On aufrufs and felons: Halakha, ethics, and Jonathan Braun

In recent years, there have sadly been greater documented instances of illegal, fraudulent, and uncouth conduct among Jews who at least externally, seem to identify themselves as part of the Orthodox community. Images of criminals going to trial wearing yarmulkes, beards, and other religious garb evokes a variety of responses in most law-abiding, ethical Jews, from rage and anger, to grief and lament.  This has even resulted in the publication of a book on the halakhot of being incarcerated (the author’s introduction clearly expresses his contention that the book’s publication was necessitated by the increasing numbers of Haredi criminals).

One such incidence presently in the media involves the question of whether convicted “Orthodox” drug kingpin Jonathan Braun should be honored with being called up to the Torah for an “aufruf” on the Sabbath preceding his engagement.

Braun pleaded guilty in 2011 to conspiracy to import 1,000 kilograms (2,200 pounds) of marijuana or more, and conspiracy to launder drug proceeds, according to authorities, as reported by the Staten Island Advance. The ring operated between November 2007 and mid-2010, according to court papers filed by Loretta E. Lynch, U.S. attorney for the Eastern District of New York, and the drugs had a conservative retail value of more than $1.7 Billion (surpassing the GDP of many small nations), supplied by a consortium with ties to the three most powerful organized crime groups in Canada, including the Hell’s Angels, according to prosecutors.

In spite of his highly publicized record of criminal misconduct, the Young Israel of Staten Island had originally scheduled Braun to have his aufruf there this Shabbat, but as of Wednesday night, the synagogue’s rabbi, Yaakov Lehrfield, was hesitant as to whether the congregation would allow Braun to be honored.

“The backlash that I get… is should the synagogue have this public ceremony for him?” Rabbi Lehrfield said, adding, “The board of the synagogue, which is elected every year by the members, is trying to figure out what is the right thing to do. There’s no right, there is no wrong. It’s very confusing because the whole family is here. Do we punish the whole family?”

While I do not know Rabbi Lehrfield, what troubles me about his response is that he seems to be leaving a significant halakhic decision up to his synagogue board to decide. As a committed halakhic Jew, I’m deeply surprised that the rabbi is even vacillating on this matter, since Jewish law has much to say on the topic of calling unworthy individuals to the Torah, and it is firmly within the rabbi’s purview and authority, as mara d’atra (literally, “master of the place”), to decisively rule on matters of Jewish law. Furthermore, there are also broader, meta-halakhic issues of chillul hashem involved; a synagogue awarding a religious honor to a felon and evildoer (by his own admission) shames the Torah and makes Judaism appear as if it condones criminality.

Classical halakhists were no strangers to the numerous dilemmas involved in calling a sinner to the Torah. For instance, the Pri Megadim (Rabbi Yosef Ben Meir Teomim, 1727-1792), ruled (Orach Chaim 148:1) that a congregation should not call intentional Torah violators to the Torah, basing this view on the position of the Orchot Chaim (Rabbi Aharon Hakohen of Lunel, 1280-1330), who ruled that being called to the Torah is akin to giving testimony, and that one who is ineligible to render testimony should thus be ineligible to be called to the Torah.

In recent times, however, a distinction is generally made between those who violate ritual norms and those whose actions constitute public impropriety. Those who violate ritual commandments because they were not raised in observant homes are not barred from being called to the Torah, on the grounds that they are like “captive children;” i.e. they were raised in homes devoid of observance, and thus cannot be seen as intentional transgressors (see Chazon Ish, Yoreh Deah 2:28).

Jonathan Braun clearly does not meet these criteria for clemency granted to non-intentional sinners, since while he is ostensibly observant of ritual, he has publicly violated Torah laws pertaining to ethical behavior (such as the duty to follow secular law, dina de malkhuta dina, and the duty to be a law-abiding citizen) when he was raised in a society bound by the rule of law, and assumingly, was raised with some semblance of morality in his pious home.

Other poskim deal more directly with cases similar to the current case at hand, and their responsa offer insight into the relationship between deviance and religious honors. Rabbi Simon ben Tzemach Duran (Tashbetz II: 261) for instance, was asked whether bachelors may be prohibited from reading the Torah, either because the honor of the Torah requires only mature, married adults to be called, or because an unmarried youth could not remain pure in mind. He ruled that, according to halakha, a young man is permitted to be called up to the Torah, and added that technically, sinners are not forbidden to be called to the Torah, but, nevertheless, if the congregation, in order to make “a fence against evil,” desires to forbid certain groups to come up, the congregation is always permitted to do so.

This approach has been generally accepted in practice; congregations reserve the right to deny individuals from being called to the Torah as a means of upholding congregational dignity and publicly affirming the Torah’s dignity (by dissociating public Torah reading from the hands of those whose actions are publicly known as reprehensible). Rabbi Yitzchak Tzvi ben Yisrael Mordekhai Efraim Fischel Sofer rules in his book of responsa Mispar haSofer that whatever be the actual rights of the individual in this matter, the congregation always  reserves the right, as a congregation, to make decisions excluding sinners from being called up to the Torah. He adds that many Hungarian congregations have long made such a decision as a “fence against evil doers.”

This was also implemented in a highly-publicized case of impropriety in the early 18th century; in the Sephardic congregation of Amsterdam, a man stole money from the cantor and began cohabitating with the cantor’s wife. The salacious lovers fled to Spain, but fearful of the Inquisition, they made their way to London, and in the interim, the cantor fell ill and passed away. The lothario subsequently was told by the hakham of London to make a public admission of guilt, and after doing this in the presence of the community, he was permitted to be called to the Torah. On a later Yom Kippur, the cantor’s brother happened to be in the synagogue, and saw this man holding a Torah scroll at Kol Nidre. The cantor’s brother vigorously protested this, on the grounds that this man had not made the proper steps towards repentance; the man never returned the embezzled money or made any attempt to do so; his repentance is, therefore, insincere, as halakha requires that amends be made to the harmed parties in order for the teshuva to have any real significance, and the brother declared that such a scoundrel should not be called up to the Torah.

Rabbi Moshe Hagiz (1671-1750), in his Shtei Halechem (teshuva # 311), records the responses of other halakhists, and most of the opinions held that since the man had made no attempt to restore what he had stolen, his repentance was not a legitimate repentance, and therefore he should not be called up to the Torah. This would indicate the feeling, at least on the part of most of the scholars, that a non-repentant sinner should not be called up to the Torah, and this sentiment is based on the Shulchan Aruch’s ruling (Orach Chaim 128: 40-41) that a kohen (member of the priestly class) may not be called upon to bless the congregation (with the Aaronic benediction) if he has committed grave sins (such as habitually defiling himself by exposure to the dead, or marrying a divorcee, both of which are forbidden for a kohen) and has not made proper repentance.

Furthermore, Rabbi Ephraim Zalman Margolies (1762-1828) discusses the laws and customs for Torah reading at length in his book Sha’arei Ephraim. He rules (I: 17) that a man who is known to have taken bribes should not be called up to read the passage dealing with justice and laws, and adds the proviso that a person should only be barred from being called to the Torah if his sins have been proven beyond a reasonable doubt. The commentator Shabtai Lifschitz, in his Sha’arei Rachamim, bases this restriction in the view of the Pri Megadim cited above, arguing that calling an individual up to the Torah if they consciously and deliberately violate the implicit meaning of the text constitutes the individual bearing false witness against the passage being read. In cases where the character of the oleh (the one called up to the Torah) and the content of the passage being read are fundamentally at odds, it would be uncouth to call such an individual up to the Torah.

The conditions outlined by the Sha’arei Ephraim for disqualifying an individual from being called up to the Torah have been adequately fulfilled in Braun’s case. He admitted to his crimes in a court of law, thus demonstrating his guilt beyond a reasonable doubt, and he has not yet made amends to the society he has harmed through his billion-dollar illegal drug enterprise, which raked in as much as $6 Million per week. Nor has he apologized for the chillul hashem, shame, and embarrassment he has caused to the Jewish community, which would only be magnified if he were honored with an Aliyah at the Young Israel of Staten Island.

Furthermore, this week’s Torah portion, Yitro (Jethro), is deeply concerned with questions of justice and righteousness. Yitro impresses upon Moshe the importance of administering justice according to the rule of law. Braun has clearly usurped those principles. In the words of Rabbi Ellie Kaplan Spitz, “Love may prompt commitment, but the stone tablets convey the need for clarity of expectations. Law is both an expression of love and allows love to flourish. To obey the Ten Commandments requires constancy of self-discipline and loyalty. It also helps to live in a free society due to safety and the fair administration of justice.” Running a drug ring in cahoots with the Hell’s Angels is a blatant violation of these principles.

Calling up an individual such as Jonathan Braun to a Torah reading dealing with the administration of justice and in which the Ten Commandments are recited makes a mockery of these sacred principles we hold dear. The message sent to the world when such a heinous individual is concerned with fulfilling ritual mitzvoth is nothing short of hypocrisy, and perpetuates an image of Orthodox Jews as pious marauders concerned with the minutiae of ritual observances, while ignoring the broader and crucial Torah ethics of proper conduct and basic human decency.

The answer to Rabbi Yaakov Lehrfield’s query, based on an analysis of relevant sources, and taking into account the meta-halakhic need to be aboveboard in safeguarding ourselves from any appurtenance of evil and misconduct (especially when the media knows no shortage of degenerate conduct among Orthodox Jews), is that this individual should not be honored with an aliyah. Doing so would only serve to further disgrace God and God’s Torah in a world where opprobrium sadly abounds.  May the words of the Prophet Zephaniah (3:13) be fulfilled speedily in our days: “The remnants of Israel will not do iniquity, nor speak lies, neither will a deceitful tongue be found in their mouth.”

About the Author
Daniel Sayani is a student of traditional Jewish texts, with an eye towards their contemporary applications. He has been widely published on issues of religion, ethics, and their geopolitical dimensions, and he is excited about entering the next phase of his academic and professional life.
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