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Shabbat Parashat Emor| 5771

Ask the Rabbi: Prayers for a Jew Accused of Serious Crimes

Question: It has happened that religious Jews have been tried and/or sent to jail for criminal activity in America. Some rabbis have called on the broad Jewish community to pray for them or petition authorities for their release. Is this a traditional Jewish approach?


Answer: Praying for Jews in “royal jails” is traditional, and is included in the prayer: “Acheinu …ha’omdim batzara u’vashivya …Hamakom yerachem aleihem v’yotzi’eim …” (our brethren …who are in trouble and in captivity …Hashem should have mercy on them and extricate them …). The assumption was usually that they were imprisoned on false or exaggerated charges.

The first question is whether in a place like America, with a much more fair judicial system than we had through most of our dispersion, our approach to a convict is different We certainly prefer even flawed governmental law enforcement to anarchy (Avot 3:2). One of the Noahide laws is to have a judicial system, at least to enforce Noahide laws (Rambam, Melachim 9:14), and likely to generally do justice (Ramban to Bereishit 34:13), and the law of the land applies to Jews also (Gittin 10b; Shulchan Aruch, Choshen Mishpat 369). The question is how we view punishments the courts mete out in excess of what halacha dictates for Jews. For example, how do we feel about a Jew being put into jail (often a cruel and dangerous place) for tax evasion, when Sanhedrin would not use such harsh punishment for a monetary crime? May/should a Jew inform the government when a fellow Jew is violating such a crime? Contemporary poskim argue the point, as presented cogently in an article by Rabbi Michael Broyde (www.jlaw.com/Articles/mesiralaw2.html.). The matter is too involved for our context.

Is it legitimate to pray on behalf of an accused or convicted Jew, assuming the act that he was caught for is a sin either due to the law of the land or even Torah law, which do overlap? There are sources about not praying for reshaim (evil people), but it seems that those discuss qualitatively more sinful people than the average white-collar criminal. We pray for the health and welfare of all sorts of people regardless of their level of piety, and this need not be an exception. As far as speaking on his behalf, it is not always practically useful but character references to influence the severity of the sentence are part of the US judicial system.

The biggest issue is public perception. We regret the existence of (religious) Jewish criminals, decry their actions, and lend our support to the judicial system that convicts them. We do not want to blur these stances in the eyes of our children and communities. Another obvious problem is chillul Hashem (desecration of Hashem’s name), which has a major halachic impact, including relations with the non-Jewish world (see Shulchan Aruch, CM 266:1). Exaggeratedly strong support can falsely portray a criminal as a Jewish hero, before and/or after his crime. Since countless Jews could use mass prayers for all sorts of difficulties, turning a convicted person into a national cause sends a wrong message. The matter is complicated when he really has earned the community’s appreciation for other matters.

Another way the public can see it (if not presented carefully or distorted by anti-Semites) is that the Jewish community questions the judicial system’s integrity, which can cause a chillul Hashem that can exacerbate anti-Semitism. Of course, it has happened that the totally innocent have been convicted, whether due to an honest mistake, belligerent anti-Semitism, or some combination thereof of the police, a judge, or a jury. Jewish people have also received disproportionately strict sentences. However, the overall system is a fair one, and we can unfortunately not assume that a convicted religious Jew must be innocent. In cases (such as Pollard’s) where there are demonstrable grounds for grievance, this is less of an issue, and American Jews do not always need to be silent when their own are abused. However, this is an issue for the local Jewish leadership to weigh in on. 


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