Tuesday, November 10, 2020

How To Be A Frum Criminal

In March 2001, FBI agents raided Kiryas Joel, rounding up 14 suspects on suspicion of a string of financial crimes. Members of the group had falsified social security numbers and used the details to fraudulently obtain tax refunds, life insurance payments, and bank loans. Chief among them was Mordechai Samet, who was convicted on 33 counts of racketeering, money laundering, and fraud that netted about $5.5 million dollars. He was finally released a few weeks ago, after spending twenty years in prison.

Mishpacha magazine just published a feature story on "Reb" Mordechai Samet. When I started reading it, I was initially sickened. The article portrays him as an inspirational man on a mission to teach powerful messages about emunah and bitachon. I began to feel a strong sense of deja vu. It was reminiscent of how the yeshivish community, with few protests, lauded Shalom Rubashkin, the "Baal HaNes," as a heroic martyr, and a baal bitachon par excellence. Yet, to quote Rav Hershel Shechter's comments on Rubashkin, "It's scandalous - the man is a criminal... [but] they're turning him into the next Lubavitcher rebbe!" Rubashkin never speaks about having done anything wrong or about the need to be law-abiding - and in fact, claims to have been the victim of libel. His message is only about his heroic ability to trust in Hashem to help him with his plight - never about his mistakes and wrongdoings that got him there in the first place.

But I was pleasantly surprised to see that the article about Samet reflects a very different approach, in two highly significant ways. 

First is that, unlike with Rubashkin, Samet is not only out to teach people about bitachon, but also to urge them to stay away from white-collar crime. Although not adequately stressing the immorality and dishonesty of it, he does stress the foolishness of attempting it, and the chillul Hashem that it causes.

Second is that, at the very end of the article, it becomes clear that Samet is not giving the distorted bitachon message of Rubashkin. As I wrote last year, emunah and bitachon means that Hashem is in charge of our livelihoods; and the practical ramification of such a belief is that there is nothing to be gained by engaging in dishonest activity. The only speech about emunah and bitachon that Shalom Mordechai Rubashkin should be giving is about how he didn't have it, and suffered as a result. Fortunately, Samet makes precisely this point:

In retrospect, Samet admits that if he’d had the wellsprings of bitachon and emunah that he developed and built up during his long years in prison, he would never have gotten into the whole dangerous and dubious enterprise that entangled him so badly.

“Anyone who has strong emunah knows that HaKadosh Baruch Hu provides parnassah to all — from the tiniest creations to the largest ones — without a person needing to employ questionable methods, and especially when those actions are against the law,” Samet says today. “No tricks. And it’s not only because I sat in prison for nearly two decades, but because HaKadosh Baruch Hu says not to do these things. And our job is to make a kiddush Hashem in This World and not, chalilah, the opposite.

“Ultimately, we don’t gain anything and we pay a heavy price. I suffered so much, I caused so much heartache and pain to myself and others. I ask my children forgiveness because they had to suffer so much because of my lack of caution. I ask mechilah from my wife, a tzadeikes, who waited for me all these years. Today, I hope and pray that my sins have been atoned for, and that, as Hashem promises, my transgressions have turned to merits. But please, no one should take the path I did to get there.”

What a refreshing different message to hear!

There's one more very significant point in the Mishpacha article, though I fear not enough people will notice the significance of it. It explains that Samet was not a shrewd con-man out to make a killing, but rather someone simply trying to make ends meet: 

“I never aspired to be rich,” he said in his prison interview. “All I wanted to do was scrape by, pay tuition, mortgage, kehillah dues, and make bar mitzvahs and weddings without needing to accept charity. 

And there we have a perfect illustration of the truth of Chazal's words, and the terrible failure of the charedi community for determinedly ignoring them:

"Whoever does not teach his son a trade... it is as though he has taught him to steal." (Kiddushin 29a)

 

(If you'd like to subscribe to this blog via email, use the form on the right of the page, or send me an email and I will add you.)  

32 comments:

  1. surprised you didnt mention this one (also without real focus on the crimes) http://www.rationalistjudaism.com/2019/04/a-new-martyr.html

    ReplyDelete
  2. Yes ! That is how you express yourself publicly after you made a mistake. It's refreshing to see someone understand that you make a kiddush Hashem by owning up to your faults and repenting rather than by denying that what you did was wrong.

    ReplyDelete
  3. "Although not adequately stressing the immorality and dishonesty of it, he does stress the foolishness of attempting it, and the chillul Hashem that it causes."

    After listening to people talk about the chilul hasheim of not wearing masks and ignoring social distancing guidelines for the past 9 months, I've gotten pretty firmly convinced that this is actually a major facet of the problem.

    Their Judaism has been defined in almost exclusively bein adam laMaqom terms. This is why the natural argument against acting unethically is that if you are caught, it will be a chilul hasheim ch"v. Not that it's wrong, that that you are defying the entire purpose of creation and your personal existence.


    And that makes it easy to put too many other mitzvos ahead of ethics. Whether it's Rubashkin risking the lives of illegal immigrants, cheating them out of pay, and then, when forced to stop, defrauding a bank as the only way to remain open. All because otherwise there would be Yidn who couldn't afford meat on Shabbos, or who would choose treif over praying the price for kosher. Or the yeshiva administration that launders money or lies to the government to keep open. (And what kind of chinukh do the kids in that yeshiva end up learning from these shenanigans?) Or whatever noble cause these 14 chassidim used to justify to themselves committing their fraud.

    We need to stop thinking about how frum we are, and go back to our grandparents' pursuit of becoming erlicher Yidn. If we don't remember that derekh eretz qodmah laTorah, or how Hillel, Rabbi Aqiva or Ben Azzai summarized the purpose of Torah, these things will keep on happening.

    Right now there are lives being risked because we don't have traditional mesoretic values.

    And crying chilul hasheim is better than accepting people lauding you as a hero, but I think it falls far short of what we need to effect real change.

    --------------------------------------------------

    (Side-note: It's "chilul hasheim", not "chilul Hashem" with a capital "H". The use of חלול השם and קידוש השם are much older than the practice of calling the Creator "Hashem". And the notion that someone can desecrate or sanctify G-d is absurd. What we are talking about is the effects of our actions on His "name", His reputation among people.)

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Very well said, Micha.

      I remember some years back there was a big "chillul hashem" in Brooklyn. Something occurred to me, and I wrote a blog post to the effect that when people say "chillul hashem" they mean "it makes Jews look bad" when what it actually means, and which no one seems to think of, is "it makes Hashem (so to speak) and Judaism look bad."

      It was only much later that I realized that even I was missing the main point: That the stress should not be on "chillul hashem" at all, but on *what is the right thing to do*. If you never get caught, it's just as wrong.

      Delete
  4. The implication that chareidim/chasidim are more likely to engage in fraud due to receiving less formal education is just slander. In fact, people convicted of fraud are more likely to be college graduates than the general population.

    Everybody knows that Bernie Madoff was a paragon of the chareidi lifestyle, never went to college, never learned a trade, etc.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. "In fact, people convicted of fraud are more likely to be college graduates than the general population."

      On what basis do you concoct this statement. It doesn't seem logical or correct.

      Delete
    2. "People say." You mean that Chazal say if one doesn't learn a trade he'll turn to a life of crime. The modern equivalent is surely a basic education.

      Delete
    3. Bal Ha Boss, it is in fact logical and correct as college graduates are more likely to work in the financial field.

      GIYF, but to make it easier,

      https://www.researchgate.net/publication/263270773_Interviewing_the_Fraudsters_An_Update_to_the_Male_White-Collar_Criminal_Profile

      https://www.acfe.com/press-release.aspx?id=4294968561

      Delete
    4. No one said that *only* people without a trade cheat.

      Delete
    5. Nachum, it was implied that people without a trade are more likely to commit fraud. The opposite is in fact true.

      But it depends on the trade. Perhaps in an alternative world, where all college graduates would become museum administrators or professors, they would have little opportunity for fraud (is this true?). But in actual reality, people who graduate from college, and especially male Jews, are more likely to become accountants, lawyers, bankers, executives, and CEOs. Positions that are absolutely rife with the opportunity and temptation to commit fraud.

      What to do with Chazal's statement? Well, rationalists should have no problem saying they were wrong! Alternatively, the lashon of Chazal is "listus" which implies violent robbery.

      Delete
    6. Disingenuous as always Mr. lucky. You have claimed in the past to be anti rationalist, and now when it suits you, you say Chazal are wrong? For shame.

      Delete
    7. HGLP: You are correct. The gemara does not say that those who weren't taught a trade are more likely to engage in theft. It's about the parent: a father who doesn't teach his son a trade, it's AS IF he taught him to rob.
      Whether his son is an "apt pupil" is obviously up to the child & not the parent!

      Delete
    8. I think the real answer is, it's a different world than the times of Chazal. A far wealthier one. Chazal was talking about people resorting to armed robbery to avoid starvation. Notice that nowadays, in advanced countries, even the poorest of the poor are generally able to survive. Notice that there are very high rates of non-labor-force participation, generally around 40% (for people of working age), yet these people survive. And I said people of working age, it used to be there was no such thing, child labor was absolutely necessary for survival. The people who are not surviving, I will call them "the chronically homeless" are generally people who have mental health and substance abuse issues, rather than not learning a trade.

      I will go out on a limb and say this is also the reason why the kollel "system" was able to become widespread. Not because of "we have to rebuild Torah after the Holocaust". Not because "the velt became more schmutzik". Not because "achsher doroh". But because we can afford it. We can afford to have a significant part of our population not in the labor force. I am usually anti-rationalist, and I know this a "rationalist" thing to say, but despite that, I think it's true.

      Either way it's bizarre that RNS accuses chasidim of not learning a trade. For yeshivish it makes some sense, but chasidim (at least in the US) do learn many, many trades and do not stay in kollel for long at all. Unless he equates not getting a college degree with not learning a trade.

      Delete
    9. This comment has been removed by the author.

      Delete
  5. You, and many ignore the fact that much of the sympathy given to Mr Rubashkin was based on the widely accepted legal opinion that he was given a very long sentence - based on his religion/appearance. Many of us would have been much less sympathetic if he been handed 3 years and not 28. So it is not a black or white story

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Yes indeed.

      I would elaborate, but this is yesterday's news, despite the attempt made here to drudge it up again by relating it to this latest bit of ephemera. RNS clearly has a distorted view of Rubashkin. Nuff said.

      Delete
    2. So why has neither he nor any of his promoters said this? "I/He broke the law, it was wrong, even if the sentence was wrong?"

      I remember Meir Kahane was once sentenced for something he did. His statement was, "It was a fair trial, a fair jury, a fair judge, and a lousy verdict." Rubashkin could have said the exact opposite.

      Delete
    3. Because that'd be absurd, Nachum, and pathetic. When you deal with an overt anti-semite you don't act all judicious and acknowledge minor points where he might have a point. Such niceties are not extended to the Linda Reades of the world.

      Besides, Rubashkin's message was never, at any point, about the merits or non-merits of his case. It was always about how he kept his faith and humor whilst in a life sentence. Whether he's a saint or a villain has nothing to do with anything. He has no reason or responsibility, whatsoever, to comment or discuss his case.

      Delete
  6. Until recently I agreed with you regarding Rubashkin. A few months back however, I watched a you tube video of him speaking and answering questions, all prepared to be outraged. Instead, I found myself impressed with his sincerity, and much more sympathetic. Difficult to explain; I think you have to hear him.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. "Difficult to explain"

      I'll take a hack at it: you're gullible

      Delete
  7. Meanwhile there's some new common criminal the velt is rallying around, trying to get him a pardon. He's got some Chabad connection, so I'd say his odds are a bit better than, say, Jonathan Pollard, Hashem yerachem.

    ReplyDelete
  8. It was better when you wrote only about animnals in a zoo rather then lowering yourself below them to mock other Jews as revenge (another mitzvah by you) for them hurting you. But I guess you call the Chofetz Chaim Chareidi also. Plenty of educated Jews are in Jail too.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. These guys like "fred" always make it personal. And they always try to tie it back to some personal vendetta or "revenge" as Rabbi Slifkin's motivation.
      ... As if no sane and logically thinking human being could possibly have a genuine criticism of their community!

      Delete
    2. It's a fair point, Stu, one can indeed be genuine in his criticism, even if others don't agree with him. And calling this post "revenge" is too much. But it is fair game, I think, to realize that one's point of view is informed by his background and personal history, and the viewpoint can thus easily be dismissed by other people who don't share his background.

      Delete
  9. I have a simple question. How to the likes of Samet and Rubashkin pay these use amounts of restitution (millions) while they are penniless and in prison? How do their families survive? Yes it is the charity of the community. I must admit, I see this charity to be enabling and part of the problem.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Correct me if I am wrong, but it sounds like you are suggesting that the family members of incarcerated people should die of starvation.

      The idea that people should be incarcerated for financial crimes is repugnant to me, and is a uniquely American phenomena, at least at this scale. In order to remove the incentive to commit financial crime, the price has to be higher than the possible benefit. It is quite simple. If to make $1000, a person is risking paying $2000, the incentive is gone. The government has a cheaper time of it, because incarceration is incredibly expensive, and society gains.

      Jason from Jersey

      Delete
    2. Jason, of course people should be imprisoned for financial crimes. Otherwise, the expected gains from financial crimes are positive for many people. In your system, possible gain = great wealth, possible loss = bankruptcy, which for some is devastating, but for others who have family and community support, could be as comfortable as a middle class existence. Or for some, is no worse than what they started with (but this is not the typical profile of a financial criminal, see my earlier comments).

      We have to make that the expected gains of financial crimes are zero, or even better, negative, by giving punishment that is commensurate with the possible gains.

      Delete
    3. I'm not suggesting penalizing families economically. It seems that these families enjoyed a standard of living that was provided to them by ill gotten gains. I don't think that it's necessary to provide them with the same financial lifestyle. I think happygoluckypersonage expressed it better than I could.

      Delete
    4. You may think bankruptcy is not devastating, but someone who has such a חמדת הממון that he will cheat, steal and lie to make money, will take the chance of poverty quite seriously. If a businessman knows that forging documents to receive better terms on a bank loan could end up with him losing his business and any chance of running a successful business in the future, because government fines cannot be bankrupted, he is less likely to think it is a good idea.

      As long as the fine is commensurate with this purpose, with its conditions as draconic as possible, the outcome is a lot better than incarceration. Incarceration ruins an entire life and that of a family. Incarceration breeds criminals, through the innocent children of the criminal being open to anti-social behavior as well as the white collar criminal hanging out with hardened anti-social criminals in jail.

      Another point is a moral one. A murderer can get six or eight years in jail. But through legal tricks, an embezzler can find himself with 45 years. How can a society announce, by such an action, that money is more important than life? This is morally repugnant to me, and shows an inner rot in the 'judeo-christian' principles on which this country was ostensibly founded.
      Jason from Jersey

      Delete
    5. Agreed with your sentiments about the ills of prison and the repugnancy of allowing murderers out in less time than financial convictions, Jason from Jersey, except I wouldn't speak so cavalierly about people "cheating, stealing, and lying to make money." Yes, there are those to whom that notion applies to a T. But there are many others who have been prosecuted for theft because someone chose to interpret (eg) something in the UCC differently than they did. And concerning both types, there are people under tremendous pressure to keep businesses afloat, to keep people employed and communities supplied. Its a false caricature to imagine everyone caught up in theft is doing it to support an extravagant lifestyle.

      Delete
  10. Charedi Jews, Chabadniks in Israel get commutation of sentence and pardon mixed up. Rubashkin was quilty and yet people seem to ignore it. He more than likely has a lengthy supervised release and possible compensation of his victims. It would interesting to see the comic. Does the money go to the people he cheated? They should do a comic on his wife and his children, since they were doing time of sorts while he was in prison.

    ReplyDelete
  11. I am happy to hear That Mordechai Samet didn't make the same mistake as Sholom Rubashkin. By making it part of his mission to tell everybody to tell people to do business honestly and not to be oiber Chachamim. Rubashkin message should be Aleph for emunah Beis for Bitachon and Gimmel for Kosher Gelt. Hashem should help us all.

    ReplyDelete

Comments for this blog are moderated. Please see this post about the comments policy for details. ANONYMOUS COMMENTS WILL NOT BE POSTED - please use either your real name or a pseudonym.

Too Outrageous To Be True?

Here are advertisements for two events. One is outrageous and is merely a satire of the other, which is outrageous and is actually taking pl...