Tuesday, September 16, 2014

Scaring Us Straight

Photo taken from Life in Israel
First let me applaud the community of Lakewood for promoting integrity in the workplace. There was apparently a program on this subject last Sunday night that featured 4 prominent speakers. 

This is an area that has been grossly underrepresented in the Torah world.  The focus in most Yeshivos is on the study of the Talmud… studying it in depth with all the commentaries so as to understand the sources and derivations of Halacha. Halacha that very often deals with ritual practices like the requirements for a Kosher Esrog.

What often gets lost in all of this is appropriate behavior in general society. I wish that there were more Mechanchim like Rabbi Yaakov Levi. He was my 7th and 8th grade Rebbe in Detroit’s Yeshivath Beth Yehudah. This man was the paradigm for honesty and integrity in society. I recall his habit of checking the return coin slots on public telephones when he passed them by to see if there were any unclaimed dimes. (That’s what phone calls used to cost on public telephones. Remember those?)

Most of us would have kept coins found that way. Not Rabbi Levy. Instead of keeping them, he would redeposit them into the payment slots. He felt that those coins belonged to the phone company and he wanted to assure that they would not be taken by anyone else. He did not do it because it might be a Chilul HaShem to take money from the phone company. He did it because he thought it was the right thing to do.  Those coins may have belonged to the callers whose calls did not go through. But if unclaimed, Rabbi Levi felt that they belonged to the phone company. And he wanted to make sure they got it.

Unfortunately this kind of integrity does not seem to exist today. Because of selective readings in the Gemarah; the misreading; or misunderstanding what Halacha requires of us in this area, jails have increasingly larger populations of observant Jews. It is not so rare anymore to find Kipa wearing Jews sitting in jail. The situation is so bad that organizations have arisen to deal with these people to help them navigate the penal system.

Part of this population of late consists of sex offenders. Sex offenders are basically psychopaths that cannot control their perverse sexual urges and become predators in order to satisfy them. Something that being Orthodox has nothing to do with. Sex offenders are found in all cultures and religions. It is not specifically an ‘Orthodox’ problem. It is a societal problem and beyond the scope of this post.

The rest of the ‘Frum’ prison  population  - with some exceptions (including one case of murder that I know about) are Jews that have committed white collar crimes. Like tax fraud or other illegal financial scams.

When it comes to financial dealings, now more than ever we need to do some real introspection. How is it that a religious Jew who is supposed to be of most refined character and honest to a fault ends up in prison for fraud? This is still a mystery to me. I could never understand why for example a Chasidic Rebbe thought it was OK to commit tax fraud through a money laundering scheme. Even with the most skewed reading of Halacha, there is no question about the desecration of God’s name that occurs when a prominent religious figure gets caught in a fraud.

I recall back in 2010 there was a mock ad promoting an ArtScroll book called The Laws of Incarceration.  Well, that book is now a reality. It is called Issurei HaMelech and is written in Hebrew. (It is not published by ArtScroll).

When it comes to observing ritual law, we have been well educated and tend to carefully observe them – often beyond the letter of the law. What a sad commentary on our educational system that it does not teach us how to interact with society at large. At least not with the same intensity that ritual laws are taught. Which I think is the source – at least in part – of this problem.

I’m glad that Lakewood is finally tackling it… and during the month of Elul no less. That is a good time to do it as this is the month when the gates of heaven open up for us and Teshuva (repentance) is more readily received by God.

There has been some speculation about a video presentation documenting prison life. It featured ‘interviews with members of our community that have experienced the challenges of prison life’. Rafi asked whether this was an appropriate venue for this, and wondered what this video was all about.

I don’t know. I wasn’t there. But if there is a fire, you don’t ask if now is the time to put it out. If this was a ‘Scared Straight’ video, I’m all for it. ‘Scared Straight’ was a 1978 documentary about a group of juvenile delinquents that spent 3 hours with convicts - all with life sentences at Rahway State Prison, a maximum security facility in New Jersey. (It was renamed East Jersey State Prison in 1988.) For those 3 hours those kids were harangued  by serious criminals about the life they lived in prison… where they may end up if they continued to pursue a life of crime. Those kids were literally scared into rejecting their formerly crooked ways… and becoming straight.

Of course being scared straight should not be the primary motive for having integrity in your interactions with society. That is basic Halacha. Not to mention our mandate to be an Or LaGoyim – a light unto the nations. We are supposed to be exemplars of ethical behavior, not transgressors of it. But, as noted - this an area of Jewish education that is under served.  Which is why there are Minyanim and Daf Yomi Shiurim in prison.  And Kosher food.  And Orthodox prisoner advocacy groups.

Unfortunately, there are too many of us that think if we can get away with it, it’s OK to cheat the system and commit financial crimes. That is a failing of the educational system. Educators have not properly transmitted these very real ethical Jewish values.

If ethical behavior has not been learned in the schools, then it has to be learned somewhere else. In the meantime scaring people straight should help stem the tide. It is sad that they are not scared straight at the idea of sinning against God. Or by the possible desecration of His name. But if they are not going to be ‘scared by God’ let them be scared by man. Hopefully at some point they will incorporate ethical behavior into their lives for the right reasons. MiToch SheLO L’Shma, Bah L’Shma.  Hopefully this will begin to reduce the Frum prison population until not a single Jew will be there for a financial crime.