Zalman Zirkind, a Chassidic Jew, is scheduled to be sentenced in U.S. District Court, in New York, for having pleaded guilty to laundering drug money. He faces a possible 11 to 14 years in jail.
As reported by The New York Jewish Week (January 15, 2021) his supporters “have submitted letters testifying to his character and asking for a lenient sentence”.
Yet to add weight to their cry for a lesser sentence and not trusting enough in the Judge’s sympathy for Zalmund, as he is known, giving tzedakah…even if it came from illegal sources…his defense team have resurrected a novel argument advanced by Nathan Lewin during the Rubashkin trial (Sholom Rubashkin was convicted of financial fraud in 2010) in his 2011 appellate brief:
“Sholom Rubashkin, one of Aaron’s nine children, received only a limited secular education, graduating from eighth grade”
The No Secular Education Defense
The bottom line, neither Zalmund nor Shalom are responsible for their actions because they did not have the benefit of a full secular education….High School and College and therefore didn’t realize that stealing money, by any means was illegal.
Where does one begin to unpack this?
Clearly, as we all know, the “Ultra-Orthodox” community frowns on too much secular ed beyond basic reading, writing and math based on their argument that they provide the best education. The deepest. The most important.
But Doesn’t The Torah Teach Us Not To Steal Or Be Unjust?
Unlike those of us who waste our lives studying secular subjects…they sit for hour upon hour and study the words of God…the intricate world of Jewish Observance and Halachic Law. The minutiae of ceremony, obedience and performance. The hairsplitting arguments that often require the equivalent of human Google searches as obscure sources are tracked down to add weight to an argument defending or attacking another point of view.
Hour upon hour upon hour. Source after source. Argument upon argument. And somehow neither one understood “secular” right from wrong…. drug money is bad….buying jewelry with money that isn’t yours to spend is bad. Never mind the criminal aspect….they didn’t know the law…according to their lawyers….but good from the bad? Right from wrong? Surely God weighs in here somewhere?
The World’s Most Enduring Moral Voice
The late Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, OBM, in his October 14, 2014 edition of Covenant & Conversation, titled “The World’s Most Enduring Moral Voice” says as follows:
“Judaism entered the world as a moral voice. It did so from the beginning, from its account of creation itself. There we read, almost like a litany, “God said, Let there be….and there was….and God saw that it was good.” The emphasis is on the word good. This is the language of morality, not myth. Nor is it science. Physics and chemistry do not speak about the “goodness” of the cosmos. Yet the Torah does, and for a reason. It wants us to know that there is a moral dimension to existence. Goodness is not something we invent. It is part of the text and texture of life as seen through the eye of faith.”
Rabbi Sacks continues. The story of Adam and Eve is the story of failing to live up to the image of God. Cain the first murder and the story of Noah and the flood is the story of violence. “God creates order. Man creates chaos.” As Rabbi Sacks summarizes….”Do we create life or death, good or evil, justice or corruption, love or hate?”
All of which leads to the choice of Abraham to establish a new way of looking at the world…Abraham as a “role-model for humanity, specifically on moral grounds…’keep the way of the Lord by doing what is right and just’”.
Interesting, that we have come this far…from the creation of the world to the establishment of Monotheism and the driving, foundational force is nothing but ethics and morality….a new way to look at the world.
“Learn to do right. Seek justice. Defend the oppressed.”
“Judaism” says Rabbi Sacks “is about our relationship with God, but it is also about our relationships with our fellow humans. Indeed the two are indivisible. The rabbis emphasized this at one of the climactic moments of the Jewish year, on Yom Kippur, when they chose as the haftarah this blazing passage from Isaiah:
“Is this the kind of fast I have chosen, only a day for people to humble themselves? Is it only for bowing one’s head like a reed and for lying in sackcloth and ashes? Is that what you call a fast, a day acceptable to the Lord?
Is not this the kind of fasting I have chosen: to lose the chains of injustice and untie the cords of the yoke, to set the oppressed free and break every yoke? Is it not to share your food with the hungry and to provide the poor wanderer with shelter — when you see the naked, to clothe them, and not to turn away from your own flesh and blood?
Equally emphatic is the haftarah (Isaiah 1) for the Shabbat before Tisha B’av, the day of Jewish grief: “Learn to do right. Seek justice. Defend the oppressed. Take up the cause of the fatherless. Plead the case of the widow.”
Piety without justice, religious stringency without compassion, love of God without the love of human beings — all these, argued the prophets, testify to a profound spiritual failure: the failure to understand that God wants us to act to others as we ask God to act toward us.”
What Were They Learning?
It would seem that our former incarcerated, now pardoned Chassid and our soon to be sentenced, begging for leniency, one, should have, after all that learning and studying…the days and hours spent in Yeshiva….should have had the knowledge of right and wrong and good and bad…simply and powerfully because it’s the DNA of all that is Jewish.
A number of years ago a friend of mine….a refugee from a Chasidic community…explained the dilemma to me by referencing a Mishna in the Tractate of Bava Metzia that discusses two men fighting over ownership of a Tallit (Prayer Shawl) …”Shnayim ochzin be-tallit”…two claimants, each holding one end of said tallit and each saying it was theirs.
The complicated discussion that follows examines every possible permutation of this scenario that you can imagine. It’s often complicated and following all of the arguments into the works of the commentators makes it even more so.
My friend had studied this dilemma in depth. He had followed path after path of argument and had himself passionately argued various solutions and endings. Yet, as he told me, this was where his epiphany began.
One day, he said, he realized that for weeks he had been obsessed with the two men and their claim of ownership…but not once had anyone…his Rabbis; his friends; the commentators ever examine the moral or ethical issue at hand…why were they fighting over a holy object? Clearly one was a liar…what were we to do to limit this kind of behavior?
Who Is The Better Jew?
Many of us who attended High School, in the Modern Jewish Day School system, Ramaz for me, know this dilemma well. In a class on Jewish Thought, we began as Juniors the question was posed…..who is the better Jew…the one who follows all the observance rules of all Religious Law and cheats in business or the profligate who has given up most observance but is meticulous about ethical and moral behavior.
The answer, to most of us, maybe all at that time, seemed simple…obviously, the profligate who respected God’s creation…refer back to Rabbi Sacks.
The answer is clearly not that simple nor do I believe that many Orthodox Rabbis would weigh inconclusively on the side of the well-meaning profligate vs the cynical Observant.
Not More Than Others But They Do Standout
Frankly, a quick Google or Bing (MSFT was a client) Search will uncover the sad number of Observant Jews who find themselves in the Tabloid headlines for their stealing, fraud, dishonesty, deviant behavior…often linked to others like them or non-Jews that they have brought down with them. Many of them turn states evidence and blame their associates in order to escape serious jail time and often bring their Rabbis to testify on how pure their souls really are.
To be clear. Our criminals are not in a higher proportion to those of any other Religious group…it’s just that they are ours and easily recognizable with their kippot.
No Remorse When You Can Pay For Expiation
Yes, many of them do serve time but few ever show remorse. And why should they? Rabbi’s and community leaders are quick to forget their transgressions, even as lessons of caution, as they hunger for their money and thus grant full expiation no matter how heinous their crimes were. No matter how many people or families were hurt. Yes, serve your time and move on. Hearts full of compassion. God forgives so, should we….not the point.
The rush to celebrate these villains is a sad commentary on us and is not limited to Charedi Rabbis or leaders. Modern/Open Orthodox Institutions are happy to take their money as well and hold them up as examples of good Jews.
And so, we have come full circle.
Put a tallit over your head; piously attend services; follow the observance rules and don’t forget…give some of those ill-gained funds to Yeshivas and other Orthodox Institutions and all is forgiven…all is forgotten.
So who is the better Jew?
It would seem that our rabbis are giving us their answer.
“Do Justly…Love Mercy…Walk Humbly With God
As Rabbi Sacks pointed out so powerfully and poignantly that is not the final answer.
When I asked the same question of my friend Rabbi W…..his answer was to refer me to the Prophet Michah Chapter 6 verse 8. His comment…this verse says it all:
“It hath been told thee, O man, what is good, And what the Lord doth require of thee: Only to do justly, and to love mercy and to walk humbly with thy God.”
And there you have it.
Nothing about wearing Black Hats; the minutia of observance and certainly nothing about that allowing you to break the law with impunity and support.
Seems to me not even a Harvard education could be more powerfully clear. This is the graduate school for ethics and morality.