Compassion for the Sinner – A Personal Story

Typically I post when I feel I have an answer.  On a high level, I’ve written about things why good things happen to bad people and how there can be seeming evil in the world.  In this personal story, I am left with unanswered questions.  If I don’t tell the story, I don’t think anyone else will, but the details are changed.

The Reuven I knew

Ricardo Gonzolez came from a family of J-Witnesses in Ecuador.  He converted to Judaism after his own attempts to convert a Jewish friend to his former faith backfired on him.  He was something of a language aficionado, earning a degree in English and knew it near perfect, while also learning read both the Torah and New Testament in the original language.  Though he started out Sefardi in Ecuador, as that is the nature of the Jewish community there, he decided he was going to be Ashkenazi and pronounced the Hebrew letters better than the rest of us, adding the Ashkenazi “hhh” to a “hey” with a dagesh (dot) in it, and “th” to the “tav”.  I met him in yeshiva in Israel, my first memory of him being when he stood up on a bench and swung a large soup ladle over his head during a lively song while I ducked for cover from bits of flying soup still on the spoon.  Soon after, i was paired with him as my learning partner (chavrusa).

Some people change chavrusas, find theirs isn’t suitable for them, or one person simply moves on to another shiur (level) or even a different yeshiva.  Not Ricardo and I.  We moved up together and I learned with him six days a week for almost a year.  When you argue back and forth over how to understand complex topics, you begin to understand how the other person thinks.  Even if I didn’t always agree with the way Ricardo looked at, say, a talmudic argument of whether a person with a barrel and a person with a beam who ran into each other were responsible for the damages, there came a point where I could anticipate what his argument would be, and he mine.  We could argue each other’s arguments and, at least for my part, I really felt like I understood how my very bright chavrusa thought.  At the same time, there are jokes about how guys in yeshiva who have learned with the same other guy for many years.  One day, one of their wives asks them a basic question like, “how many kids does your chavrusa’s have?” and they have no idea.  Guys are like that.

Still, we did talk some about personal details.  Ricardo, now going by Reuven, came from a dirt poor family where they did things like wash their underwear in freshly cleaned … toilet.  That’s where they had water and couldn’t afford to use more than needed, I suppose.  His father had come to terms with his conversion but warned him, “just don’t marry an American.”  Meanwhile, he was the most compassionate and deeply feeling person around.  If a joking comment was made about someone, he’d be the first in there to defend them.  If you needed something, he was there.  He prayed at dawn every morning and was my right hand man when I prepared for my wedding.

Soon after I married, as I was leaving yeshiva, a girl was recommended to Reuven for marriage but … she was American.  He didn’t want to do marry her and upset his father, but alas, he did.

Reuven’s Mug Shot

Reuven never contacted me after yeshiva.  Strange, but I did seek him out and found him in Virginia.  He welcomed me and I stayed in his house while traveling to the nearby U.S. Patent Office (I am a Patent Attorney).  He was married and had adopted a baby boy.  His wife had clearly helped him along in adjusting to the much higher standard of living we have in the United States versus his poor Ecuadorian background.  All seemed to be in order, except for his distance from his biological family.

He moved again, and I lost contact again.  Not too long ago, I ran into a friend of his wife and mutual acquaintance and asked if she had any news.  She said she had no contact but knew something wasn’t right.  She didn’t have any details.

I searched for Reuven on Google … nothing.  Then one day LinkedIn recommended I befriend his wife.  I recalled it was her email address, but the last name was different.  He changed his last name too.

Then I found his mugshot.  Then I found his guilty plea.  Then I found his crime.  Reuven is a pedophile serving a 30 year sentence.  Huh?

Immediately, I contacted one of our Rabbis from yeshiva.  He was sure I had the wrong guy.  Reuven?  No way.  Must be a different guy with the same name.  He was so compassionate, ran to the defense of everyone, and certainly wouldn’t hurt someone!  Nope – that’s him in the mug shot.  That’s his name.  That’s the current location of his ex-wife.  No one else has that name in the world.

I contacted his widow (for practical purposes, he’s dead to her).  She told me the bais din (Jewish court) ordered him to divorce his wife, and he did.  He was honest and upstanding like that, but apparently … he also heard voices, had a psychotic break, and has been attracted to little girls since he was in high school.  He hid it so well from everyone, including his own wife for years.  I had seen family pictures where I saw his brother.  It turns out, according to his ex-wife, he has a lot more siblings … all in mental institutions.  I had no idea and neither did she.  We speculate that he must have had a very abusive childhood that he hid well.  He changed his name, his religion, his location … everything to escape himself, but only for so long.

Criminal Defense

The news hit me like a ton of bricks.  This is such a shock.  Yet, I have experience with people who have committed some of the most heinous of crimes.

In law school, I took part in a juvenile defense clinic in Newark, NJ.  Most of the crimes were petty theft, maybe joyriding (driving in a stolen vehicle), and drug use and abuse.  On the advice of a psychologist with whom I consulted before beginning, I used to listen to each kid and then say something like, “You seem like a decent fellow.  How did you get into this mess?”  The answer, 99% of the time was, “it’s my friends – it’s who I’m hanging out with.”  It’s hard to change your peer group and find better people.  If you read “The Pact”, you can see how hard it was for three such kids to become doctors, getting into trouble along the way.  One, Sampson Davis, now a doctor, almost lost everything when he broke the bones of someone in his freshman dorm in what was a verbal scuffle.  That person decided not to press charges and let the whole thing go, understanding where this, now doctor, came from.  He saved the life of a man who now saves others.

These people are largely a product of their environment, and breaking out of it is no easy task.  The one thing I learned as that no matter how uneducated or bad, these people the same feelings as everyone else.

There were, however, a few “untouchables” in my book.  The 12 year old sitting in a holding cell, separated from the rest of the prisoners for his own safety among much older kids was one of them.  He had been accused of a lewd act with an even younger child and videoed it to make it even worse.  He was scared as anything, but it was my job to defend him.  I had trouble entering the cell with him and spoke as little as necessary.  The judge, typically compassionate and ready to hear all sides before rendering a judgment summarily handed him very restrictive terms, including electronic monitoring, until trial.  I didn’t represent him after the initial hearing.

What to Do With a Person Like Reuven

Based on the facts I have, Reuven deserves the punishment he got.  He knew what he was doing, understood that it was wrong, but went ahead and did it after some prior failed attempts.  Even if he gets out of jail as an old man, if he is well enough to not be in an institution like his siblings, he will be on every sex offender registry and monitored like crazy to keep him from hurting another.  The Torah tells us that it is incumbent upon all people, not just Jews, to set up courts and punish the offender.  How the world does that is largely left to people.

There is a flip side to everything.  Things can be used for good or for bad.  There is a midrash that we don’t have prophecy today because the flip side of that is idolotry.  Jews prayed for the end of the old-style idolotry because it was wreaking such havoc, but we also lost prophecy in the process.  The midrash goes on to say that King Solomon also asked for the end of sexual immorality, but saw that same drive that brings about new life in the world.  Without it, the world would wither away.

Yet, on a personal level, I knew Reuven.  He was a guy that always sought to do right.  He doesn’t fit the characteristics of the client I felt so disgusted by that I wouldn’t enter the room.  His wife of more than a few years didn’t see it.  I didn’t see it.  His Rabbi didn’t see it.  The people who agreed to convert him didn’t see it.  The government panel that approved him for adoption didn’t see it. He was a smart guy with a college degree who hid it from everyone.  Now that I see what has been revealed, I still see the honest and otherwise compassionate and caring person who will now languish in jail for substantially or fully the rest of his life.

Why Do Bad Things Happen?

On a higher level, as in … why does G_d create a world like this … I am at a bit of a loss.  The abused becomes the abuser.  People are allowed a lot of free will to create systems as they choose and then live in them, but the neural pathways in Reuven’s brain are aligned in such a way due to no fault of his own.  He sought meaning and sought to do good by becoming more religious than most of us.  No one changes their life around if they don’t feel a need.  For me, it was reaching a point where I had every materialistic desire more than met, getting straight A’s, and finding it all meaningless.  I had higher needs.  For Reuven, he tried to escape demons that overtook him.  Could he control who he was attracted to?  Maybe it is explained by reincarnation, but otherwise, it seems simply unfair.

Could he have passed the test and continued to excel as he was for a time?  I don’t know, but I suspect so.   if I had such drives as Reuven, I would voluntarily undergo chemical treatment to remove the drive.  So yes, despite having the inclination to do wrong, he is at fault for not acting to prevent carrying out that wrong.  On a societal level, courts in the United States, based on arguments by the ACLU, have called that unconstitutional when judges order it.  I disagree. It is better that a person sit in a small cement cell for the rest of their life wasting away, than to be able to work and live a somewhat productive life?  Give a person punishment surely, but if you take away the ability or drive to do harm, you can let the person live.  If I ran the system, there would be prison time … but then instead of 30-50 years in his state (other states are often far less), I’d give the person a choice: 30 years of jail + be on the registry for life, or far less jail time plus a suspended sentence for the rest with some combination of chemical treatment to take away the desire combined with an electronic monitor.  The sentence returns if you break any of the conditions that you voluntarily agreed to do.

When King Dovid [David] did something wrong, he asked that he be punished by G_d, not by people.  He feared that people would take it too far and punish too harshly.  While I don’t have the facts at hand as to what Reuven did in detail, if I didn’t know him and only had court records to read, I’m sure I would have agreed with the outcome.  When I know there’s more to the person than the crime, after a certain amount of time in prison to punish, the rest of the sentence solves nothing but keeping them away from others.  There has to be a better way.  Maybe I’m wrong about this, and maybe putting a person like this away until they die is the only answer to protect society.  It seems like there must be a more just way of preventing harm to others while giving people a chance to live again, just like the college freshman did that for Dr. Davis.


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10 Responses

  1. Danny Yellin says:

    The blog stops too early. I want to know Reuven’s side to the story! Did he give up all belief? Is he angry and looks back at his Yeshiva days as a mistake? Just an attempt to run from his himself that eventually caught up with him? I would like to believe that he clings to his belief despite it all; that in his pain he acknowledges some bit of self culpability.

    What about visiting him in prison? Would that not be a great act of chesed? Is it too much to ask? Would he welcome your visit? I am curious but nervous about reading your blog after you visit him.

    Your blog raises issues about freedom of will and why bad things happen to good people. These are long debated questions But part of the beauty of Judaism is that it commands us to act righteously in the face of doubt and questions. We strive to make the world better, L’Taken HaOlam. I am left reading your blog with a deep pain for Reuven.

    • tostien says:

      As a bit of an addendum and answer to your questions, Reuven is still Torah observant in prison. I sent him a Gemora and he is trying to learn every day. He is not angry at the yeshiva because he blames himself for most of it and says that he’s happy he’s suffering in this world so it will be less in the next for what he did.

      I think he would welcome my visit. We were in email contact for a while, but that slowed and stopped. He didn’t have very much time on the computer and I think there was only so much about prison life that he wanted to share. He is in prison far away, but I might visit him at some time if I’m ever in that area of the country.

  2. Binah says:

    You have a good point, and it’s very possible that people who plead guilty are actually innocent, and overwhelmed from the sensitivity of the issue. Continue judging people favorably and hopefully Hashem will do the same for you.

  3. J Efram says:

    Why would a married adult repeat offender who kept his proclivities under wraps for decades be more worthy of being nidon l’kaf zechus than a 12 year old who likely had a much shorter period of offense, and likely learned to do whatever he did from someone else [likely another, older predator]? Why is he more “untouchable” than “Reuven”? I think there are biases here that are simultaneously acknowledged and not acknowledged…maybe this becomes paradigmatic of “al tiyu c’orchei hadayanim”?

  4. Danielle says:

    I agree with you…but then what do we do with all the drug addicts, sick with the disease of addiction (listed in by the AMA in the DSM IV)who in a stupor and panic from withdrawls brought on by trying to STOP using…wind up robbng people, homes, and even wind up with assault or murder charges. When, those same people, in a sober state and in 12 step programs, are not only safe, but contributing members of society that seek to volunteer and help others find a way out of addiction. I believe most of them don’t belong in jail either. So… who belongs in jail? Anyone? What are the parameters?

    • tostien says:

      Yeah, saw that too. I got a big education representing a heroin addict once. The only thing that works is inpatient drug treatment programs. I saw a clerk in one court call a judge in another to have a warrant vacated for stealing goods so my client could stay in the private drug treatment program he already entered. The person, however, must be willing and we do need to worry about relapse, certainly. For that, there is electronic monitoring which is certainly better (and cheaper) than jail when it works.

      I do think people do belong in jail for these type of crimes. Certainly, it is a deterrent, punishment, and keeps the rest of us safe from danger, but it is not rehabilitation and it is cruel and unusual punishment to hold someone in a box their whole life. If that’s what’s needed to protect others, so be it, otherwise, there has got to be a better way. I also mentioned chemicals for such people, but the courts won’t do it.

      Personally, for other types of crimes, I like the Scandinavian system of having people for many crimes go to jail at night and go to their jobs during the day.

  5. Caryn Lipson says:

    What a sad and unfortunate story.

    • Shlomo says:

      A few comments on your well-written piece:

      The justice system is responsible for a very difficult balancing act. Not only do criminals have to be punished to enforce in them that what they did cannot be tolerated, but the victims and their families need to see justice, and other people need to be protected from this person. Yes, it is sad that a productive member of society, from whom the world could have greatly benefited, was put into a jail in which he will not contribute properly to society, but looking at things through the victims’ eyes, eyes which may have a hard time closing to go to sleep each night because of his heinous crimes, maybe he should have gotten more jail time. Sometimes, the justice system fails us greatly when it comes to sentencing, like arguably in the case of Rubashkin, who seemed to be punished more out of spite than necessity. However, a person who was misjudged as a productive member of society, really should be shielded from others. We can argue on how you take him away from society (in Reuven’s case, he sounds like a person who may have been better served in a mental institution) but the suspended sentence with the “promise” not to do it again, scares me as a choice. All you need is one person to act again on his urges after he is let out of prison, to cause a huge uproar in society. And I understand how that last statement may contradict the idea of parole, but I would hope that the parole board can assess properly if a person is ready to get out of jail. As for your idea of chemical treatment, just from seeing in the link that one can reverse it, I do not know if that will take care of the problems.

      • tostien says:

        “the suspended sentence with the “promise” not to do it again”

        No no… suspended sentence only if agreeing to chemical castration. The desire, as far as I know, doesn’t go away otherwise.

        “looking at things through the victims’ eyes”

        Certainly, the desire of the victim should be taken into account as well. E.g. the doctor in Newark who is there because the victim took it into account. Or, if I may … the priest in Les Miserables who gave Jean Val Jean a second chance.

        I don’t have enough facts in this case to know, but too often, the justice system just pigeon-holes. If you try and do anything different, the whole system is up in arms against you and you don’t last long. I know this because I got burnt out very quickly from doing criminal public defender work. E.g. I once asked for family counseling to be ordered for one of my juveniles. The other DEFENSE attorneys in the room were on my case for asking for something “more restrictive” than they give in those particular circumstances. The people there tend to get jaded, in order to survive doing it day in or day out. The day that started happening to me, I stuck to patent law.

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