Simcha Feuerman
Psychology, Torah and the Daf Yomi

Jewish Criminals, Don’t Ruin a Mitzvah and Intuition Bava Kama 112-115


Jewish Criminals 

Our Gemara on Amud discusses the unfortunate situation of children whose father was a thief. Are the children who were supported by their father over the years, responsible to pay restitution to those whom he stole from? We won’t get into the Halachic specifics, but instead I thought to discuss the social and psychological impact of having a father who is a thief.

Unfortunately, there are crooks even in the frum world. Sometimes the convicted felon might be an otherwise upstanding member of the community, perhaps even due to his acquired wealth, an admired pillar of the community. Certain types of fraud, especially government fraud, can be rationalized as “crimes with no victims”, or “the way business business is done in this city.” This allows a sophisticated religious perpetrator to be different in his legal practices versus his interpersonal relationships. 

But what is it like to experience having a supportive father, who for all appearances is a wonderful person, suddenly become a convicted criminal?  There must be shock, and feelings of intense loss of the prior social and religious status, aside from the trauma of imprisonment of a loved one.  Those are the immediate concerns, but then there also must be confusion about loyalty.  If your father is a good man, how could he do this?  If the law does not count, do you emulate his lifestyle?  More subtle psychological challenges ensue regarding the ill-gotten gains. If your whole life you are used to an affluence, and even received many benefits from illegitimately gained funds, how do you undo that?  Is your own success legitimate? 

I could not find specific research literature on these effects in frum families, so I widened my research to include a category of persons that, at first glance, are unrelated: Mafia Families.  At least from non-fiction memoirs and movies, one gets the sense that the external religious practices can be strongly interwoven into the family values and process, extreme loyalty to the clan, multi-generational strong patriarchal and matriarchal figures, as well as rooted family traditions and ethnic pride.  In an emotional-symbolic sense, there are parallels to the frum family, (lehavdil).  

I will reference psychological dynamics described by researchers Serena Guinta et al that bear resemblance, and are instructive regarding frum children of convicted white collar felons. (Mediterranean Journal of Vol 9 No 1 Social Sciences January 2018, “Being Mafia Children: An Empirical Transgenerational Research”):  

  • The mafia family has a rigid organizational structure which is also the source of its strength and its own power. This structure rests basically on the distinction between the “inside”, which protects and helps, and the “outside”, alien and threatening.
  • The mother educates her children giving them the values of the mafia culture, in a condition of acceptance of the family hierarchy, preventing them from developing autonomy and keeping them forever tied to herself; the father, mostly idealized, is the model to imitate, provides rules and values; the child is educated to the code of silence, to show virility, strength and opposition to the legal power.  (With frum families, we can substitute “virility, strength and opposition to the legal power” with “Stoicism and contempt for the frivolous and meaningless illusions of secular culture”, which involve discarding a more balanced respect and sense of propriety for secular laws and values, even when at times they are alien to Torah values.  In addition, the Mafia code of silence, while not the same, does bear some similarity to the frum taboo against mesirah, involving secular legal authorities to police internal matters.)
  • Idealization of the father figure, who often may be absent from family life due the intensity of the legal, and not-so-legal, business escapades.  The admiration from afar can serve as a way to mythologize the father, and allow him to be a greater personage than when he is up close.
  • There is conflict of loyalty between family versus the outside world. Family expectations become a cage from which it is difficult to escape. And this is particularly true for the Mafia families, in which trying to disengage is considered treason, a sort of denial of the family roots and an effort to acquire values different from those provided by the family context.
  • Adolescence is a time of questioning personal values and finding one’s identity in contrast to family and community values. Therefore teenage children of convicted felons may experience the above difficulties with greater intensity.

Of course, I do not mean to say that all Jewish white collar felons are anywhere near to the depraved morality of mafiosos, but rather by way of comparison to understand psychological dynamics that are similar. In addition, there certainly are convicted white collar criminals who may be largely innocent, in the frum and secular community.  We must be especially careful not to judge appearances as the press and gossip mill can be cruel.  For interesting reading about the weaponization of our current criminal justice system, I refer you to Dershowitz’s and Silverglate’s superb book: “Three Felonies A Day: How the Feds Target the Innocent.”  In this book’s ominous descriptions about where society is heading, Dershowitz and Silverglate describe our country’s arcane and vague legal system that predisposes most business people to actions that are almost inevitably illegal.  This, combined with a legal system that rarely punishes ambitious DA’s who can make a case based on flimsy evidence and political motivations or instructions by power brokers, the accused is forced to choose between a quick plea bargain and/or selling out associates who are so-called bigger fish. Many will just agree to a guilty plea and take the 16 months in prison as the better option when compared to years of legal expenses, broadly seized assets, and even punitive and retaliative prosecution of family members and friends for “non-cooperation.  This allows for a Soviet-Era style selective prosecution where the target is decided on first, especially political enemies, and then the crimes are discovered.


Don’t Ruin the Mitzvah

Our Gemara on amud aleph rules that certain days and times are improper to serve defendants with summons from Bais Din:

We do not set a court date for participants in the kalla, the gatherings for Torah study during Elul and Adar, during the months of the kalla, nor for participants in the public discourses prior to the Festival during the period leading up to the Festival. The Gemara relates: When people would come before Rav Naḥman during the kalla period in order to make legal claims against others, he would say to them: Did I gather you here for your own needs? No, I gathered you to participate in Torah study. The Gemara adds: But now that there are scoundrels, who do not come to study Torah but rather to avoid trial, we are concerned that they will continue to evade prosecution, and therefore we summon them to court even during these time periods.

What is the ethic behind Rav Nachman’s quip?  We could simply say he feels that during this time of study and self-improvement, people should not be involved in legal battles.  In comparison to Torah study, finances are a petty concern and distraction. However, I think there is an additional motivation, and that is so as not to discourage those from coming to study.  Remember, in those days there were no phones or computers.  When a person from the village showed up in the big city, past claims and liens might be imposed on him, which otherwise could have gone by undetected. (The latter part of the above ruling, was the countermeasures to compensate for those who abused this form of amnesty.)

This reminds me of two related chinuch practices of my father Z”L, Rabbi Chaim Feuerman, Ed.D. a master mechanech with a career spanning more than 60 years.  One of his principles was to make sure that children developed an appropriate love and reverence for Torah learning by making every effort to avoid contamination by negative experiences.  Therefore, he would guide teachers to never take away a privilege or reward earned for Torah or mitzvos, even if there was later misbehavior.  This might be ethically compared to the teaching in Berachos (7a): “Rabbi Yoḥanan said in the name of Rabbi Yosei: Every statement to a person or to a nation that emerged from the mouth of the Holy One, Blessed be He, with a promise of good, even if it was conditional, He did not renege on it. Ultimately, every promise made by God will be fulfilled.”

In a second and related principle, my father never would reward studiousness in Torah study with something that was the opposite. For example, he would counsel rebbes who wanted to reward a class for learning well, to NOT give them extra recess. Why should the reward for Torah be freedom from Torah? Instead, my father would “sell” the students on the idea that as a privilege, they get to learn something new and fun (and without being graded or tested on it.) His “go to” was often Malbim, which he found fascinating and engaging, and of course was contaged to the students.  Over his life, from time to time, students of his from decades ago would approach him and say things like, “Rav Feuerman, you know I never really liked learning, and do not learn much Gemara in my adult life.  But I must say, to this day, I love Malbim and learn him on the parasha on Shabbos.”  When you make Torah into something special, it leaves a lifelong imprint.


You Don’t Say?

Our Gemara quotes Rabbi Yehuda Hanasi, using a distinctive phrase that other Tanaim do not use.  He introduces his opinion with, “Omer Ani”, which roughly translates to “I say” or “In my opinion”, but as we soon shall see, in Hebrew it has a different, more subtle and humble connotation.

Rav Yosef Engel (Beis Haotzar, Ma’areches aleph-vav, klal 33) notes that the meaning is something like “my essence dictates”, that is Rabbi Yehuda Hanasi felt a deep truth coming from within, an indication of the will of God channeled from his soul.  

There is such a thing as intuition, and people who are spiritually inclined are more likely to notice the small stirrings within, by dint of the fact that they are less distracted by the sensual demands of physical lusts.  I believe it is almost universal in any religion, that to tap into the spiritual, one must reject attachment to the physical. It doesn’t matter what the religion is, even the prophets of Baal engaged in acts of physical renouncement to tap into whatever demonic spirits they utilized (Melachim I:18:28.)  

We will discuss more about instinct and spirituality in tomorrow’s daf.


The Value of intuition

Our Gemara on Amud Beis discusses the prevailing awareness at that time that vessels with liquid in them left open and unguarded can become contaminated by snake venom, as the snake is attracted to it and might have taken a drink.  The Gemara says it is forbidden to have one’s animal drink from it, and Rashi says perhaps you will slaughter the animal and eat it, thus exposing someone to the poison.

However, this seemingly contradicts a teaching in Gemara Chulin (58b) which permits one to eat an animal which drank from the left open water, and there is no concern of danger (see Rashi ibid.)  There are various answers given by the commentaries (see Bach and Taz YD 116:6), however a creative and interesting answer is given by Nachal Eshkol (III:20), which is that our Gemara is discussing where you gave the animal to drink, while Gemara Chulin is discussing where the animal drank spontaneously of its own accord.  What is the difference?  Animals possess certain instincts that are superior to man, and they can sense danger, as Rashi (Bamidbar 22:23) notes regarding Bilaam’s donkey that saw the angel. Therefore, the animal would not drink poisonous water. 

This relates to what we discussed in yesterday’s daf, that they are matters we are not aware of and our bias blocks perception.  Animals do not have a need, nor the intellect, to organize reality along certain lines. They do not possess psychological defenses and do not need to deny issues or craft narratives to make sense of their lives.  Of course, for the most part this is a disadvantage because it is a human trait to dream, imagine and build. After all, we have gone far, from the steam engine, the Wright brothers to Elon Musk, who will one day take us to Mars in fulfillment of the directive to conquer the world (Bereishis 1:28), may he live long and well! However, this need to craft a narrative and create reality also blocks perception of reality.  This is why the Gemara Bava Basra (12b) teaches: “Rabbi Yoḥanan said: From the day that the Temple was destroyed, prophecy was taken from the prophets and given to imbeciles and children.”  And we find another teaching about intuition that is just below conscious perception in Megilla (3a): “Ravina said: Learn from this incident that with regard to one who is frightened for no apparent reason, although he does not see anything menacing, his Mazal sees it, and therefore he should take steps in order to escape the danger.”

The upshot of this is that we should not have disdain for intuition.  It is true, that instinct is not empirical fact and can be triggered by all kinds of false stimuli: Is that knot in your stomach because something feels wrong, or is it just indigestion?  You won’t know for sure, but like any other human skill and trait, mindful awareness and practice increases ability.  My father Z”L had finely honed intuition, bordering on Ruach Hakodesh.  There are countless stories, I will just say one. One time a student came late to his class, and sheepishly slunk to seat in the back. My father never would allow students to be disengaged and always used humor, wit and compassion to disarm them.  He called out, “Nu,…did she say Yes?”  He was flabbergasted – how did my father know that he was late because he proposed to his Kallah to be?  Later my father would try to put together the bits and pieces of hints that triggered his instant assumption.  That was the interesting thing. My father never left it as is, rather he would retrospectively study his hunches to try to see what brought him to his seemingly prescient conclusions.  He also later discovered that he was one of a small percentage of the population that could naturally read micro-expressions, discovered and studied by researcher Paul Ekman.  Ekman later cataloged the facial action coding system, which allowed him to train people and actually learn how to use it consciously.    

Learn to use your intuition, God gave it to you for a reason.

About the Author
Rabbi, Psychotherapist with 30 years experience specializing in high conflict couples and families.
Related Topics
Related Posts