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(UNDATED) In an unusual move, a group of influential Orthodox Jewish leaders has written a letter urging American rabbis to speak during this year’s High Holidays on the importance of ethical living, in response to some recent high-profile arrests of Jews, including two New Jersey rabbis in July.
In the Sept. 3 letter sent to about 2,000 rabbis nationwide, the leaders of Yeshiva University, the Orthodox Union and the Rabbinical Council of America cited “the recent scenes of religious Jews being led off in handcuffs, charged with corruption, money laundering, and even organ trafficking.”
During the High Holidays, which begin tomorrow night with Rosh Hashana and end Sept. 27 on Yom Kippur, Jews are supposed to take stock of their lives, and rabbis’ sermons these days can touch on everything from personal religious observance to social issues, and from personal morality to international relations.
The letter, which several Orthodox rabbis in New Jersey say they will heed, urges Jewish clergy to publicly affirm, at least once during the High Holidays, that the Torah forbids all stealing; that secular laws bind religious Jews; that Jews should lead efforts to promote honesty in society; and that when making decisions, Jews must sacrifice financially rather than bring shame to God or Jewish law.
“This is not a time for splitting hairs over possible dissenting views,” the letter, signed by six leading Orthodox rabbis, reads. “…(W)e must make the ethical demands of the Torah and the day clear in the most public of ways. We strongly urge you to join with us and loudly declare, to our own communities and to the world, that we, representing Torah, will not tolerate any but the highest standards of ethics.”
The letter, while mentioning no specific arrests, refers indirectly to money-laundering charges against three Orthodox rabbis — two from Deal, N.J., Rabbi Ben Haim of Congregation of Ohel Yaacob and Rabbi Edmund Nahum of the Synagogue of Deal, and Rabbi Saul Kassin from Brooklyn — and organ-trafficking charges against a Jew from Brooklyn.
Those arrests were part of a massive sting operation that also led to the arrest of dozens of politicians on corruption charges.
The letter also seems to hint at the crimes of Bernie Madoff, whose fraudulent investment company cost thousands of people billions of dollars.
Among the New Jersey rabbis planning to address these issues during the holidays is Rabbi Shmuel Goldin of Ahavath Torah in Englewood, N.J., the first vice president of the Rabbinical Council of America, an organization of Orthodox rabbis.
“There are times you have to say things that really should be apparent in and of themselves, and that the ethical dimension of our religion and the ethical requirements of our religion are extremely high and should not be ignored,” Goldin said.
He stressed that personal devotion to religious ritual does not excuse a failure to follow the law.
“Sometimes what happens is, people will focus on specific rituals and ritual observance, which is extremely important and has to be followed … but if we expect that we’re just going to observe the letter of the law and do so without an internal fineness, then it really doesn’t work.”
Rabbi Yisroel Porath of Rutgers University Hillel in New Brunswick also plans to speak about ethics this coming week, he said.
“I have students who are about to enter the workforce, and this is an opportunity to teach not only about intellectual growth but also moral and ethical growth,” he said. “Students are seeing what’s going on in the Jewish world, and outside the Jewish world, with corruption, and the way some adults are behaving.”
The letter-writers’ organizations are widely associated with the Modern Orthodox strand of American Judaism. They include Moshe Kletenik, president of the Rabbinical Council of America; Basil Herring, executive vice president of the RCA; Richard Joel, president of Yeshiva University; Kenneth Brander, a dean at Yeshiva University’s Center for the Jewish Future; Steven Weil, executive vice president of the Orthodox Union; and Tzvi Weinreb, executive vice president emeritus of the OU.
“Most of the incidents really have nothing to do with Modern Orthodoxy,” Kletenik said. “They relate to other segments of the community. This is just to increase awareness about the importance of maintaining ethics in our lifestyle.”
Reform, Conservative and Reconstructionist rabbis did not receive the letter, and from interviews it seems unlikely that they will sermonize on the issue this week as much as Orthodox rabbis.
Several non-Orthodox rabbis, however, said they already spoke about the issue in weeks following the July arrests, and that they might touch on it this week. They said they were glad the Orthodox rabbis wrote the letter.
Rabbi Steven Kushner of Temple Ner Tamid in Bloomfield, N.J., a Reform congregation, said he will briefly refer to the men arrested in a sermon this week about another subject — the fleeting nature of possessions.
“The point of the sermons,” Kushner said, “is the minute you realize you don’t own anything and that the stuff you have is entrusted to you to take care of, and to share with others, then ultimately you wouldn’t fall into the same place that Madoff and those rabbis in Deal did.”
Goldin, the Englewood rabbi, acknowledged that he expects the subject to arise more in Orthodox synagogues than in other ones.
“We’re more visible than the other denominations, because we wear our religion on our sleeves, and at times the expectations are higher,”
he said. “When we fail it’s more apparent and therefore requires a greater response.”
By JEFF DIAMANT
c. 2009 Religion News Service
(Jeff Diamant writes for The Star-Ledger in Newark, N.J.)
Copyright 2009 Religion News Service. All rights reserved. No part of this transmission may be distributed or reproduced without written permission.

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