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Does a kosher butcher’s fraud mandate a life sentence?

by Rabbi Shmuley Boteach

April 16, 2010 | 8:46 am

At middle age I have come to accept my limitations. Although I like to have an opinion on almost everything, I am conscious of the fact that I am not a legal scholar and do not understand all the complexities of the criminal case against Shalom Rubashkin, the former CEO of America’s largest kosher meat plant, Agriprocessors of Postville, Iowa.

But I am not a stupid man either. And I, and a heck of a lot of other fairly intelligent and educated people are scratching our heads as to why government prosecutors are requesting that Rubashkin, who has ten children, including an autistic son, and a reputation for enormous philanthropy, be given a life sentence in prison.

A life behind bars. The very words are ominous. Isn’t that reserved for society’s most heinous offenders? Life sentence has one conjuring images of rapists and murderers, international drug cartel kingpins and white-collar criminals guilty of gargantuan fraud, like Bernie Madoff.

What did Rubashkin do? After an INS raid on the plant that found hundreds of illegal immigrants, the company was pushed to the brink of bankruptcy and Rubashkin, who had already been arrested for employing illegals, was subsequently found guilty of defrauding a bank and producing false invoices in order to keep the business going. There is no insinuation that he did any of this for personal profit or gain. Unlike Madoff, he had no Hamptons estate, no fancy yacht, and no Manhattan penthouse. By all accounts he and his family lived in incredibly modest circumstances.

Obviously, the Rubashkin story has been an enormous embarrassment to the American Jewish community in general and orthodoxy in particular. The largest kosher meat plant in the country employing hundreds of illegal immigrants? Engaging in bank fraud in order to remain a going concern? Falsifying invoices and misleading lenders? These are serious charges that go against both terrestrial and celestial law and constitute actions that neither man nor G-d can condone. The expected flight of Jewish leaders and spokespeople from Rubashkin’s side ensued, whatever the injustice of his proposed sentence. We Jews are accustomed to run from scandal like the plague.

So let’s remove the smoke from this unsavory story and focus on truth.

Yes, we Jews unfortunately have our criminals. Yes, we orthodox Jews unfortunately have our felons. We’re human, too. We have people guilty of serious wrongdoing. And we too must confess our sins, repent of our actions, be punished for our crimes, and teach our children to always do better and never excuse our behavior. Our community need to know that no matter how important you believe it is for other Jews to eat kosher food, you cannot purchase that mitzvah at any price. You cannot be a good Jew if you are not an honest person. A religious obligation that comes through theft – even when your intention is to simply keep a business open so you can eventually pay off your loans – subverts all principles of religious morality.

Rubashkin is no hero. Whatever the nobility of his intentions, he is a poor example to religious youth. His behavior must and should be condemned. He has been found guilty of a crime and he must do the time.

But he is no monster either. Unlike Wall Street bankers, he did not bet the farm and other people’s deposits in order to buy himself a Ferrari. Unlike AIG executives, he did not cost the government billions in bailouts and then get a bonus. And while I, of course, understand that criminal conduct is infinitely more serious, so is prosecutorial overzealousness that borders on fanaticism.

The time that Rubashkin serves must be fair and just. This is America. Just as there is no room for toleration of criminal conduct, there is also no room for a lynch mob mentality. I realize I am not a lawyer. But I have enough sense to understand that a punishment of a few years in prison sets an unassailable example that criminal conduct is utterly inexcusable. Anything more than that for a crime of this nature gives the false impression that the American justice system is prejudicial and untrustworthy.

As for the outcry from the Hassidic community that Rubashkin is being treated unfairly and that his yarmulke and beard make for a prosecutorial bull’s-eye, I love America too much to believe any of it. This is the fairest, most decent country on earth. But I do believe it possible that when an overtly religious person perpetrates a crime – especially one that involves companies catering to religious needs – there is a feeling on the part of many that the hypocrisy mandates an even harsher sentence.

So let’s be clear.

This is not in any way analogous to other ugly religious stories dominating the news like pedophile priests. There is no suggestion that Rubashkin’s crimes be covered up. Less so is there any insinuation that Rubashkin be moved to another state where he can start up a new kosher meat plant. Rubashkin’s trustworthiness in the American Jewish community is finished.

But there is an insistence that he be treated like a human being. That it be taken into consideration that he has no prior offenses and that his company provided kosher meat to hundreds of thousands of people at affordable prices so that more Jews could observe their faith. That he and his family are legendary in the Hassidic community for their charitable giving, their hospitality, and their communal involvement. That Rubashkin himself devoted a substantial portion of his profits to funding a soup kitchen and supporting organizations like Collel Chabad that feed the hungry and the poor. To disregard all these considerations when it comes to sentencing is to disregard the universal belief that the good we do is not cancelled out by our horrendous mistakes.

I know my own limitations. Perhaps Rubashkin’s prosecutors ought to know theirs as well.


Rabbi Shmuley Boteach, host of TLC’s ‘Shalom in the Home,’ is the international best-selling author of 23 books, winner of the London Times Preacher of the Year, and winner of the American Jewish Press Association’s highest award for excellence in commentary. His website is www.shmuley.com.

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR

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Rabbi Shmuley Boteach, “America’s Rabbi,” whom The Washington Post and Newsweek call “the most famous Rabbi in America,” whom The Jerusalem Post lists as one of the...

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