Photo Credit: Jewish Press

Only partially tongue-in-cheek do I assert that Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia was (aptly) named after the airport in Queens. (One of the many reforms that he brought to the City was in the realm of transportation.)

LaGuardia’s tenure as three-term mayor of New York City was so famous – totally dwarfing his terms as a congressman – and so remarkably productive, it is hard to imagine that one of America’s undisputed greatest mayors could fade from memory – if not be totally obscured by the airport named after him. Yet most ironically, my Google search for LaGuardia (alone, without his first name) offered no references to the irascible, popular, and powerful mayor.

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Alas, I digress, even before I have started…

Rabbi Joseph Telushkin in his masterwork, Codes of Jewish Ethics (both volumes I and II) quotes a story about Fiorello LaGuardia which I suspect is apocryphal, but this does not diminish the message of the story. According to the tale, LaGuardia was presiding at a police court during the Depression when a poor man was brought in for having stolen a loaf of bread. The thief acknowledged that the charge was true, but in his defense he declared that his family was starving, and that he therefore had no choice but to steal food.

What is a judge to do in such a situation? We are reminded that Pirke Avos offers plenty of advice to judges, and it is hard to imagine that this counsel is only directed to dayanim (rabbinical judges) and not to the population at large. Rather, as we know, we judge and evaluate all the time. I even wrote a best-selling book, entitled Courtrooms of the Mind, about judging favorably. We are constantly judging our fellow person in the courtrooms of our mind. It is possible to sentence someone to 10 years, or even a lifetime, over a simple misunderstanding. Furthermore, conscience and reason are the only witnesses for the defense in the courtrooms of the mind.

So, back to the bread thief. Should the judge be strict and abide by the law, or make an exception because of the circumstances? LaGuardia intoned from the bench, “I must punish you; the law makes no exceptions. Therefore, I am sentencing you to a fine of ten dollars.” He then reached into his own pocket and paid the fine. LaGuardia continued, “I’m going to fine everyone in this court 50 cents for living in a town where a man has to steal bread in order to eat.” The bailiff collected the fine and handed the defendant $47.50.

Judge LaGuardia’s unusual ruling brings to mind anecdotes from the Talmud and latter rabbinic judges concerning communal responsibility. How this approach contrasts with Victor Hugo’s famous Les Miserables! Jean Valjean, the protagonist of one of the greatest novels of the 19th century, is convicted for stealing a loaf of bread to feed his sister’s seven starving children, and is then sent to prison for what ends up being a 19-year sentence. Upon his emancipation, Valjean is rejected by society for being a former convict, until he encounters the merciful Bishop Myriel, who turns Valjean’s life around by encouraging him to become a new man.

I shan’t reveal the rest of the story for the few of my readers who have not read this book. But here again, we encounter behavior in society (albeit fictional, but very credible) that contrasts with Torah norms. As the Torah teaches (Devarim 25:3), after a wicked person is punished, he is referred to as “your brother.” Rashi elaborates that prior to his punishment, he is referred to as a “sinner,” but once he has been degraded by punishment, he is called “your brother.” The take-home message is that while we may not tolerate wrongdoing, once the evil has been atoned, we must be forgiving. Post-repentance, there is no concept in Judaism of being an “ex-con.”

I have found the LaGuardia anecdote to have many applications in daily life, especially in parenting and teaching. I hope, dear readers, that you will also find it beneficial when you find yourself thrust into the “judge knot.”

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Rabbi Hanoch Teller is the award-winning producer of three films, a popular teacher in Jerusalem yeshivos and seminaries, and the author of 28 books, the latest entitled Heroic Children, chronicling the lives of nine child survivors of the Holocaust. Rabbi Teller is also a senior docent in Yad Vashem and is frequently invited to lecture to different communities throughout the world.