Criminals in Our Midst

March 26, 2014

clip_image002It happened again. An Orthodox Jew – a teacher and a prominent member of his community – has been accused of a particularly heinous crime. I say “accused” not because he’s an Orthodox Jew but because this is America and a person has a presumption of innocence until he’s been proven guilty. I don’t believe that he was railroaded or that his arrest was motivated by anti-Semitism, but that also does not automatically make him guilty. I’m not FBI or NYPD; I don’t have access to the evidence, so the fact that he was arrested and that the arrest was reported in the papers does not mean he’s guilty, though I am open to the possibility.

See how even-handed that is? Why is it so hard for some people to be rational about such things? But many people go way too far to one extreme or the other.

Before addressing these two extreme reactions, let’s discuss what I believe is the underlying issue in such cases: betrayal. Some cases hit us harder than others because of this emotional aspect. When a high school teacher is arrested for having an affair with a student, we feel betrayed because we trusted him with our children. When a financial manager embezzles our money in a giant Ponzi scheme and crashes the global economy, we feel betrayed because we trusted him with our retirement funds (and also because, you know, the whole crashing-the-global-economy thing). When it comes to crimes committed by Catholic priests and Orthodox Jews, observers of various faiths have strong reactions because the accused are people preaching higher moral values. As Jews, we are especially mortified when Orthodox Jews are in the police blotter section of the daily paper because it’s a chillul Hashem – a desecration of G-d’s Name. The accused’s actions disparage Torah and make us all look bad. (We are not alone in this. A Muslim friend’s reaction to the Fort Hood shooting was “Please let it not be a Muslim, please let it not be a Muslim, please let it not be a Muslim – dagnabit!” Except what she said was somewhat stronger than “dagnabit.”)

There are two reactions people typically have to such cases, equally incorrect. The first is kneejerk exoneration. The reasoning is a traditional syllogism: “Orthodox Jews don’t do such things. This person is an Orthodox Jew. Therefore, he didn’t do it.” This syllogism is founded on a faulty premise. The first clause should read “Orthodox Jews should not do such things,” or perhaps, “the Torah tells us not to do such things.”

A subordinate category of this mindset is that if someone did in fact do such a thing, then he’s not really Orthodox. This is a fallacious argument called “no true Scotsman.” The argument, amended for the issue at hand, goes like this:

“No Orthodox Jew would cheat on his taxes.”

“But Chaim Yonkel cheats on his taxes!”

“Then he’s not really an Orthodox Jew.”

Sorry, but if someone keeps Shabbos, eats kosher, wears a yarmulke (if he’s a man), etc., he’s an Orthodox Jew, even if he’s guilty of some wrongdoing. Own it.

On the other extreme, there are those who use any instance of wrongdoing on the part of an Orthodox Jews as a component in a larger agenda. First among these are those who use it as a general indictment of religion, e.g., “this religious guy is a slumlord, therefore religion is bogus.” Sorry, but unless one’s religion tells him not to provide heat or running water, then it’s not the religion’s fault. The Torah tells us to be honest in business, so if someone acts otherwise, it’s that individual’s shortcoming, not the Torah’s.

The other reaction at this extreme is over-compensation. Rather than saying, “these things don’t happen,” they say, “those people are all alike.” To them, all Orthodox Jews are embezzlers and all rabbis are child molesters – this one just got caught. Such a mindset is so ludicrous that it shouldn’t even require rebuttal but the blogosphere is full of such sentiment.

The extremists at this end of the spectrum also criticize the community for failing to throw the accused under the bus, metaphorically speaking. (Some would no doubt prefer that it be done in the literal sense as well.) There’s a world of difference between blanket exoneration of every co-religionist and standing beside one’s family and friends. When someone is arrested, is everyone supposed to just assume they’re guilty and abandon them? I imagine that, if convicted, the criminal will lose some friends. That’s natural enough – no one wants to be known as BFFs with Moishe the Mad Monkey-Slayer – but it’s no flaw if a community chooses to stand by one of their own for the ride. Who among us would want to be abandoned in a time of need? (An important caveat is that if the person is accused of being a threat to children, common sense dictates removing him or her from a position dealing with youth until such time as he or she is fully determined to be innocent.)

One semi-valid criticism is that some offenders commit their crimes because they think they’re above the law. That may actually happen on occasion and, when it does, I will join you in criticizing that mind-set. But again, please don’t attribute such a mentality to the Torah or assume that we’re all guilty of it! The Talmud tells us in half a dozen places that dina d’malchusa dina – the law of the land (so long as it doesn’t violate the Torah) is the law (Bava Kama 113b, Gittin 10b, et al.). So pay your taxes and wear a seatbelt because civil law applies to everybody!

Then there’s the issue of the accused’s good deeds. If the one on trial or in jail was charitable, hospitable, a master educator or in some way a pillar of their community, those at the first extreme will try to use that to exonerate them. Sorry, but that’s not a defense. But those at the second extreme would deprive a convict or an ex-con of credit for his good works, as if he had never done anything worthwhile in his life. That’s not fair, either. In reality, each of us is a mixture of good and bad in varying degrees. The book of Koheles tells us (7:20) that nobody on earth is so righteous that they always do the right thing and never sin. But, as Shakespeare tells us, “The evil that men do lives after them; The good is oft interred with their bones” (Julius Caesar Act III, scene 2 – who says this isn’t a classy piece?). We humans have short memories; as soon as someone falls from favor, we tend to discount every positive contribution they may have made. Of course, there’s a matter of degree: depending on the nature of the offense, we may not want to put the convicted’s name on a building or a plaque, but that doesn’t mean they never did anything right. And, while being a slumlord is detestable, in a relative scale isn’t it better for someone to have been a charitable slumlord than a miserly slumlord? Isn’t having one grievous fault better than having two? (Not an endorsement of being a slumlord.)

I hope we don’t have many such news stories but there will inevitably be one now and again. This is because Orthodox Jews tend to be human beings and therefore imperfect, just like everybody else. We have an obligation to be dan l’kaf z’chus (to judge others favorably) but to assume that the Orthodox are physically incapable of committing an offense is just naive. Conversely, to jump to the conclusion that every accused is not only guilty but somehow part of an Orthodox cabal is to embrace antiquated anti-Semitic canards worthy of the Protocols of the Elders of Zion.

As with most things, both extremes are too… well, extreme. A healthy dose of moderation is called for and, as usual, the Torah lights the path for us. The Torah tells us (Deuteronomy 19:13) not to let dangerous criminals run around unpunished – that’s not safe! – but it also tells us (ibid., 25:3) not to continue to penalize somebody who has paid his debt to society – that’s not humane! People are capable of committing acts deserving of fines, incarceration, and sometimes even execution, but they’re still people. True monsters are thankfully pretty rare.

We’re all individuals, each of us a mixture of good and bad. When someone stumbles, we should offer a hand to help him back up. When someone crosses the line, they should not get a pass just because they happen to hold religious beliefs similar to ours. But when they’ve paid their debt – assuming they pose no danger to the community – they should not have to live as a pariah under the cloud of ostracism for the rest of their lives. If we remove our blinders, whatever they may be, we can help to forge communities that are ultimately both kinder and safer.