Rabbi Steven Pruzansky is the spiritual leader of Congregation Bnai Yeshurun of Teaneck, New Jersey, and the author most recently of “Judges for Our Time: Contemporary Lessons from the Book of Shoftim” (Gefen Publishing House, Jerusalem, 2009).
The recent episode of “The People’s Court” featuring an Orthodox couple suing a laundry service for washing and ruining the woman’s wig has once again put Torah Jews in a negative light. In addition to the show’s regular viewers, countless others have seen a video of the trial and decision on the Internet.
A short review of the facts is in order: By all accounts, the couple’s child had accidentally put a wig in the laundry bag, which was delivered to the cleaning service that washed it – whether authorized or not is disputed – and rendered it unwearable to all but the most stylistically challenged. The wife testified that as a pious married Jewish woman she wears the wig for religious reasons, and that the destroyed wig was valued at $3,000.
The defendant claimed to have been authorized to wash it – but that wasn’t the real issue.
The judge ascertained that the plaintiffs had not received any repair estimate but on their own claimed the wig as a total loss. This was a serious deficiency in satisfying the plaintiff’s burden of proof, but the judge investigated further, allegedly calling Georgie the wig company, maker of the wig in question. She discovered, much to her distress, that the receipt for $3,000 applied to the beautiful wig the women was presently wearing in court, rather than to the bird’s nest the woman had submitted into evidence. In other words, the judge accused the couple of lying – of claiming the damaged wig was worth far more than it actually did – and she dismissed their case.
The couple was asked to respond, and looked like the proverbial deer in the headlights. The flabbergasted husband just lamented that “the judge called us liars,” but had no credible retort. The wife was equally dumbfounded. When, as a trial lawyer arguing cases before juries, I would impeach the credibility of witnesses for their inconsistent statements, I would always quote Mark Twain, who used to say that “If you tell the truth, you don’t have to remember anything.”
If the couple could not think of an answer on the spot to account for the discrepancy, there is really nothing left to say. You can’t show up in court without evidence – or answers – and hope to look good. The truth is only one story; it should be fairly easy to recall.
It was a cringe-worthy moment – on national television, religious Jews were accused of telling a bald-faced lie in order to win money from struggling Hispanic businessmen. Subsequently, the couple mounted a defense in the Jewish media – that perhaps the judge had not called Georgie or had called the wrong Georgie, that they had been unsettled and frightened and did not defend themselves adequately or quickly enough. Some even suggested they would and should sue “The People’s Court.”
I hope not. The question that presents is this: If what they are saying is true, then why didn’t they scream when accused that “it can’t be…you’re making a terrible mistake,” much like Yehuda did when confronted with evidence of Binyamin’s guilt. He didn’t wait to investigate or mull over possible retorts because he knew Binyamin was innocent and that something else was afoot. If the couple knew then what they claim to know now, they should have said it then. Post-conviction (here, post-liability) assertions carry zero weight. If you know it can’t be, then say so. It would make for great television, which is what the producers want anyway.
Unfortunately, the post-facto defense does not really matter, and once the public trial ended, the real facts and the winner/loser of the court case paled before the Chillul Hashem, desecration of God’s name, that was engendered. The actual truth or justice or whether the couple was indeed right or wrong, deserved compensation or not, is now irrelevant.
“It matters not whether Chillul Hashem is intentional or unintentional” (Avot 4:4); the effect is the same. A Jew has to be extremely careful of his/her public persona, deeds and appearance because desecration of God’s name is a horrendous sin even if it is unintentional and inadvertent – even if it was involuntary. The impression left that religious Jews – scrupulous in their observance of the laws of modesty but cavalier (or worse) about other people’s money – is one that is difficult to dispel. And for hundreds of thousands of viewers, rightly or wrongly, it will never be dispelled.
Chillul Hashem is not a deed;it is the result of a deed.
Certain conclusions need to be drawn. One of my most cherished colleagues suggested that our religious Jewish communal organizations should henceforth ban Orthodox Jews from appearing on reality shows. We don’t need the world to see Orthodox Jewish litigants, fashion models, apprentices, et al – it never turns out well. I agree. All these shows feed on human venality and dysfunction, and elicit the worst facets of our character.
The Talmud (Yoma 86b) states that we are obligated “to publicize the deeds of hypocrites because of the desecration of God’s name that is caused,” and Rashi comments that we do that because people will see their deeds, assume their righteousness, and be misled. That’s not to say that this particular couple – strangers to me – are hypocrites; it does say that we have to be very careful never to put ourselves in a position where even our appropriate actions can be misinterpreted and misunderstood, and put the Torah in a negative light.
Further, it should never be satisfactory to console ourselves that “it’s just a few people, the majority of us are righteous, etc.” That trope might work for others, but it should never satisfy us. We are part of a “kingdom of priests and a holy nation” to whom the Creator of the universe revealed Himself at Sinai and in the Holy Temples. No one is impressed by disclaimers, nor should we be impressed. If one wants to appear on TV, then do so to defend the Jewish people or do something positive for humanity – don’t do it for money or fame.
Rav Shlomo Aviner once wrote that it is more important to teach a young child love of humanity even before we teach that child about love of God. A young child cannot fully comprehend “love of God” anyway. Love of humanity has to come first, because whoever is personally corrupt, and grows up with a distorted character will just have his mature “love of God” and his advanced knowledge of Torah built on a crooked foundation. Then one can wear a yarmulke and steal – and all for a good cause.
But if one loves and respects people, then it is impossible to steal from others or to harm them. If we perceive that all others are created in the image of God just like we are, then it becomes nearly impossible to mistreat or defraud them. Rav Kook added that when love of God is built on a foundation of love of humanity, then even our love of humanity will be enhanced.
We must also tread very carefully, and remind ourselves that – like Avraham of old – we are both strangers and residents in the land. We do not have to suspect there is a Nazi lurking behind every bush to realize that exile is still exile – that history repeats itself, but never exactly the same way, for good and for not so good. To continue to put an unattractive face forward – with a new horror story about Orthodox Jews seemingly every month – courts disaster.
The Torah records the stories of our forefathers and foremothers because they taught us about the proper responses to life and its challenges, about keeping the faith even amid turmoil. When we follow their path, we are distinguished for our goodness, and when we do not, we stand out in less savory ways.
This episode – which teachers have shown to their classes in order to provoke discussion and draw conclusions – is a chilling reminder of what can happen when we become too comfortable with ourselves and do not project the possible consequences of a particular course of action. We can undo the damage – whether intentionally inflicted or not – by reinforcing to ourselves the Torah’s notions of ethical conduct to all man, not insisting on every claim we might have, and focusing on what is holy and upright. Then we will be a truly great nation, worthy of the standards that God has set for us.