Local rabbis reacted to the arrest of five rabbis in last week’s corruption sweep in New Jersey with words of caution to await the outcome of the case, and distress that political and religious leaders are accused of crimes.
Innocent until proven guilty is an article of Jewish as well as American law, said Rabbi Neal Borovitz of Temple Avodat Shalom in River Edge.
That being said, the Reform rabbi is “absolutely appalled” when rabbis cross the line into criminal behavior. “I have the sense that within their own communities they live according to Torah,” he said, and that somehow they think the ethical precepts don’t apply in their relations with the secular world.
“There is one law for everyone,” he said. Jewish teaching doesn’t say “don’t steal from Jews, it says don’t steal.”
When rabbis are arrested, it’s a “shanda,” an embarrassment to the Jewish community at large. “I find it tragic,” Borovitz said.
Borovitz said he will be raising the issue in his sermons, and it is an especially relevant subject in view of the timing – the season of introspection that begins with Tisha B’Av and culminates with the High Holy Days.
He cited the teaching of Hillel: “That which is hateful to you, do not unto your fellow. That is the whole Torah, and the rest is commentary. Now go learn.”
“I’m hoping it’s not true,” said Rabbi Joshua Finkelstein of Temple Emanuel of North Jersey in Franklin Lakes. Like Borovitz, he noted the legal precept of “innocent until proven guilty.” But speaking in general, the Conservative Finkelstein said, “It’s hurtful to society” when a leader violates the law. “It’s a shanda,” he said.
“The sad part is we in New Jersey sort of expect it when it’s politicians. When a politician stumbles we are not surprised.”
“People in important places have a responsibility to be above reproach,” Finklestein said. “These people should recuse themselves” while under the cloud of criminal charges, he said.
Also, whenever Jews are in the headlines in a negative light, it provides fuel for anti-Semitism, Finklestein said. “Anytime anyone who is visible Jewish violates the law, it impacts poorly on the Jewish people.”
Last Thursday, the day of the arrests, “was not a good day for the Jewish community and it was not a good day for the state of New Jersey,” he said.
We should not rush to judgment, said Rabbi Shmuel Goldin of Ahavath Torah in Englewood. “We have to await the verdict,” he stressed.
But speaking in general, he cited – as area rabbinical groups have been doing – the talmudic principle that “the law of the land is the law.” Thus, if people are guilty of breaking American law they are also breaking Jewish law, he said. Jews must be good citizens.
As for perceptions in the secular world, “There is no question that the image of a rabbi [allegedly] breaking the law” is hurtful to how Jews are seen and feeds anti-Semitism.
“Part of our responsibility is to be a light unto nations,” the Orthodox rabbi said. “We are supposed to sanctify God’s name in the world. This is a setback.”