Friday, March 29, 2013

A Tale of Two New Yorkers

Two stories from the New York religious world raised my blood pressure this month for very different reasons.

First, it turned up that Herschel Schachter, a rabbinic dean at Yeshiva University, made comments last month that some found offensive. Rabbis, he said, should refrain from carelessly reporting Jews to the police who are accused of sexually abusing minors. Otherwise, said Rabbi Schachter, a Jew could end up in a cell with a "schvartze…a black Muslim who wants to kill him." In one sentence, the distinguished Torah scholar betrayed (a) casual racism (b) tolerance of child abuse and (c) open religious prejudice. I didn't think that was possible.

Tall Tales: Rabbi Hershel Schachter was recorded at a London conference railing against the dangers of reporting child abuse claims directly to police. He used a derogatory word to claim that false claims could lead to Jews being jailed with black inmates.

Rabbi Schachter is a revered scholar among Modern Orthodox Jews. In the rush to defend his comments, he has been called a "Torah giant" and a brilliant Talmud scholar. With respect to kashruth—Jewish dietary law—he wields tremendous influence with his legal thinking. If you ask him, Rabbi Schachter will give you exactly the right answer about bread that has milk in it.

Ecch. In my book, and I hope in God's, that counts for next to nothing. I once taught Plato to a toad, but he still ate crickets whole and peed on my hand.

The uplifting, surprising opposite of Schachter's comments came from the Catholic Church. It's Holy Week, and this year Cardinal Timothy Dolan, the Archbishop of New York, didn't spend his time cloistered in an ornate church. Dolan celebrated mass with inmates at the Shawangunk Correctional Facility, a maximum-security prison in the Hudson Valley. "I want you to know that I love you very much," said Dolan in his sermon. "I mean that. I respect you, I love you, I wanted to pray with you, and I wanted to know that you're not alone; that you're not forgotten."

Dolan is no New York liberal: just ask him what he thinks about abortion and gay marriage, and you'll get a very different answer than you will at any Reform synagogue. Which goes to show that for all his conservative, moralizing political positions, Dolan knows what religion is for: to love the widow and the orphan, and not to shy from breaking bread with outcasts.

Dolan claims he took his inspiration from Pope Francis I. Yesterday, instead of saying mass in the Basilica of St. John Lateran as the pope usually does, Francis spent his Maundy Thursday visiting a juvenile detention center, where he washed and kissed the feet of young men and women, Muslims included. No red slippers, and no regal pomp: this Pope prefers to do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly with his God.

Pope Francis kisses the foot of a prisoner at the Casal Del Marmo Youth Detention Center during the Mass of the Lord's Supper on Thursday, March 28, in Rome.

Funnily enough, that phrase comes from the Old Testament. Someone call Yeshiva University with the news.


Doni said...

Where in Judaism do you see an acceptance -- let alone a demand! -- to love murderers? From Genesis all the the way through there is a very clear lack of love for many people who wind up in maximum security prisons. Loving orphans and widows is something else entirely, but those who make children, wives and husbands into orphans, widows and widowers are brought to justice by God (Deut. 10:18). What Schachter said was disgusting, and I would never defend it. But I'm not sure that's adequate reasoning to abandon the Jewish demand for justice and instead humbly bow to Christianity's imperious insistence on forever turning the other cheek. Why do you criticize Schachter for accepting child abuse but laud Dolan for loving child abusers?

Jonathan S Nathan said...

You're right that Judaism puts much less emphasis on redeeming horrible sinners. But my attitude is that God will take his final revenge, and that it's not a job best left to us. That doesn't mean that we should abandon justice: to the contrary; I support long prison sentences for abuse and a healthy system of accountability. But even though we despise abuse and put abusers in jail, we can still act humanely towards them. The right approach is to prevent and abhor crimes, but to afford dignity even to prisoners.