The old conversation has reared its head again. When Shalom Mordechai Rubashkin was first charged with employing illegal and underage workers and with operating an unsafe work environment, I argued that we must give a fellow Jew the benefit of the doubt and assume innocence until proven guilty. When the bank fraud allegations came to light, many piled on, and once again, I argued that we should give a fellow Jew the benefit of the doubt.
I said that we must treat a fellow Jew as we would treat a sibling. We don’t automatically assume the worst about a brother just because he was charged. We take the nuance of character into consideration. We know our brother’s strengths and values, we know our brother’s beauty and heart, and when we hear an allegation, we don’t rush to condemn. Alas, the cries for the gallows were far louder than the voices counseling patience.
Shortly thereafter, we learned that the unsafe work environment charges were dropped and Rubashkin was acquitted on the illegal worker charges. Yet the condemnatory cacophony did not stop and now the claim was this: where there is smoke, there is fire. If he was convicted of bank fraud, he was surely guilty of the other charges, but he got off for lack of evidence. To which I asked a simple question, if the evidence is lacking, how do we know he is guilty? He was exonerated in court, but the media and, sadly, many fellow Jews convicted him.
Then came the sentencing and even the harshest critics had to admit that 27 years of incarceration for bank fraud was excessive. Still, the critics were loath to tolerate any complaint about Rubashkin. If he did the crime, he must do the time, they argued. He took his chances when he committed fraud and now he needs to face the music and accept his sentence. Critics were incensed when they heard appeals for clemency. Our fellow Jews wanted Rubashkin to languish in prison because he had committed a crime.
I could not believe it. If he were your brother, you would not agree with letting him languish in prison. You would want his sentence reduced to match similar sentences for similar crimes. You would turn heaven and earth to free your brother and would not sit back and watch him sit in jail until he turned 75. Well, newsflash, my fellow Jews. Rubashkin is our brother. Every Jew is our brother.
He did not commit a crime that justifies that kind of jail term. He did not steal from the bank; he inflated the value of his company to qualify for a larger loan than he was entitled to. That is illegal, and he should be and was punished for it. But he did not steal, he did not kill, he did not do anything to deserve 27 years. This was no Ponzi scheme. The Rubashkins never missed a payment on their loan and defaulted only when their company had to declare bankruptcy because of his legal troubles.
It is a catch-22. He was charged with defrauding the bank, and the ensuing legal troubles suppressed his ability to conduct business, forcing him into bankruptcy. He attempted to sell his company and repay the loan, yet the prosecution intimidated potential buyers by threatening seizure of company assets, which depressed the company’s sale value even more. In the end, the company, which first entertained bids that exceeded the amount of the loan, had to sell for an amount that fell $27 million dollars short of the loan. And then the ultimate irony: he was sentenced to 27 years because the bank lost $27 million.
Yet, as cries for pardoning or at least commuting Rubashkin’s sentence were heard, counter grumbles were heard about Rubashkin not deserving clemency. Really?
Now, after serving a jail term of eight years and eight days, far in excess of other sentences for comparable crimes, Rubashkin’s sentence was commuted by President Trump. Hundreds of thousands exulted and celebrated, and still, many continued to grumble. What is it this time? They complained that Rubashkin failed to offer a public mea culpa. Have you ever heard of a prisoner who serves his term and then releases a press release to confess his crimes?
Why is Rubashkin held to this impossible standard? Those who withhold their love and forgiveness and demand a nearly impossible threshold of perfection from others, ought to look in the mirror and ask how perfect they are. We should not do unto others, what we do not want done unto ourselves. We would never want someone to cherry-pick and highlight our faults and hold us to unreasonable standards of perfection, so why do we do it to others?
I think there are two general reasons.
A, it is easier to draw attention to another’s shortcomings than to face our own. So, when we see another’s downfall, we jump on the bandwagon to make ourselves look good.
B, is a little more complicated. We tend to define others by their actions. But we should not. We should judge others for their actions, but define others by their soul. We are not the sum total of our actions. Our actions are merely garments that express our inner thoughts, feelings and ideas. But beyond our actions, beyond our thoughts, beyond our feelings and conceptions, lies the actual person. The essence, the soul.
If we were to look at another and see their soul, we would place their actions in context. Here is a basically good person, a gem of a G-dly soul, who performed a terrible act. We need to deal with the awful behavior, but we can get over it because the person is basically good.
However, we make the mistake of defining others, not by who they truly are, but by their behavior. If their behavior is bad, then they are bad. If they are bad, then their behavior is even worse, and they should be flogged in public without letup.
In Torah jurisprudence, a judge is required to rule on the basis of what he sees. Any other consideration is irrelevant. The judge cannot whitewash a crime just because the defendant is a good person. But that is the judge, whose business it is to judge the defendant’s behavior. The rest of us are not in the business of judging our brother’s behavior. We are not our brother’s judge. We are in the business of defining our brother by his soul. And that makes our brother a pretty good person, who messed up. A brother, who must pay the price, but only a fair and decent price. And once the price was paid, our good and decent brother deserves to be embraced again.