselves in a far more reasonable, even-keeled, judicious, pragmatic way.

That is part of the problem, it seems to me, with partisan politics. When politicians on the left and right speak to "their crowd", they're less reasonable, less even-handed. They appeal to the more extreme sentiments in order to garner support, which ends up locking them into more extreme positions that they now have to fight for. The result is not a "reach across the aisle" mentality but a "knock 'em down and grab as much as you can" mentality.

What's the solution? Well, you can't keep politicians from speaking to their own crowds. But certainly it would help if they were forced to speak more often to the "other side", because the more people do that, the more reasonable thinking and policy-making is engendered.

Or how about this as a radical idea... When it comes to say, presidential primaries, we say as follows: If you're a registered Republican, you vote for the Democrat of your choice. And if you're a registered Democrat, you vote for the Republican of your choice. That way, Republican and Democrat politicians have to appeal to the opposite side of the aisle and not take extreme positions, and we end up with a field of candidates - and maybe a political atmosphere - which stands some realistic chance of working together toward solutions.

Thursday, November 1, 2012

Hurricane "God"

First off, I want to say that my heart goes out to those people who have suffered as a result of Hurricane Sandy. I'd like to make two points, one brief and the next I'll try to keep as brief as I can.

1. Thank God more people weren't killed. And when I say "thank God", I mean thank the fact that we live in the 21st Century, with the infrastructure and communications that enable us to prepare for and weather storms of this magnitude. And thank human beings for actually devising and building the technology that makes this 21st Century reality possible. Because given the immense destructive power of this storm, the loss of life could have been much, much worse - and it would have, had the same storm hit 100 years ago.

I say this because this thought did occur to me, and also to illustrate how a non-believer can say "thank God." It's essentially a way of expressing gratitude in cases where there's no one "person" or "factor" to whom to direct it. "Thank God" is an expression of general thankfulness. It doesn't have to mean anything more than that. And to those who reply that it's disingenuous, I'd say that a true and from-the-heart expression of gratitude, however you express it, is far more genuine than a "thank God" or "baruch Hashem" which is said as a perfunctory religious statement with no real emotion behind it.

2. I can't say that I was surprised, more pained and embarrassed, by this video making the rounds where a certain Rabbi Leiter blames hurricane Sandy on gay marriage. The sad thing is that the charedi establishment is not even at the level of Pat Robertson, who at least had the good sense to keep quiet this time around! Though I have to say, I find this rabbi's words far less frightening than I do the kind of virulent hate that gets spewed out in YouTube comment sections, in this case calling for Jews to be killed, thrown out of the country, etc. For all you kiddies out there... Yes, there really are monsters in the world.

But on the brighter side, I was very much  heartened by this article by R. Shmuley Boteach wherein he lambasts the presumptuousness of religious people who assert that such-and-such disaster happened "because" of such-and-such wrong behavior on the part of the victims, as a form of Divine retribution. (Yes, he has a book coming out on the subject that he's also promoting, and yes he's currently making a run for Congress, but I'm not so cynical that I can't appreciate the article for its content!). Let me pull out a few choice quotes, starting from the top:
"What was G-d thinking when he sent Hurricane Sandy and what could have been its purpose? In truth, I don't much care..."
Beautiful! Now, personally I would say that the question is a non-starter, because I wouldn't assume that God sent Hurricane Sandy in the first place. But... If you're going to take the common religious position that everything happens in the world because God wills it, then this is a MUCH healthier attitude. Yes, God did it, and must have had some reason in mind, but I don't know what it is and frankly I don't care... Much, much better. He continues from there:
"...because our role as humans is not to understand G-d's plan in the face of horror and tragedy, but to challenge God and demand that human life always be protected and preserved."
Again, I wouldn't presume any plan on the part of God, no less "demand" anything from God. But for believing folks, it is MUCH healthier to get angry at God for not doing a better job protecting us than it is to rationalize or as he says "divine the mind of God" in the face of tragedy. It's better for the same reason that Iyov's position (bitterly claiming Divine injustice) is preferable to that of his visitors (self-righteously claiming Divine justice). It's better because at least it's not constructing an absurd reality whereby anyone who suffers is being somehow punished for their sins. Ok, next quote:
"I have grown weary of those who say that suffering is somehow redemptive, that it carries with it a positive outcome. I do not deny that this is at times so. Those who suffer can sometimes emerge humbler, wiser, gentler. But let’s get real. There is nothing beneficial that comes from suffering that could have not been achieved far more effectively through a positive means."
Too true! Even for those who suggest that suffering makes us better people, I agree that it's time to stop romanticizing suffering. We don't need it, and we don't want it. (And I have a feeling this is what his new book title "Fed-Up Man of Faith" is hinting at, a bit of a jab at Soloveitchik's "Lonely Man of Faith", getting away from the idea of romanticized suffering and existential/theological angst as a part of religious life. As he goes on to say:
"It is time we human beings agreed to wage an all out war on suffering so that it is never excused as something blessed again."
Yes - thank you for saying that! Because we do need to make meaning out of our suffering. And one of the best, most constructive ways to do that is to take one's suffering as an occasion to try to REDUCE the suffering in the world. THAT is fantastically meaningful - and not just to oneself but to others, in a very real and concrete way.

So would I have written this article differently? For sure. Aren't the points I picked out from the article ones that should simply be obvious, self-evident? For sure. But for a traditional, God-believing religious Jew to say this I think is a beautiful step forward.