Ask the Rabbi with Rabbi YY Schochet

Dear Rabbi

I have read that Sholom Rubashkin is coming to town to “inspire” the community. How does it make sense that a criminal can inspire people? I think the whole celebration at the time of his release was wrong and it’s equally wrong that he be allowed to speak anywhere. He should just keep a low profile.


Dear Kalman

I wonder if you would say the same thing if Jonathan Pollard came to town and was going to speak to a mass crowd? I’m thinking that not. When he was convicted of spying for Israel and then had the book thrown at him with a disproportionate and unprecedented sentence, the Jewish world rallied together. Alas this went on for many decades as President after President refused to release him. We decried the injustice of it all. In the event, when he was finally set free this made international headlines and was celebrated by Jews the world over. What they were celebrating was not the man himself but that fact that what was perceived as an injustice in the circumstances had finally ended. Had he had his sentence commuted early on this would have been a cause for great celebration. I am doubtful the liberals would have spoken out. Even as Jews did celebrate his ultimate release, and some were dancing in the streets – there were no liberals who did dare speak out. 

There is a reason Trump commuted the sentence of Rabbi Rubashkin. An unprecedented letter, signed by 107 – that’s right 107 former high level Department of Justice officials, FBI directors, federal judges and prestigious law professors attested to the extraordinary prosecutorial misconduct which exacted the most possible punitive sentence for Rubashkin. Several former attorneys generals, were among the signatories of the letter. Charles B. Renfrew, a former U.S. District Court judge in the Northern District of California and U.S. deputy attorney general and James H. Reynolds, a former U.S. attorney for the Northern District of Iowa both argued that there was false testimony and wilful manipulation in the case. 

Renowned human rights lawyer Alan Dershowitz laid bare the case for why there were flaws in the whole trial with some quite apparent bias. He stopped short of labelling anyone Anti-Semitic but did question the basic motives of the judge, including why she chose to throw in two extra years over and above the sentence the prosecution requested. 

Congressman from across the American political spectrum were rallying for Rubashkin’s cause, and Nancy Pelosi, the House Democratic Leader, wrote to the President in which she expressed concern about the injustice of the sentence, but also mentioned “questions arising from the conviction…” 

So when a man has the book thrown at him, and seemed to be beyond any hope – what with the Supreme Court refusing to hear the case – is finally set free, that sparked joy in the many who watched with despair at what was perceived as a failure of the justice system. 

When Rubashkin was freed a travesty of justice was averted, a fellow Jew – a brother was spared, and that triggered a justifiable joy and celebration, commensurate with the efforts that went into righting the wrong. It was a unity the likes of which one rarely sees. The challenge now – for all those same many different Jewish sects, and even our liberal brethren, is to maintain that unity in all dimensions going forward.

Let’s be clear: Rubashkin is not coming to blow his horn or declare victory. He’s going to be talking about “doing things right.” He’s going to be talking about faith, which is what held it together for him even as he saw the last vestiges of hope taken from him. His talks will be raising money for various charities, not least helping those less fortunate, including enabling couples in need to get married (Hachnasat Kalah)  and the Aleph programme which does tremendous work to support Jewish prisoners and their families.

By and large it is those who proudly label themselves as liberal-minded – who go clamouring for every cause, always defending the underdog; who believe themselves to have the monopoly on justice and compassion – that are condemning his lecturing here, just as they did the celebrations when he was pardoned. 

What happened to sticking up for the underdog? What became of justice? Is Sholom Mordechai Rubashkin undeserving of their same compassion? I had often wondered as to an adage by our Sages: “If one is compassionate when they ought to be tough, they will invariably be tough when they ought to be compassionate.” I never saw that idea fully play out until now.    

Get a grip Kalman. This might make for good headlines but we have bigger issues to worry about.