Machberes: Inside The Chassidic And Yeshiva World
By Rabbi Gershon Tannenbaum
The greater observant community is torn apart by the recent embarrassing arrest, trial, conviction, and sentencing of Nechemya Weberman of the Satmar community in Williamsburg. He was found guilty by jury and sentenced on January 22 to 103 years’ imprisonment for the abuse of a minor. Some felt that he was wrongly convicted on the testimony of only his accuser, without any witnesses or supporting physical evidence. Others felt that the admitted egregious routine violations of universally accepted religious gender separation betrayed his guilt. Others, sympathizing with the victim, yet felt that though guilty, he should not have been sentenced to 103 years. Some Jewish leaders publicly opined that he should have been somewhat more “delicately” punished.
The sentence has since been automatically reduced by the Corrections Department, which applied a 50-year limit the law has set for this felony.
Many conversations dissected the role of the district attorney. Some felt that his office was failing in the prosecution of abuse offenders within the observant community and that the Weberman trial and severity of sentence was political. That, in effect, it was a show trial. Others felt that the district attorney was rightfully and vigorously championing abuse victims. Some argue that the confidentiality of abuse within the observant community granted by the DA’s office has given victims some insulation in their coming forward and resulted in increased convictions of abusers. Yet others contend that the DA’s office is failing in prosecuting abuse offenders and is in collusion with some Jewish leaders in actually covering up abuse.
We are explicitly not expressing an opinion here. We are highlighting a noteworthy and potentially important development within the chassidishe community in response to seemingly draconian prison sentences recently imposed on members running afoul of the law.
Recent Sentences, Abuse And Non-Abuse
Sholom Mordechai Rubashkin was forcefully prosecuted and found not guilty on most of the charges leveled against him. However, on charges found guilty, mostly business misstatements, he was sentenced to 27 years, notwithstanding that he is a nonviolent, first-time offender. Rubashkin was wrongfully denied bail pending trial because he was, according to the Iowa Federal court, Jewish and therefore a flight risk to Israel. Rubashkin’s appeal has been denied a hearing by the Supreme Court.
M. S. was convicted of business fraud in 2002 and sentenced to 27 years’ imprisonment. Some feel that the sentencing had an element of religious persecution, as the judge, seemingly biased, quoted the Bible in imposing the lengthy sentence. The defendant had made full restitution but was nevertheless given a sentence longer than famous billion-dollar cases of business fraud such as Enron, WorldCom, etc.
B. M. L. was convicted by jury of abuse of a minor and sentenced to 32 years in prison. He had turned down a plea-agreement offer of only one and one quarter years (15 months) in prison. His conviction was overturned on a technicality, and after one year of incarceration, he was released. He is to be retried in coming weeks, pending developments within the DA’s office. He will be facing a possible sentence of 40 years. The conviction has become enmeshed in the arraignment of a supposed extortionist, generating a cloud of confusion as to the DA’s office proceeding against either or both. The alleged extortionist had actually worked with the DA’s office in the prosecution. Taped Yiddish conversations of the alleged extortion have to be professionally translated and confirmed before the next steps are taken.
In addition to the Rubashkin (non-abuse), S. (non-abuse), L., and Weberman sentences, Rabbi W., a former respected rosh yeshiva and Satmar chassid, was sentenced in 2009 to 30 years in federal prison for abuse.
In the background of the prison sentences of 27, 30, 32, and 103 years, the life sentence imposed upon Jonathon Pollard for spying for Israel is lamented every day. To date, Pollard has been in prison for more than 27 years. Major attempts to persuade successive presidents to grant clemency have failed. The efforts have included requests by United States attorneys general, senators, congressmen, key government officials, and heads of federal security agencies. Recent declassification of secret government documents reveal that Pollard’s offense was not as severe as formerly touted and generally assumed. Nevertheless, Jonathon Pollard, a Jew, remains incarcerated for life, despite failing health.
Contrast these jury convictions with the conviction rate in the Bronx of only 43% percent. In the Bronx, an accused has a better than two in five chance of being acquitted. On the other hand, being a chassidishe Jew seems to be a major detriment in Brooklyn courtrooms, especially if he pleads not guilty. Many leading criminal attorneys agree that a chassidishe Jew has no benefit of the doubt with a general-population jury. Years ago, first-time nonviolent offenders were dealt with more lightly. However, with the introduction of rigid sentencing guidelines, discretion has gone out the window. The old-time respect and consideration for a first-time, nonviolent chassidishe Jew is nonexistent today inside a Brooklyn courtroom. After conviction by jury, judges must impose a sentence in accordance with the applicable sentence guideline. Judges in the above-cited cases have imposed severe prison sentences.
The editorial of Der Blatt, the Satmar Yiddish weekly, of Friday, January 26, ventured into the Weberman case discourse, posing a question to rabbinical leaders. With the justice system, of both New York and the United States, appearing to be forbidding to chassidishe defendants, would it not be practical, expedient, and wise to enter into plea-deal negotiations rather than go to trial, lose automatically, and face monstrous sentences?
The Der Blatt editorial feels that it is virtually impossible for a chassidishe Jew to prevail in a jury trial. And when inevitably convicted, a chassidishe Jew will face the imposition of a maximum sentence. The editorial states that, once entangled in a court case, notwithstanding one’s innocence, a chassidishe Jew should cop a plea. The only question that remains is whether a chassidishe, G‑d-fearing Jew is permitted to go into court, come before a judge, and knowingly plead guilty to a falsity in order to avoid an undeserved devastating, excessive sentence. In order to qualify for leniency, the defendant must take responsibility for the crime. If innocent, the defendant is lying and possibly in violation of the Biblical injunction of “Distance yourself from a falsehood” (Sh’mos 23:7). Clear, unambiguous, sincere admission of guilt is required. Pleading “no contest,” or its equivalent, would not benefit the defendant with the “mercy of the Court.”
With a clear directive from universally respected dayanim for chassidim in Brooklyn to automatically enter into negotiations for the best possible plea agreements, the embarrassment of pleading guilty in secular court would be understood by the observant community as an expedient, and that the guilty plea would not necessarily automatically blemish the accused. An accused chassid would thus save massive legal fees, hopefully get a minimal sentence, and quickly be back with his or her family and kehillah.
The Satmar community, blessed with many large families, has been in the forefront of innovation in bringing down the costs of weddings. Their chasunah takanos (wedding guidelines) include the giving of cubic zirconium engagement rings, instead of diamonds, for an average immediate savings of $5,000. Limiting the amounts to be spent for pre-wedding gifts by the families of chasan and kallah have dramatically brought down wedding expenditures, allowing parents of large families to breathe much easier. The potential Satmar approach to criminal prosecutions of chassidim would save money, time, aggravation, and family embarrassment for generations.
Speaking to a leading rabbinical judge, this writer was advised that the issue of plea bargaining and admitting to charges when one is truly not guilty may fall under the heading of permissible lying such as to save someone else embarrassment, etc. The Torah records a number of such statements, such as Avraham Avinu asking his wife, Sarah Imeinu, to claim that she was his sister; Sarah denying that she laughed at the thought of her 99-year-old husband causing her to conceive; or the 11 brothers sending a contrived message from their father, Yaakov Avinu, not to retaliate against them for having sold Yosef into slavery.
However, the issue of deliberately causing chillul Hashem by creating the perception that all chassidishe Jews are admitted criminals, may be worse than pleading not guilty and being found guilty by jury, since people accept that if the accused continues to deny guilt, there is always a possibility, however remote, that the jury erred in its finding of guilt.
The Machatzis HaShekel Refused To Lie
The body of a murdered gentile boy was found in the town of Boskowiz, in Moravia. A knife belonging to Rabbi Shmuel Kelin, zt’l (1724–1807), author of Machatzis HaShekel, was found alongside the body. The knife was determined to be the murder weapon. The murder was assumed to be for gentile blood for Passover matzah use, another blood libel. As the investigation was pursued, the Machatzis HaShekel was advised by those close to him to deny ownership of the knife and thus avert suspicion. The Machatzis HaShekel felt that he could not lie.
When summoned to court to identify the knife, the Machatzis HaShekel confirmed that the knife was indeed his but maintained that he had no part in or knowledge of the murder. Perceiving lofty sincerity, the presiding judge respectfully accepted his testimony and dismissed the Machatzis HaShekel from any further proceedings. The Machatzis HaShekel may have felt that his lying would be an unacceptable chillul Hashem.
Apprized of the Der Blatt editorial, Charles J. Hynes, district attorney for Brooklyn, in conversation, expressed the feeling that good attorneys have the ability to effectively defend chassidishe defendants. Regardless of the ultimate decision on how a chassid accused of a crime should proceed, Der Blatt is stating very clearly that a chassid is at a great disadvantage as a defendant in proceedings in criminal court, and that the playing field must be leveled. v
Rabbi Gershon Tannenbaum is the rav of B’nai Israel of Linden Heights in Boro Park and director of the Rabbinical Alliance of America. Rabbi Tannenbaum can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.