Tuesday, January 18, 2011

The Greater Good

Guest Post by Yossi Ginzberg

In the United States, Blacks compose about 12% of the population. Shockingly and sadly, in the prison population, they compose about 41% of the inmates.

Most attribute this disproportionate fact to be the result of many years of abusive treatment at the hands of the police and the judicial systems. That they were frequently denied proper justice, were unfairly tried, and were disproportionately forced into the penal system is an unarguable fact.

These facts triggered an unfortunate response within the Black community: disrespect for the police, automatic disregard of crimes committed by Blacks, denial of the existence of a very real problem, and ignoring of the effect of all this on the younger generation. The most vocal positions are taken by those who stand to profit from it: the demagogues, the would-be community leaders, and so on.

This situation has stood for decades, for the most part without any real action being taken by anyone, while young Black people continue to mature as criminals, entering the judicial and penal systems in an apparently unstoppable flow.

Why should we, as Orthodox Jews, care about this?

I remember fondly how many years ago, when the first (at least the first within my rather long memory) nursing home scandal broke, how the New York papers had a field day. It was a classic “Man bites dog” moment- a Rabbi that committed crimes! It captured the headlines for weeks. And it is from there that my fondness for the memory stems: It was a rare event, an unheard-of event.

Sadly, that is no longer the case. A Kipa, a black hat, a beard are no longer seen by a large percentage of Americans as symbols of integrity or fidelity, they’re seen as red alert symbols that this employee should be watched, and in too many cases, not hired. Even as these symbols are more visible all over the country, they are less taken as badges of good faith.

And to what should this be attributed?

Obviously, media attention plays a part, and has been far too often overplaying the criminal appearances of our likeminded brethren. Still, with less than 10 minutes work on Google and old posts on the Failed messiah site, I compiled a list of over 50 Jewish men that actually are rabbis, and the list includes Litvaks and Chassidim, Roshei yeshiva and Rebbes, and even several authors of Halacha books. Orthodox from virtually every community appear. Of course, anti-Semitism on the part of a judge, a prosecutor, or a jury is also a favorite excuse, as is ignorance of the “illogical and unfair” laws.

But it appears to me that these are insufficient reasons for our proud community of people devoted to Torah principles, to the truth and justice and fairness and equal treatment of all that the holy Torah promotes, to become fellow-travelers to the problems facing the Black population.

So why is this happening, and how can it be stopped?

My analysis of this leads me to believe that the origin of the problem lies in the success of Orthodoxy. That same cultural assimilation of the Orthodox community that allows us to wear Kipas in court, avoid alternate parking on YomTov, build Eruvs, get synagogue variances, stop on-the-job discrimination, and so on has also allowed interventions on behalf of Orthodox under indictment and has created fast-growing Orthodox congregations within the prison system.

This act of mercy towards the Orthodox criminal has the effect, for the community at large, of decriminalizing the offense. There have already been cases where criminals (of financial fraud) have done more crimes while still awaiting trial for the first! Likewise, the friends who serve as straw men to buy the houses of criminals and bankrupts and then “give them back” may be doing a great Chesed to that family, but the message sent loud and clear to the community and particularly the young is, “Don’t worry, for us Jews there are no consequences”. This has been true even when the victims too were part of the orthodox community.

I am NOT saying that we should have no mercy on the wives and children of miscreants, nor that they should not appeal. I am simply saying that their appeals should be personal issues, not highly-publicized community issues. Likewise, I am sympathetic to the obscene 27-year sentence imposed for financial fraud, but still feel that these issues are not for the public to confront.

The burgeoning issue and the one that brought me to once again post is the recent trend toward the automatic defense of Orthodox miscreants of all stripes, where defenders have no reality check, no apparent scruples on spending, and no apparent care toward how the world perceives their actions.

There are sadly many cases that qualify for retrospection as to whether or not the greater Jewish good has been served in defending the criminal. The convicted and executed murderer from Florida being touted and buried as a “Tzadik” is only a symptom of how crazed this behavior can get. Is spending millions to defend the smugglers in Japan a reasonable cause?

Aside from issues of Chilul Hashem (media coverage has been greatly expanded thanks to these efforts), the communal charity pool is finite, and it is reasonable to make the assumption that money that goes towards attorneys is at least partly coming at the expense of day schools, yeshivas, and other charities. Likewise for the greatly promoted collection of funds for the extended defenses of others.

Perhaps even more egregious, and a step even further in the wrong direction, is the recent phenomenon of well-known rabbis traveling to prisons to extend “Chizuk” to the incarcerated. This has become more and more common, and while it perhaps started as a fair attempt to influence local media, it has now become a source of embarrassment. Whether one accepts the verdict and guilt of a man convicted of repeatedly raping his own daughter or feels that he simply erred in refusing to be represented by counsel, is this a message that we want to convey to our children?

I stop short of making the claim that the Jewish world has demagogues that encourage this willfully so as to profit from it, but find it impossible to understand that rabbis sign in the dozens on the most inane bans but somehow cannot get even a Minyan to comment on this issue that challenges our very future.

Sadly, I make this prediction: If this trend isn’t stopped- and soon- the Orthodox criminal statistics may soon rival the horrific statistics exhibited by the Black population. Their problem was caused by a lack of real leadership and a refusal to acknowledge the problem, and ours will come from the same sources.

One final note. I have purposely refrained from making any comments about valuing the biblical ban on theft over the issues of “Lashon Hara” and “Dan l’kaf zchus” and similar Halachic references because comments would digress from substance to arguing those points. I cannot resist, however, to note that on last week's Torah reading (Beshalach) the Meshech Chochma comments, (my own translation) “If the community becomes morally corrupt, it is worse than if they fail to observe the commandments…The generation of the Flood violated all the laws, but were condemned by Hashem for their thefts”.