Defense? Hardly

Well, in a week, I went from being anti-Haredi to pro-abuser, at least to my detractors. Of course, I am neither, but why did I write a letter seeking lenient treatment for someone who pleaded guilty to a number of grave and lascivious crimes? And why, given the exact same circumstances (Heaven forbid), would I do it again?

I hesitate to mention names and details because of the unseemliness of the matter. To my detractors, I have been accused of “defending” an abuser and justifying his conduct. But seeking the court’s mercy for a particular miscreant is not the same as defending him, justifying him, downplaying his crimes or asserting his innocence. It is certainly not the same as blaming the victim, being insensitive to their plight, or encouraging more abuse. It is exactly what it sounds like: the young man in question was facing a minimum of ten years in prison. I asked the judge to exercise mercy and sentence him to ten years. Ten years is a long time.

I’m the first to tell victims to come forward, press charges, and tell their stories. I want to see the guilty punished and have to reckon with their crimes. I am sickened when abusers get off scot free or serve minimal time, as happens all too frequently. Ten years is a long time. Can he be rehabilitated? I hope so, but I don’t know. Time will tell. What I can say is that I knew the young man in question for several years, and was shocked (!), disappointed, disheartened and then disgusted by his crimes. But I also refuse to believe that his life has to be over.

There is natural compassion for the victim, and all victims. But that does not rule out having compassion flow in other directions as well. Rav Yisrael Salanter, commenting on the verse (Devarim 32:4) “Our Rock, all His works are perfect, all His ways are just…,” asks: can’t human beings also exercise justice? There are courts and judges and legal systems across the world.   Why are only G-d’s ways just?

He answers that the justice of human beings is by definition limited. Man can only focus on the accused and the crime. But what about the effect of his punishment on the spouse and children, or on the family and friends? The human court is limited in its capacity. It cannot deal as readily with the collateral effects of the punishment. Only G-d, for “all His ways are just,” can execute complete and perfect justice.

A heavy term of incarceration was certainly warranted. But should not someone take into account the effect on his parents? Isn’t there any room in people’s hearts for compassion for them? In the span of just a few years, one son has died and their only other son has self-destructed. They are dealing with other difficulties, as well. Is mercy beyond us? Do we lump all perpetrators together, regardless of whether their crimes are identical? Are we so certain that we know all the facts? The easy route would have been to reject their request for a letter requesting the mercy of the court. But how can anyone reject a plea for compassion? It seems natural. It should be natural.

Compassion for the abuser and his family is not synonymous with indifference to his victims. Interestingly, I had no idea that anyone else had written a letter nor did I learn the identity of the other letter writers until just this week, when the story broke. Apparently, others felt a similar desire to exercise compassion – and not because anyone condoned the heinous conduct in question.

For sure, I understand the victim’s mentality, and that of the victims’ rights groups –  that no compassion is warranted, that any sentence is too short. Perhaps they feel that the death penalty is appropriate here, or at least, its equivalent, life imprisonment. That is not the law, nor do the facts here warrant it. Had the facts been different – the facts, not just the public accusations – my approach would have been different. Not everyone deserves compassion. But I do not expect a victim to see beyond his pain. I wouldn’t, at least I don’t think I would. I believe, for example, that all car thieves should go to prison (most don’t, by the way), except for the guy who steals my car, who deserves death. For worse crimes, he deserves a slow and painful death. But that is why the justice of the mob is not real justice.

I admire all advocates for children’s rights and am sickened by the facts of this case, as they are. But for justice to be meted it fairly, we have to be sure that we don’t pile on to one person all the justified grievances that exist because of all other cases and all other victims. All cases – like all people – are not the same. People have different backgrounds, maladies, experiences, challenges and albatrosses. We should not assume we know everything about a person simply because we read a thumbnail sketch on the internet, in a police blotter, or in an indictment.

Indeed, although I think the outcry here is a bit overdone, I am glad it is happening. These crimes should not be treated lightly or blithely dismissed. I don’t even mind being criticized. It ensures caution. The victim’s feelings should be validated. Potential miscreants need to know that the wrath of the community and the legal system will come down on them, and hard. They should seek professional help before they begin to sin.

Nevertheless, at a certain point, there has to be some compassion as well for the plight of the offender. His life need not be over. Would a 30 year sentence have sufficed for his critics, a 40 year sentence? Death by hanging? I am sure some feel that way, and given other circumstances, I might feel the same way. In the end, the judge sentenced this young man to 13 years in prison. It is a long time. I hope he can get his life together and his mind and morals right. I hope his parents can survive this ordeal. And I hope the victims find their peace as well.

I think I was right in seeking the mercy of the minimum sentence of ten years. I think that the detractors are right in their vigorous opposition to the pleas for mercy.

But sometimes – perhaps most times – one has to be kind, and not just right.




4 responses to “Defense? Hardly

  1. Excellent! This article sums up a very hard to make point better than any I’ve ever seen.

    Congratulations on holding true to your ideals despite public pressure.

  2. Joshua Feldman

    Spot on Rabbi. Spot on. It takes courage to come out with unpopular opinions in our [increasingly] polarized and extremist society, and then defend them. Shkoyach.

  3. This time, Rabbi Pruzansky is at a disadvantage, because his arguments are based on subtle logic that many people will not be able to appreciate or even understand.

  4. Formerly of Teaneck

    I often disagree with you Rabbi P, but here I think you had every right to defend yourself, and you did so quite eloquently and persuasively. Your last paragraph especially mirrors my feelings- as it applies quite well to your critic in his previous blindsiding attack of your colleague and my dear friend