Why Do We Care So Much About a Slain Satmar Slumlord?

We can't just blame the New York Post for its provocative headline. We - with our love for lapping up sensationalism and using gossip to make ourselves feel better - are just as guilty.

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The New York Post caused a storm when it sprawled the words "Slumlord found burned in dumpster: Who didn't want him dead?" across its front page. These words, provocative as they are, would hardly have caused the uproar they did except for the fact that the accompanying image was of a Satmar Hasid with a beard, payot (sidelocks), shtreimel and kapota. Condemnations of the Post have been pouring in, mostly from the ultra-Orthodox community, with accusations of anti-Semitism, self-hating Jews, and demands for an apology. The Post story was sensationalist, as were the sickening details it presented. But no one accused it of getting the facts wrong. It simply did what it did because that’s how it sells news.

For me, and I suspect for many others, the initial gut reaction was not compassion for a murdered human being, but a fixation on the image of a Satmar slumlord in full Hasidic costume, being represented as a hypocrite. We have a Yiddish term for this, a “tzadik in peltz,” a seemingly righteous person in a fur coat. Rabbi Mendel of Kotzk, the Kotzker Rebbe, taught that when it is winter and freezing cold, one can do two things; either build a fire or wrap oneself in a fur coat. In both cases, the person is warm. However, by building a fire, everyone is warmed. With the fur, the only one warmed is the one wearing the coat.

To be a righteous person, taking responsibility for others is a Jewish value. To dress up and take care of oneself, while ignoring the plight of others, is selfish. To be a slumlord with hundreds of documented complaints and violations on properties owned and managed - even when one performs acts of charity in one’s own community - is reprehensible.

The Satmar Hasidic movement is known for its isolationism, its opposition to modernity and to all forms of Zionism. The Satmar attitude toward the State of Israel is antipathy. In 1967, after the Six-Day War, the Satmar Rebbe, Joel Teitelbaum, even banned his followers from visiting the Western Wall and other holy sites now under Israeli rule, lest that confer legitimacy.

The negative connotations portrayed by the image, headline and the words "slumlord" and "Satmar," create the impression that maybe, somehow, the victim may have been responsible for his own murder. That conclusion is so based on prejudice, so judgmental and so unequivocally wrong. To even entertain for a moment that there is any justification for this kidnapping and brutal murder is perverse.

So why do we?

I believe it starts because we are consumed with lashon hara, literally “evil speech,” when we act uncontrollably as though sensationalist details need to be shared. Verbalization helps us to try to make sense of something horrible, drives us to assign meaning through judgment. B’tzedek tishpot amitecha, “with righteousness, judge your fellow.” The injunction doesn’t specify that your fellow has-to be righteous.

In addition, all of us have something dark inside that we shield from others - even those closest to us - and particularly from ourselves. When we judge, we objectify the fault in others and give ourselves a free pass. The harsher our judgment, the more likely it is that what we hate in the other is what we hide inside ourselves.

And what should we do when we are drawn toward this dark side?

The Talmud, Tractate Brachot, page 5b proscribes:

“A man should always incite the good impulse in his soul to fight against the sinful stimulus. For it is written: Tremble, and sin not. If he subdues it, well and good. If not, let him study Torah. For it is written: Commune with your own heart. If he subdues it, well and good. If not, let him recite the Shema. For it is written: Upon your bed. If he subdues it, well and good. If not, let him remind himself of the day of death. For it is written: And be still; Selah.”

And when one passes on at the end of 120 years, what is the first question one is asked? The Talmud, Tractate Shabbat, page 31a teaches:

“When they escort a person to his final judgment after his death, (the Heavenly Tribunal) says to him: Did you conduct your business transactions faithfully?”

Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach, drawing from a teaching of the Ari Hakadosh, Rabbi Yitzchak Luria, related that a person at the end of his life is not shown one movie, as is commonly known, but two. One has to first review the story of one’s life, all that one did, the good and the bad. But then there is a second movie; the story of what one’s life could have been or should have been. Depending on the degree of difference between the films, one may find peace or be torn asunder.

May we take and use the time allotted us wisely and with deliberation; self-reflection and personal repair, not judgment of another. For in judging others, are we not, each of us, a tzadik in peltz?

Rabbi Yehoshua Looks is COO of Ayeka, a teacher and a freelance consultant to non-profit organizations.

New York Post front page January 5, 2014

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