Photo Credit: Government Press Office of Israel
Mayim Bialik in Israel in 2018.

Religious Jews walk the fine line of trying to always do the right thing, often under complicated, ambivalent, even dangerous circumstances. And millennia before Woke was a thing, the Jewish people had already developed keen sensitivities not to offend their fellow man or woman, and of course, do the right thing in accordance with halacha.

I was thinking about this in response to something I read regarding someone who actually isn’t Jewish, Frank Abagnale, although his father was Italian, and many Italians come from Jewish roots, but that’s another discussion.


Abagnale became famous with his book Catch Me If You Can (co-authored by Stan Redding), following Abagnale’s exploits as a con man when he lived the high life for five years – impersonating airline pilots, a doctor, a lawyer, a stockbroker, and various other professions while passing counterfeit checks. After prison, he went on to consult for the FBI and started his own security firm. The book became a movie, directed by Steven Spielberg, a Broadway musical, and a television series, and Abagnale became very successful and modestly rich, charging thousands for talks he gave at universities and other venues.

Over the last couple of decades, evidence has emerged that he made the whole thing up. Yes, he had been in prison for theft and petty larceny, but he allegedly did not achieve the celebrity criminal status he claimed, nor did he work for the FBI. At the very least, his exploits were highly exaggerated.

While at first it was a bit disappointing that he hadn’t done all those spectacularly illegal yet stylish things, it occurred to me that if it’s true that the whole thing was a lie, he had actually succeeded in a much greater way, by conning millions, instead of thousands, of people and making an honest living based on, albeit, a false identity. So either way, he is still the ultimate con man.

Why is this relevant? Because we tend to make moral judgments about people, which may be true, but not necessarily fair, when taking the whole picture into account. We have a sort of relativistic moral campus that often does that thing that compasses do where the needle vibrates from side to side, unable to make up its mind exactly where it is.

There is an apocryphal story that Barbra Streisand had decided to donate one million dollars to her alma mater Beis Yaakov, with the request that the school be re-named after her father, Emanuel, a religious Jew. The school refused to take the money from someone who was so far removed from her Judaism that she had married a non-Jew, among other things. Ironically, she then took the money and donated it for the new Jewish Studies Building at Hebrew University (this is a fact), the executives of which more than welcomed the donation, which served a similar purpose.

Now, obviously, no institution, including Beis Yaakov vets the source of every donation it receives, and there could be many dubious (in their eyes) donations from other less famous people that they were not aware of.

Obviously, again, if this story were true, they would not have been making a kiddush Hashem, but depriving their teachers of money, their students of better education, and a fellow Jew of doing a mitzvah. We generally do not prevent a Jew admittance to shul on Yom Kippur because they have not been there the rest of the year.

On the contrary, the whole philosophy of kiruv – Chabad, for example – is to give every Jew a chance, no matter his observance level, to do a mitzvah. Chabad actually took the opposite approach when they had the cast of Friends – only a couple of whom are Jewish, and none of whom are religious – to record a public service announcement for them at the height of the show’s popularity.

Chaim Walder enjoyed great success as a chareidi Israeli author for both children’s and adult literature, a teacher, a psychologist, and a newspaper columnist. He was a publishing sensation, a celebrated and bestselling author, who gave a voice to kids in his books, which were groundbreaking and popular. I myself interviewed him once.

In 2021, he was the focus of a scandal. The rabbinical court of Tzfat found that, over a period of 25 years, Walder had sexually abused women, girls, and boys that had come to him for treatment.

On December 27, 2021, the 53-year-old Walder committed suicide at his late son’s graveside. Immediately following this, his publishers stopped publishing his books, booksellers took them of their shelves, some rabbis proclaimed the books forbidden, and people started to throw out their hitherto long-cherished copies.

But why? Yes it was terrible, the things he did were terrible, it was a tragedy for everyone concerned. But why destroy all the good things he accomplished in his life? Why throw out the good with the bad? His books were a watershed in psychological treatment for the chareidi public. Why deprive future generations of that? Why deprive his humiliated and heartbroken, and now broke family of the proceeds? And do we know for certain that every book we read, every song we hear, every article of clothing we wear, was produced by people of the highest moral caliber and unimpeachable behavior? We begin our prayers every day with the utterance of the idol-worshipping prophet Bilaam. How come his words are not verboten?

It is because we are a nation that embraces the good wherever we find it.

I thought about his recently when the librarian in a school I teach at part-time offered me an English book. It wasn’t written by Chaim Walder but it was part of his publishing empire, published almost 20 years before the scandal. And it was a really good book by Tzivia Bloom about a group of boys who forms a Dreams Come True Club and help people make their dreams come true. Why discard it, destroy it, because it’s connected with Chaim Walder? Again, why deprive someone of the good they can do, because they have done things that are not good? Even evil. They, more than anyone else, need the extra merit.

And while most of us, thank G-d, may not be guilty of heinous, public crimes, aren’t we all guilty of faux pas, bad judgments, slights, even sins? Are all our other efforts and contributions therefore annulled and void? Cancel culture is not a Jewish thing.

I interviewed Mayim Bialik a number of years ago. In the end, the interview wasn’t deemed appropriate for the religious paper I submitted it to. But Bialik is probably the most vocally Jewish celebrity in Tinsel Town today – apart from Ben Shapiro.

Aside from having a very Jewish first and last name, Bialik visits Israel frequently, she does video blogs about being Jewish and Jewish values, she speaks Yiddish and Hebrew fluently. While doing her PhD at UCLA, she minored in Hebrew and Jewish Studies. She tries to dress modestly, and is a proponent of Israel and Judaism, in a way no Hollywood celebrity has ever been, including the aforementioned Babs. And in the American world of intermarriage and assimilation, and the Hollywood Sodom-like morality, Bialik’s pride in her Jewish identity, using her position of celebrity for Jewish advocacy, though not always strictly kosher is, I think, a positive and refreshing thing.

While it is truly deeply disappointing when people do not live up to the best version of themselves, or who we thought they were, that does not mean that we have to discard every positive thing they’ve contributed to the world, or make their continued contribution conditional upon their perceived perfection to date. The whole concept is antithetical to teshuvah and kiruv, and the ethical imperative of seeing the good in your fellow man. If we do, we deprive them, ourselves, and everyone else of the light that they do have to shine on the world.

In this vile and intolerant atmosphere of cancel culture, I don’t think Jews should be cancelled. Popular and liturgical stories abound about how the pintele Yid does teshuvah, because, after all, his soul is part of the Divine. He won’t get there if his efforts are lambasted.

While certain things are certainly unforgivable, most people aren’t and, in our quest to advocate for them, let us not dispense with the good deeds they have done, or tried to do, in the world. Let us give them the benefit of the doubt.

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