Memory: Back in my youth, students came to the school I attended a day after their parents had been on the front page of the local newspaper for criminal wrongdoing. We spent the day ignoring them, feeling badly that they were caught in a situation not of their making. But we knew that a wrong had been done.
We also knew to feel terribly about other scandals in which Jews were implicated – whether it was “white collar” crime or violent crime. When we read the newspaper (back in those days, it’s how we learned the news), our eyes went to the Jewish-sounding names to see who had embarrassed the Jewish people and how. Berkowitz, Ruby, Goldstein, Mezvinsky…We felt a sense of shame that a descendant of Abraham and Sarah could behave in these ways.
To be truthful, some of the shame my generation felt about Jews behaving badly had to do with being a first or second generation American Jew. My Judaic teachers growing up were mostly immigrants to this country. They had fled Europe just before or after the Nazi era. Or they had left Israel during times of economic hardship. They were proud Americans. They were also forever indebted to the United States, feeling that the country had accepted them as citizens who were nonetheless aliens in a foreign (and, frankly, Christian) country. And, as immigrants often do, they tended to feel a bit at risk. So the message that came through their teaching was: you (at age 15) represent the entire Jewish people in the United States. Your behavior directly impacts our safety in this great country. So stay on the straight and narrow, and be sure to express regret and consternation when one of your fellow Jews does something bad.
At the time, we joked about that message, but in hindsight, there was wisdom there: All Israel is responsible for one another (Mishnah).
Dr. Karl Menninger, in a memorable book, Whatever Became of Sin, alluded to how, in a world of moral relativism, society can lose sight of what is absolute wrong. Sadly, that spirit has infiltrated Judaism today. I’m no longer shocked to see Jews explain away acts of Jewish terrorism (which, admittedly are not commonplace, but do occur). Jewish felons were “railroaded” by the system, say defenders of some Jewish criminals. We were even treated recently to scenes of singing and dancing in celebration of a felon being released from prison (and yes, it is possible that he received a longer sentence than usual for the crime for which he was convicted, but it doesn’t change the reality of that crime).
As a rabbi and Jewish educator let me be absolutely clear: Felonies are wrong. Defrauding is wrong. Routinely hiring undocumented immigrants and having them work and live in poor conditions is wrong. When one does so as a Jew, it is what we call a chillul Hashem, desecration of God’s name publicly. When one does so in the act of providing for the needs of observant Jews like myself, it is unconscionable. Period.
Just to get things out of the way, I fully expect negative comments to this piece. I’ve already been told (after 36 years in the rabbinate and in Jewish communal service) that I’m a self-hating Jew or that I hold Orthodox Judaism or Jews in general to an unfair standard (isn’t holding one’s self to a higher standing the point of Judaism?). Here’s the thing: I deeply respect those who disagree with my opinion. All I ask is that those who disagree commit themselves to respect for mine.
Personally, I am happy for any family reunited after incarceration. If you’re the first Lubavitcher Rebbe, Nelson Mandela or Dr. Martin Luther King Jr, your release is cause for public celebration. But if your crime was not of those types, celebrate humbly with your family this Shabbat and commit yourself to a life as a law-abiding citizen who will work hard to be a credit to our people.