Saturday, March 22, 2014

"It's Just Business"

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When I was a little girl one of the topics we fought most furiously about at the Shabbos (Sabbath) table was Jews who cheat in business but are still treated as respected members of the community. Honored in synagogue and at community events.

My mother used to say, what a chillul Hashem (disgrace of G-d's name). How can those people even be considered religious? How can they go to shul? (synagogue)

As I recall it my father thought her views were simplistic. His mother was in Auschwitz. Members of her family shot in cold blood. His father was in a Romanian labor camp. The scars were fresh and government could not be relied upon to enforce the law after the Nazis got away with raping our people, murdering them, beating us in the street and stealing everything down to our gold teeth.

But he did not say she was wrong, either. Rather he would say that you should quietly do what was right. I am not sure how he felt about Jews trying to survive financially, who were scarred by what government officials had done to them.

I also remember that my dad would not let me go to the rallies to free the Soviet Jews. He did not want the FBI taking my picture and putting it in a file. That's how deep the fear goes.

To cope with the issue of internal "law enforcement," Hasidim have their own way of handling people who step out of line. There is a word he would say occasionally, "chaptzem." It literally means that you are seeing a Jew being mugged on the street, and you call out to others to help (as religious Jews live close together, because they can't drive to synagogue on Sabbath.) But the way he said it, it meant that Jews would take some sort of action against other Jews, to keep them on the straight and narrow.

There is a Jewish community watch group called the Shomrim, which patrols the streets of New York to keep religious people safe. They also have been known to engage in hate crime, which is why self-regulation cannot be totally free.

Sometimes the lines are blurry. Do you remember the case of the rabbis in Monsey, NY who would use cattle prods against husbands who refused their wives a divorce? That is a good example. When they were arrested, a friend was so upset, because due to the insular nature of the community and the way in which its religious hierarchy is structured, such rabbis were the best hope they had. "And now the evil bastards are laughing."

There is a fear and distrust of the government within the Hasidic community and more broadly within the religious Jewish community there is tremendous sensitivity to embarrassment. The proclivity to shame is one of the reasons that the community hushed up child sexual abuse, preferring instead to "deal with it" internally.

Of course that did not work and there is a growing understanding that such cases must be referred to the authorities and a movement from within the rabbinate to help and support the victims. (Read about a groundbreaking community event in New Jersey, the reporting of Hella Winston in the Jewish Forward, or follow the blog Failed Messiah.)

I think I have become unshockable, but sometimes the cases shock even me. Like when I read that a Brooklyn, N.Y. Orthodox Jew is allegedly part of the "largest child porn ring in history." If that is true, how disgusting can you get? Is that for money? For some kind of sick satisfaction? What? Does he go to synagogue on Friday night and Saturday and then "it's just business" during the week?

Financial crimes are less surprising but no less sickening, and scary from the perspective of anti-Semitism. Members of the Jewish community are very sensitive about being identified with Bernie Madoff (this is a running theme in Woody Allen's Blue Jasmine - the son leaves Harvard out of shame and runs away to a place where "money doesn't count," so to speak) We identify with the Assault on Wall Street rage of the common man who has lost everything to a greedy character just like Madoff.

Here is the problem though. We live in a money economy. And right now there is not enough money to go around, to pay for the things that everybody wants, to deliver the kind of status that everybody thinks they need. That is a problem extending within and way beyond the Jewish community.

In a capitalist country, where people need to pay the bills, the survival requirement shapes behavior in a work environment. It's the idea that "in business, anything goes."

The dramatic way to depict this concept is cutthroat corporate stuff, like in the classic Oliver Stone 80s movie Wall Street. But I'm not talking about that. Rather it's the concept behind social networking in a social economy, that you make connections because you may need someone in the future.

Is that ethical? To support others, because one day they may support you? It seems to me that we hear that advice a lot, that it is treated as essential. And I was uncritical about it myself, for a long time.

Until somebody said to me: "You don't do anything without thinking about what's in it for you."

And that sounded really wrong.

What do you think about it? Where does the morality lie in social networking?

Is it OK, because everybody knows it's just business?

* All opinions my own.