Saturday, December 26, 2009

Why the Tropper Scandal Scares Me

I have not the slightest inclination to listen to the infamous audios floating around on the Internet, for a few reasons.

One, because we are trained (Pirkei Avot 4:18) not to look at others בשעת קלקלתן, at the time of their corruption. We have nothing to gain, and much sensitivity to lose, by such voyeurism.

Another reason is that I saw this coming years ago. I didn't predict his specific downfall, but I attended an EJF conference in Boston several years ago, where it was obvious that the people in charge were taking advantage of the benevolence of their major donor, Tom Kaplan.

Mr. Kaplan spoke at a dinner during the event and outlined his vision of an organization which would help intermarried couples return to Judaism. From what I could see, this was not the agenda of the people running the conference, and it was not what was being implemented on the ground. The man with the dream was being used by the people charged with carrying it out.

I turned to the person next to me – turned out to be the Executive Director – and I commented, “He reminds me of Peter Pan.” After that comment I didn’t get invited back, which was neither a surprise nor a disappointment; it was clear that agenda had already trumped ethos.

But the major reason I don’t want to hear those conversations is the thought of how many others could end up doing what he did.

The profile for leaders who fall into this trap is straightforward:
People whose great ambition overwhelms their personalities;
People who abandon tzniut as they put themselves into the spotlight;
People who think they are the smartest ones in the room.

Taken with their ambitions, they overstep lines in pursuit of their goals, until the act of breaking rules becomes meaningless;
Abandoning tzniut, they stand front-and-center, eating up the accolades and thinking themselves unbounded heroes whose foibles are nothing to their successes;
Believing themselves the smartest in the room, they ignore the concerns of others and they imagine that any danger they don’t perceive must not be real.

And so they feed their egos, and so they break rules, and so they fall, thinking all the while that they are in pursuit of the greatest good.

There are lots of ambitious, talented, charismatic leaders in the Jewish world. They are many leaders who are quite capable of ignoring red lines on issues that are dear to them. I am very concerned, worrying who will be next.

[This week's Haveil Havalim is here.]


  1. Part of the fault lies with the individuals whose hubris allows them to believe that they know better than anyone else, that they are, indeed, better than everyone else. Another part of the fault lies with those who accept the pronouncements of these people as fact and truth without bothering to think through if this is the actual case.

    Across the board Rebbe, rabbi, icon worship without any checks and balances is a real part of the problem. Too many times we work on the assumption that having smicha is an automatic protection against human frailty, that being frum excludes any personal agendas not in keeping with what Klal needs. Yes, it's "their" fault, and I,too, worry what is coming next, but it is also our fault for being too gullible in some cases and too complacent in others.

  2. What scares me was that if he had not been accused of personal issues, his definitions of conversion would've continued unchallenged.
    Joel RIch

  3. ProfK-
    I suppose so, but I'm not sure that organizational checks and balances are the way to keep people from sinning in their private lives.

    Do you think this development is going to change that?

  4. "Do you think this development is going to change that?"

    No, I don't think this development will have much bearing on that point.

    Frankly, it isn't "his" definition of conversions. That definition preceded him and will continue long past him. In fact, it isn't his definition of conversions that is the problem with EJF. The long known issue with them was their proselytization efforts, not their definition of conversions.

    So this development may put the final nail in EJF's coffin, and hopefully the proselytization that went with it. But the definition of conversions remains what was defined long before them, including by EJF's adversaries - notably Rav Moishe Sternbuch of the Badatz in Yerushlayim.

  5. I think it will take off some of the short term pressure. I can't wait till they start questioning the eidi kiddushin at MO weddings and declare those marriages invalid (let alone gittin)
    I think there has been an impact of the general society's it's all about winning which has mutated into everyone else is wrong and evil.
    Joel Rich

  6. What scares me is the effect these types of personalities are having on Orthodox leadership and on Orthodoxy in general. The fact that scholars with such conceit and self-righteousness have been able to command such respect even outside their own institutions shows that there is a lack of self-reflection in the greater communal leadership. I think that what the leadership fails to realize is that the type of dismissive attitude held by these personalities towards rabbis with even a slightly different hashkafah (not to mention the attitude towards prospective and actual converts) derives from the same arrogance. The danger is that if this lesson is not internalized, rabbis with creative views will be sidelined, and the rabbinate will become fossilized. Orthodoxy will then cease to be able to attract people or to preserve its own ranks. Of course, I am aware that our own community is not monolithic, and that much of this is causing an even greater split between the more closed and open segments of the community, but these types of absolute boundaries are not healthy in the long run, since both communities in actual fact derive their own legitimacy from some of the same sources. Developments in one group will affect developments in the other.

  7. I agree with the first Joseph's comment. (The second Joseph seems to be someone else.)

    I strongly believe the EFJ scandal will have no effect other than shuttering the EJF organization.

    The conversion standards desired by the Gedolim in Eretz Yisroel, as well as the recognition or non-recognition of whatever categories of potential conversion candidates will remain completely and entirely unaffected by the personal scandal of the EJF personality of recent vintage.

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  9. Joel-
    I take some issue with your term "his definitions of conversion." For the most part, these conversions are done to fulfill as many shitos as possible. Giyur lechumra doesn't negate previously performed geirus, but it means performing all geirus that we can with the highest standards - meaning that the largest number of shitos possible are fulfilled with the way the geirus are performed.

    One area of possible discontent is converting the non-Jewish spouse (and possible children) in an intermarried couple. However, the processes utilized here are done with many poskim's approval.

    The only place where "definition" may come into play is putting a focus on dayanim's opinion on the age of the world.

  10. The Talmid-
    I've been staying out of the discussion for the most part, but I should note that, in this case, giyyur l'chumra does negate the previous performed gerus. The EJF-promoted policy was that the previous gerus was worthless.

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