By: Aryeh Schonbrun | Opinions  | 

“Zchus For Sale!”: YU Torah and The Indulgences of Torah Philanthropy

From time to time I avail myself of the privilege of modern societies—the internet. I read the news (i.e. YU Commentator), chat with friends, and sometimes even check my Facebook newsfeed. Sometimes I browse the vast stores of knowledge of Wikipedia, sometimes I listen to enlightening podcasts from the BBC, and sometimes I even search for answers to halakhic questions. And sometimes I do what might seem commonplace for any diligent YU bochur—I log onto Modern technology, with all its vices and annoyances has at least the zchus of having made recordings, videos, and shiurim of Torah available from a wide variety of sources, Rebbeim, and on a vast array of topics. With relative ease, I can select a topic that interests me, pick a shiur, and download or stream it instantly on my personal computer and smartphone. YU Torah, in fact, not only allows me to remain connected to the Torah, it also allows me to return to my days in YU and brings to me the personalities I left behind.

A friendly voice counts for much in the turbulence of my post-Aliya lifestyle, and the ability to tune in on demand and hear a shiur directly from my Rebbeim in the U.S., in English, brings great convenience and comfort. My soul demands a shiur once in a while in my native tongue, and the ability to return, albeit digitally, to a place from which I parted a year ago gives me some personal coherence in the hectic transitions I’ve come to expect here in Israel. I speak proudly of my Rebbeim back in the U.S., I feel obligated to instill in my fellow Israelis a respect for the Rabbis that they may not have heard about. With all of the politics of today’s Torah world, the knowledge that the Israel-specific problems (as related to the Rabbinate, army, etc.) don’t affect all Rebbeim equally gives me a better perspective as I relate to my surroundings. While I appreciate my Israeli Rabbis’ enthusiasm for the Zionist enterprise, and while I feel very connected to the goings on the military and societal levels (as I have many friends actively serving in the army), I frequently hearken back to the good-old-days of YU, where the issue at hand was just Torah, minus the distractions of today’s modern Israel.

However, my nostalgic revelry doesn’t last too long. Though we face many problems here in Israel, I should not ignore the issues facing the American Jewish community. Even while remaining shielded from Israel-specific issues, American Jewry suffers from other, systemic problems. Assimilation, Orthopraxy (and disaffection), and Antisemitism are just a few of the issues that you must deal with, and I sincerely wish you much luck. These problems have trailed the Jewish people from time immemorial, and have collectively wrought significant damage upon our national psyche. We have problems here too, but the ones listed usually get drowned out in the chaos of wars, scandals, and shady politics, not to mention the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict. It seems just natural (?!) that the loss of what some assess as 20% of religious youth gets much less focus than the fate of fifteen families who built their houses on [what’s claimed to be] private land. Some of the more enduring and significant issues, and accordingly, the issues most avoided and silenced such as the allocation of national resources, the housing bubble, the rising cost of living, and the increasingly unequal distribution of wealth get little to no media coverage. It serves no elite to speak about the real issues.

And while I cannot argue that the Jewish community as a whole finds itself complicit in the current state of affairs and I do not agree that the Jewish lobby should take responsibility for the U.S. and other countries’ financial arrangements, I do find it quite aggravating to see my fellow brethren following the dictates of neo-liberalist idolatry and as such supporting the cruel measures of population control that conjure up images of an Orwellian dystopia. The recently passed U.S. tax break for the rich, and corresponding funding cuts for the poor (as proposed), just prove to me the inarticulate cruelty of those responsible for enacting such draconian reform on the unsuspecting, hoodwinked masses that they claim to represent. The Jews didn’t pass the reform, and many of our brethren in politics protested valiantly against the robbery, however, I am not naïve. I know that some of us well-to-do welcomed the tax-breaks, and that most of us could not find the strength to call out the implicit perniciousness of the decree. Money was stolen from the American people and no one bothered to fight. To be fair, this was not our fight. We should not feel at liberty to interfere with impunity in foreign (i.e. non-Israeli) decisions, and our continued involvement in government does not always promote our well-being (à la Kushner). Nevertheless, I chose to write this not as a polemic against our indifference to others’ plight, but as a critique on our own failings. The evil that begot the recent tax bill does not stop at the national level, it even affects our religious communities.

Which brings me back to my homesick revelry: I download my shiur, put it on playback and, to my unsurprised chagrin I awake to the hurried voice of the impersonal announcer: ‘Today’s Learning is Sponsored by “….” Leiliuy nishmas “…”’ Honestly, I couldn’t care less who sponsored ‘today’s learning.’ I most likely have never met either the niftar or the donor. I must listen, as I do not want to miss my shiur, and thus I feel myself a captive audience. When the shiur begins I ask myself simply, did I gain anything from knowing that someone has sponsored my shiur? Do I really care? More deeply, I feel angst and become defensive. I begin to wonder: If they sponsored the shiur leiluy nishmas whomever, well, I’m going to appropriate that to my heart’s desire. I know enough people who have passed on, people whom I care about, whose souls I wish to elevate, and I don’t really care what the donor paid. Isn’t it my right to decide where the zchus goes?

I do not wish to seem too irreverent or facetious, but it must have occurred to someone that the advertisement-style informative nonsense we must listen to has no purpose or meaning. I do not wish to insult those who have opened their pockets to the furtherance of the teaching of Torah. They’re all-right. They mean well and deserve respect for making a sacrifice of their morally-earned (I hope) wealth. I just fail to see the reasoning behind their actions. If they want to gain zchus for their dear-departed, they should speak of them kindly, tell stories of the good-deeds that came to the world by their hands. It fills me with a certain sadness to hear of the departure of a soul from among us, to be prodded to learn and be maale their souls from purgatory, when I know nothing about them. How can I possibly pray for them if I don’t know anything about them! When we insert the choilim into davening, we usually either know them, or know someone who knows them. If we don’t, we insert them anyway, out of goodwill. We do not feel obligated, we do it out of love of our compatriots. When someone goes out of his way to pay for the soul of his dear-departed, I must comply, since, well, doesn’t he deserve it? If I am free to appropriate the zchus to whomever I wish, or to the general clal, what’s the point of it all? But then, if I must invest of my own consciousness, of my attention and consideration in order to help the soul of a comrade, then what have I gained from a ten-second statement of gratitude? Can I expect to feel any connection whatsoever? I cannot, and I must then conclude that the whole enterprise smells of of a forced transaction.

If I cannot feel myself invested in the beneficiary of the zchus (the donor and the soul) generated by my listening and absorbing the words of wisdom of my Rebbe, and I cannot feel myself directly aided by their contribution, then I have simply entered into a spiritual transaction without my consent. I don’t feel anything special towards the donor who has possibly indirectly made the shiur available to me, nor can I even express my gratitude in a significant manner. The powers that be have decided to appropriate the zchus that I’ve generated in my earnest desire to connect to the Almighty to whomever offered them the biggest check. I don’t have the ability to see where the zchus is going, and I cannot object, since where else am I to hear the shiurim of my Rebbeim? YU Torah has formed a monopoly on one of the sources of divine inspiration and thus can expropriate my rightly-earned zchus in favor of some benefactor whom I do not know and do not inherently trust. I didn’t agree to the arrangement and I won’t agree to mafqir my zchus to just anyone (sue me!).

But seriously, don’t take this the wrong way. YU Torah is great, it’s just that this kind of relationship infects the very fabric of religious communal life and that you can feel the destructive nature of the commodification of spirituality in almost every corner of our religious world. Donations, investments, and tzedakah have all come to represent a certain spiritual transaction. One might donate in order to gain merit, kavod, or just to feel good. One might invest in a project in order to feel part of something uplifting and one might give tzedakah in order to immune himself from future poverty or as an attempt to unburden himself from the load of a wealth amassed from questionable finances.

I do not mean to accuse every do-gooder of wrongdoing or of complicity in the nullification of the holiness of such good deeds. Most of us genuinely feel a sacrifice when we give of what we’ve earned. (The Atlantic (3/2013) reported that the poor, in fact, give more to charity (relatively) than their rich peers!) However, those who have made their wealth immorally can also abuse the system. A rich capitalist might find it satisfying and profitable to rid himself of his guilt by donating to an institution, Yeshiva (where students’ products of long hours of study get siphoned off), or charity fund. He feels himself clean of his spiritual filth when he gets his tax-deduction and merits good-standing among his peers. His wealth has been translated into a meilitz yosher and sheim tov, and instead of receiving a reprobation from his sacerdotal Rabbi on his questionable business practices, he receives an approbation and absolution (only rarely does one find a Rav fluent enough in financial matters to spot a crook). One can only wonder how deeply this illicit ceremony has infected our religious system and has thus quieted our consciences. A quick look at our priorities as a community might serve as a warning. Through the ongoing crisis of wealth inequality and people suffering in the streets, American Jews argued over expanding a seldom-used prayer section at the Kotel, among other nonsense. Hashem yerakhem.


Excerpts from the Luther’s 95 Theses:

32 Those who believe that they can be certain of their salvation because they have indulgence letters will be eternally damned, together with their teachers.

43 Christians are to be taught that he who gives to the poor or lends to the needy does a better deed than he who buys indulgences
45 Christians are to be taught that he who sees a needy man and passes him by, yet gives his money for indulgences, does not buy papal indulgences but God's wrath.

75-76 To consider papal indulgences so great that they could absolve a man even if he had done the impossible and had violated … God is madness. We say on the contrary that papal indulgences cannot remove the very least of venial sins as far as guilt is concerned.