Wednesday, August 08, 2007

Orthodox Jews and Convict's Rights

Should a Jew who has been convicted of a crime and serving time in prison be entitled to make religious demands? That is a question implied in a Newsweek article sent to me by an alert reader.

When a person makes a criminal mistake should he then be forced to violate his religion as part of his punishment? Should the crime itself be a factor? For example if one is convicted of serial murder or rape do we need to accommodate him? What about grand theft? What about committing a fraud against a fellow citizen? …or a white collar crime like income tax evasion? And how far does one go with these kinds of accommodations? It is one thing to allow an inmate to have kosher food. But how about providing him with Seforim?

For one thing, I believe it does make a difference what the crime was. There is a difference between murder and income tax evasion. And the seriousness of the crime ought to be a factor in determining the level of rights retained by a convict serving out a prison sentence.

If a Frum Jew is convicted is of income tax evasion that is a Chilul HaShem. But I think we can all, agree that the level of Chilul HaShem is far less than if a Frum Jew committed murder, rape, grand theft, or fraud. And in a circumstance of income tax evasion or any similar type of victimless crime, I think that the government should try to reasonably accommodate the religious rights of an inmate. For example if one keeps Kosher the state ought to make a reasonable attempt to provide kosher food or at least allow others to provide it for him. But what about providing Seforim?

That is what one Orthodox Jewish inmate wants. He is suing Otisville prison officials because they removed Seforim from the prison chapel library… specifically a Rambam, the Code of Jewish Law written by Moses Maimonides and a Zohar, the classic book of Kabala believed to be written by Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai.

I don’t know what this fellow did to deserve a jail sentence. But I will give him the benefit of the doubt and say his crime was a ‘victimless’ white collar crime like income tax evasion. It seems to me that when one violates the law to a degree that warrants a jail sentence, certain rights are given up when paying the penalty for the crime. These books are not essential to observance of Halacha. The study of these books are merely a religious option not a religious requirement.

For an Orthodox Jew to cause a Chilul HaShem and then to demand Seforim to learn while he is incarcerated is the height of Chutzpah in my mind and it just increases the Chilul Hashem.

From the government’s perspective, removal of these books is part of a new policy to “reduce the risk that prisoners will find hateful or radicalizing (read: terrorist) materials in chapel libraries”. And in fact removing these volumes is ridiculous since a Rambam and a Zohar are in no way radicalizing. Be that as it may, this lawsuit is unwarranted.

To claim that his civil rights are being violated is quite disingenuous. What civil right is that? The right to learn the Rambam and the Zohar? He then further says, "every day we don't have access to [these books] really presents a problem for us." Really? What problem is that? That he is joined in the lawsuit by a Christian and a Muslim adds nothing to his argument. And that he is lying about it just makes matters worse.

As can be expected, there are Orthodox groups now interceding on his behalf. I don’t know which Orthodox groups the article is talking about, but I do not think this is a useful expenditure of this group’s time. Nor are they advancing the cause of Judaism by doing so. Instead of being a ‘light unto the nations’ they are making Judaism look trivial. And in the process possibly causing a Chilul HaShem themselves.

There is a proper time to petition the government about religious rights. This is not one of them. Furthermore there are a lot worthy projects these Orthodox groups could better be spending their time on. Squawking about the removal of reading material from a convicted criminal is hardly a worthy cause. All it does is make Orthodox Jewry look totally self serving and stupid.