A recent feature in The Jewish Link recalls former New York State Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver (“Former Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver Niftar at Age 77,” January 26, 2022). Silver certainly accomplished much good during his career. It is also true that the revelations of the last few years of his life run the risk of overshadowing the good he has performed on behalf of the Jewish community. Yet the decision to run a largely positive obituary about Silver is puzzling, to say the least.
On numerous counts, Silver is not one we would expect to be held up as a frum role model. Of course, all things being equal, the days following someone’s death are not the time to rehash someone’s shortcomings. Unfortunately, however, the publication of an overwhelmingly positive obituary requires a response. As the article acknowledges (to its credit), though does not elaborate, Silver was a disgraced criminal who abused his power to illegally earn millions of dollars in kickback schemes and became the face of Albany’s political corruption. Additionally, Silver failed to seriously investigate 2008 charges that his chief counsel had sexually assaulted two women, and in both 2011 and 2015 downplayed multiple charges of sexual harrassment, this time against a former ssemblyman. All the victims suffered immensely as a result of Silver’s inaction. Unfortunately, there is also little indication that Silver sought to engage in teshuvah for his various misdeeds, nor does the article raise this possibility. He was hardly a role model who should be recalled with fondness and pride.
I fear that the Silver piece reflects broader trends in our community to which we should heed close attention. For years, many have expressed concern about the tendency in right-leaning elements in the North American Orthodox community to place great value on membership in and loyalty to the frum community at the expense of overlooking wrongdoings such as criminal activity. (The lionizing of Sholom Rubashkin as a Jewish hero comes immediately to mind.)
Silver is similarly depicted as a frum insider who shared our culture and values: He grew up on the Lower East Side, davened regularly at the Bialystoker Synagogue, performed acts of chesed, was a “mensch,” enjoyed devouring heimish Lower East Side deli from Shmulka Bernstein’s, held numerous celebrations for the Lubavitcher Rebbe, was “niftar,” and is now in “shamayim,” where Hashem can finally give him his proper reward. But this sends the wrong message: The mere fact that a prominent political personality is closely identified with and made positive contributions to the frum community, does not automatically render him a role model.
Invoking communal identification as a reason to recall someone for good is particularly ironic in the case of one who caused an egregious chillul Hashem that extended over the course of many years. In regard to matters of atonement, the Gemara (Yoma 86a) considers chillul Hashem the most severe of all aveirot. At his most desperate moments, Moshe Rabbeinu pleads with Hashem on behalf of the Jewish people by raising the specter of the desecration of His name. An entire book of Tanakh, Sefer Yechezkel, centers around the theme of chillul Hashem. And some of our community’s greatest role models, including Rav Soloveitchik, zt”l, repeatedly emphasized and modeled a commitment to integrity as an indispensable element of an authentic halachic lifestyle.
One need only mention the name of Bernie Madoff to recall that in recent years, the name of Hakadosh Baruch Hu has too often been besmirched as we have fallen short of our mandate to sanctify the name of Hashem. In this environment, it is imperative that we avoid any signal or implication that diminishes the severity of chillul Hashem. Our mandate is to uphold individuals of integrity as role models for ourselves, our community, and our children.Rabbi Tzvi Sinensky
Lower Merion, Pennsylvania