Cross-Currents on the Ropes

Like Hollywood, the blogosphere can be a place where no good deed goes unpunished.

When I wrote my original piece about Jack Abramoff’s hat, I thought I was being generous to him by speculating that he wished to minimize the chilul Hashem (descration of G-d’s Name) of appearing in a kippah. I wound up on the ropes for this, which I at least had said, and for something I definitely did not say.

In a succession of postings and comments, I’ve been trading positions with David Klinghoffer. I thought my last post ended it all, and was somewhat surprised to see that the exchange had been resurrected in a cover story of last week’s Los Angeles Jewish Journal, where I am accused of all kinds of malevolence to Baalei Teshuva. At least I am in good company, since the Torah itself stands accused of some pretty inappropriate positions. David and I know each other for years. Not only is he bright and gifted, but he is a good chap, and I trust that our friendship will survive some of the trenchant criticism to follow.

Readers who are clueless about all of this, and puzzled about what I was accused of saying are invited to read the entire thread, i.e. my Cross-Currents posts of January 9, 10, 16, 17 and 24. They should be sure to read all of it, preferably including readers’ comments.

To cite the indubitable Dr Seuss:

I could not, should not, did not say that thing!

I did not say, think or imply that Mr Abramoff did what he did because he was a baal teshuvah. I guessed (correctly, it turns out) that he was, for quite different reasons which I cannot put in print. I made the mistake of introducing another argument, having little to do with Mr Abramoff. It pointed a finger at certain FFBs (NOT at BTs), who were lax in their mentoring of certain BTs they had influence over. For the most part, I disagree with David, and fully expect that BTs would be underrepresented among convicted felons, because they are, as a group, a more motivated and self-critical group than FFBs. I made this abundantly clear in my second post. Why David chose to ignore my explanation remains a mystery to me. Perhaps he used up his explanatory powers on Mr Abramoff and had none left over for me.

More important, however, is responding to some of the points from which our readers can perhaps gain from some deeper understanding.

1) The most serious error is in David’s challenge, in the Jewish Journal and elsewhere. He wants a source in Shulchan Aruch (SA) that permits denouncing the evildoer. The mistake is a common one: people believe that all answers to halachic questions are somehow contained in SA, the Code of Jewish Law.

This is simply not true. Many, many of the most important questions we face as individuals and as a community, in all arenas of the law, are simply not found in SA. There is no way to adequately give voice to the importance of SA, but it was not designed to be, nor could any one work be, the written record of all that we need to know about halacha. Familiarity with as basic a text as Mishnah Berurah will remind many of our readers that the text of SA just doesn’t do the trick. Many layers of discussion of decisors since the 16th century need to be supplemented; additionally, the authors of SA also simply did not address countless questions.

In the semester-long course that I give in Loyola Law School on “Contemporary Issues in Jewish Law,” not a single issue that we study has a simple, direct answer in SA.

I assume that David knows about the strictures against lashon hora (derogatory speech) about another. Can he point to any place in SA that sets forth the parameters of the transgression? (The only two places in SA that talk about lashon hora tell the reader that two specific kinds of speech are not lashon hora.) Is the Chofetz Chaim’s work on lashon hora therefore not halacha?

I provided a halachic analysis of when and why it should be permissible – yes, obligatory – to publicly denounce misdeeds as a bandaid to chilul Hashem. People are free to disagree with the analysis. But if the analysis is correct, then it has halachic standing even if none of the sources are enshrined in SA. This is the way of halacha. (One of our commenters, Eliezer Barzilai, offered an argument that I had not considered, and that seems strong to me. Readers are referred to his words, comment #12 to my Jan. 24 post.)

2) The thrust of David’s argument is problematic. He invites our sympathy for JA, because he did so much good with the monies he amassed. There are two problems with this. Firstly, we should empathize with JA’s plight simply because he is a brother looking at some painful time ahead. He needs nothing more to earn our feeling, and any help we can offer. But none of this is about JA the person. No one should have condemned him as a person. That is not our job; in this I completely concur with David. JA’s actions, however, needed swift condemnation, because they did in fact constitute a chilul Hashem. That chilul Hashem would be magnified by the silence of his own community. His subsequent apologies are important to JA as a person, and important in the way others relate to him. They can increase our sympathy, and should soften any court-imposed punishment. But they don’t erase the public knowledge that a person who was known to be an observant Jew was caught playing fast and loose with the law. Because so many people are quick to assume that he erred because of, rather than despite, his religious convictions, the community must proclaim that the Torah does not accept such behavior.

3) Worse, though, is the implication in David’s argument (which I refuse to believe he meant) that we should soften our opposition to JA’s behavior because he accomplished good things with it. That, I believe, only makes the chilul Hashem worse, not better. Keli Yakar (Leviticus 1:2) observes that the Torah cautions against using ill-gotten gain no less than three times in one short section– at the beginning, middle and end of the first Torah discussion dealing with offering up our material goods to Hashem. Why? Because so many excuse cutting ethical corners as long as they redeem themselves by sharing their profits (or dedicating them in their entirety) to a higher purpose. Precisely because so many people react this way, we must publicly distance ourselves from it. We have seen, over the last few years, much media attention focused on the misdeeds of a certain subgroup of the Orthodox community, in which a very small number of its members were convicted for major fraud involving Federal grant monies. All the money, in some cases, went to support community institutions. (Last I checked, there was a large yeshiva that was wholly owned and operated by the Federal government, because it had seized the building and its assets! The Supreme Court had not yet figured out the entanglement problems that flow from this.) Did this lessen the chilul Hashem, or increase it?

A number of years ago, many of us were asked to write letters to a judge asking for mercy in the sentencing phase of a convicted Jew. We were explicitly asked by wise people in the Torah community NOT to argue that the unfortunate criminal had accomplished much good with the stolen funds. We were asked to fully repudiate the crime – and nonetheless plead for mercy. We should do nothing differently in the case of JA: repudiate the misdeeds, and work assiduously to ease his plight. For the vast majority who cannot help him actively, we should heed David’s call to daven for him, to feel for him and his family, rather than celebrate that he has been caught and punished. Repudiate, however, we must.

4) This has been mentioned before. I am very uncomfortable with David’s assumption that a public apology is the equivalent of what we call teshuvah. Teshuvah is not saying I’m sorry, although that is part of it. Real teshuvah is a profound, complex inner process. JA may very well have done real teshuvah, but human beings cannot know this. In infractions between Man and Man, full restitution – something beyond the present ability of JA – is part of the process. In general, the purported or real teshuvah of an accused does not affect the punishment of the court. (It can allow a misfeasor to reinstate himself as a kosher witness in future testimony.) David creates an equivalence between a public apology with the process of teshuvah that sells teshuvah short. Parts of the Christian world reduced teshuvah to a ghost of itself by making it too easy and available and taken for granted. We should not be party to that.

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2 Responses

  1. Tamara Zwinak says:

    What is the constructive purpose of the public chastisement of Mr. Abramoff? I hope we take this opportunity to demonstrate Shmiras Haloshon in action.

    I empathize with Mr. Abramoff. I can not possibly know the inner workings of his heart, but must take him at his word and then watch his behavior to determine if he is repentant.

    I cannot remember exactly where I read this, but correct me if I am wrong, we are all guilty when we go into court, and innocent when we exit. That is it. Mr. Abramoff is now innocent. He has entered his plea and is cooperating with the authorities. Let him and his family rebuild their lives in peace.

  2. Ken Applebaum says:

    Although there does not appear to be a direct written source supporting Rav Adlerstein’s position, I believe the following does offer some support and, at the least, is relevant to the discussion. The Torah in Genesis ch. 35, verse 22, states that Reuven (son of our Patriarch Yaakov) went and lay with Bilhah, the concubine of his father. The Talmud in Tractate Shabbos (page 55 and brought by Rashi on verse 22) interprets this to mean not that Reuven actually had relations with Bilhah. Rather, after Rachel died, Yaakov moved his bed, which had been regularly kept in Rachel’s tent, into Bilhah’s tent (as Bilhah had been Rachel’s maidservant), and Reuven considered this as an affront to his mother Leah, and in defense of her honor, he moved Yaakov’s bed into Leah’s tent. This was the sin that Reuven had committed.

    Reuven subsequently did Teshuva (repented) for having committed this sin, as Rashi states at Genesis ch. 37, verse 28. In fact, our Rabbis say that Reuven was the FIRST to do Teshuva, which is explained to mean that even though others, such as Adam, Kayin and Yehuda, had done Teshuva before Reuven, Reuven was the first to repent for a sin which had been committed with good intentions, i.e., it had been committed by Reuven in defense of his mother’s honor.

    Reuven’s sin was not a simple one; it is described in the Torah as a Chillul Hashem (a desecration of Hashem). As Yaakov, at the end of his life, says to Reuven that Reuven had desecrated “He Who ascended my couch.” (See Genesis ch. 49, verse 4 and Rashi there).

    Now Yaakov made this statement in the presence of all of his sons (as the preceding verse 3 states) and it was recorded for all posterity in the Torah even though this occurred after Reuven had done Teshuva. This leads to the conclusion that even though Reuven had repented, Yaakov believed it was necessary to condemn the action because it had resulted in a Chillul Hashem. Yaakov’s condemnation and instruction were necessary for all of Yaakov’s sons to hear and to be recorded for all generations to teach the severity of the sin of Chillul Hashem even where the act was undertaken with the noblest of intentions.

    While I recognize that this is not an exact parallel to the case at issue, it lends support to the view that notwithstanding the transgressor’s repentance, it is necessary for the leaders of the community to speak out against acts that caused a Chillul Hashem to instruct fellow Jews and all peoples on the Torah’s viewpoint on the issue.

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