The New York Post, in its characteristically pithy bad taste, has already dubbed the arrest of several prominent Brooklyn and New Jersey rabbis last week the case of the “kosher nostra”. It is an ugly story, and not just how the Post tells it: alleged corruption among ultra-Orthodox leadership in the form of money laundering through charities and, even worse, strong-armed trafficking in human organs. Not two years after the breaking of the Agriprocessors scandal, we have another searing example of immorality dressed in the garb of Jewish piety, complete with all of the cringe-inducing stereotypical overtones. Yes, it’s a full-blown shande far di goyim—a scandal in front of the non-Jewish world.
So far, the mainstream press, the Post notwithstanding, has unpacked the affair with an appropriate attention to its subtleties, revealing an intertwining of insular ethnic community and big city politics that may indeed prove worthy of a Sopranos-style treatment. The best collection of articles I’ve found can be perused at failedmessiah, the blog of Shmarya Rosenberg, who, with the perspective of insider turned disillusioned outsider, has been probing the nuances and hypocrisies of the ultra-Orthodox establishment since 2004. (He was, for instance, instrumental in bringing the Agriprocessors affair to prominence.)
The pieces he’s assembled now touch on all of the important factors: the collusion the FBI alleges developed between New Jersey politicians and the rabbis, the fact that the rabbis involved are for the most part representatives of the Syrian Jewish community, the reactions, ranging from nonplussed to not surprised, that have begun to emerge from this fascinating, tightly-knit enclave, the ripple effect this all may have—from Hoboken to Jerusalem, background on the pious Ashkenazic Jew who may be at the center of a global organ trade, and even the way that stringent readings of Jewish law on organ donation, a complicated and often misconstrued topic, may enable black marketing.
It is to be wished, when all is said and done, that anyone to the left of Stormfront will recognize that this is not a tale of uniquely Jewish financial perfidy and lust for the “pound of flesh,” but a sordid chapter in a broadly human tragedy, albeit with a lot of local color. The themes—abuse perpetrated by those selected to safeguard the public trust, whether that trust is political or spiritual, and the reduction of life to the status of a commodity to be harvested—go abroad in all kinds of garb.
I’m hoping, though, that within the Jewish community, where we are preparing this week to commemorate the holy day of Tisha b’Av, a day of mourning for the destruction of the ancient Temple and all subsequent communal tragedies, we attune ourselves to the implications of the “kosher nostra” with heightened sensitivity. The Talmudic rabbis, who, to my knowledge, never laundered money for the mayor of Secaucus, made a radical connection between external force and internal failings, suggesting that the fall of Jerusalem was not merely a function of Roman might, but also conditioned by moral corruption. The Romans came, they said, because a man had shamed his fellow at a wedding feast. It’s only a fable, and a naïve reading of geopolitics at that, but the essence seems appropriate.
We are destroyed not only by force, but when shame and fraud hinders us from drawing pride and integrity from our traditions.