Collecting charity for someone who committed a crime

An individual who was in our community for a number of years was unfortunately arrested and sent to New York States’ Greene Correctional Facility for a period of time.  He will soon be released in May and because he will have little or no financial resources to help reintegrate him back into society, we publicly solicited our community to financially assist this individual for a few months so that he can get back on his feet.

A number of members responded generously.  A few members approached me feeling a little uneasy about why we are publicly raising money for an individual who committed a crime and went to jail for it.  It’s one thing to help someone who is in financial distress due to no fault of his own, but to support someone who brought this trouble upon himself should not be something for which we should proudly and energetically raise funds.  I would imagine that those who are concerned assume that publicly soliciting funds to help this individual may create the perception that we are endorsing his behavior on some level.

When Sholom Rubashkin was suddenly released from prison in December 2017, I was delighted because I believe that he was the victim of a tremendous injustice and prosecutorial overreach.  However, I was dismayed by the excess celebration in some circles that turned him into a hero because, after all, he had been found guilty of a crime and he was a convicted felon.  In my opinion, turning him into a hero can reasonably create a perception that Torah observant Jews feel that we do not need to observe secular law, which is tantamount to a Chillul Hashem.  As such, we must tread very lightly with how we treat those who have been convicted of a crime so that we do not create this false perception.

However, to help someone who has served his time in prison get back on his feet and make a life for himself is a mitzvah of the highest order.  Yes, that individual may have made mistakes, but who are we to judge that individual and what challenges he may have gone through.

In his Sefer Michtav Me’Eliyahu, Rav Dessler explains that each of us has our own “nekudat habechira,” or “point of choice.” Using the analogy of a battlefield, Rav Dessler notes that when a war is being waged, the real fighting exists at the front lines, or the point of conflict. There is territory behind the troops which has already been conquered; that is no longer a point of fighting because it has already been won. Similarly, there may be territory which is far out of reach. No real conflict is occurring there either because it is firmly controlled by the other side. So too with our yetzer hara, and our personal battles to exercise choice. There are good decisions that come easily to us, because we have always done things that way and we always will. Keeping those commandments is not truly an exercise of choice. In reality, those decisions are almost predetermined by our history. Similarly, there are things that are simply out of reach for us, and are therefore not truly choices either. For each of us, the nekudat habechira is that point somewhere in the middle, where each of us has our own internal struggle and has the ability to go either way.

We are each complex products of our environments, our previous actions, and untold internal and external influences. We are judged not simply by our actions, but by the choices we make on our own individual battlefields. Our goal must be to try our hardest to make the right choices within our own personal nekudat habechira, and not to determine where another person’s point of choice lies. Simply put, we cannot judge the actions of another person because we cannot know all the nuances of what impacted his ability to truly choose. Of course, there are times when we must impose punishments on people who break the law for societal reasons, i.e., to deter people from committing crimes. But certainly once someone has paid his debt to society and is struggling, we have an obligation to help him just as we would have towards any other struggling individual. Helping someone in this situation does not in any way suggest that we endorse criminal activity; rather, it affirms our commitment to tzedakah, to the value of charity, combined with a belief in the God-given gift of teshuva, of repentance, that is available to every individual.

About the Author
Jonathan Muskat is the Rabbi of the Young Israel of Oceanside.