The Price of Freedom

To facilitate pidyon shvuyim (redeeming captive Jews from secular prisons) we are commanded to go so far as to sell a community’s Torah scroll. Yet it is hard to rejoice that Bill Clinton pardoned four chassidim from the village of New Square, N.Y., along with an alleged tax evader who donated megabucks to Israel. In contrast to the complex moral and ethical questions that grated pro-and-con during discussions over the possible pardons of Michael Milken and Jonathan Jay Pollard, there is something unequivocally outrageous in Clinton’s decisions to pardon the four Squarer chassidim and the international oil merchant whose dealings prompted the Justice Department to allege, among other things, tax evasion and trading illegally with Iran.

I come from humble roots. My Dad sold toys and stationery goods as a wholesaler in New York City’s Lower East Side, working six days a week for his brother. My parents did not go to college. We were not well-connected. We were not connected. When I wanted to go to Columbia for college, I had to figure out how to get accepted on my own, and I had to figure out how to pay my way through the Ivy League. No one helped.

Later, when it came time for Yeshiva University (YU) to place me after I had studied for smicha (ordination), I had no well-connected relatives, no big donors, no name rabbis in my family. So YU’s rabbinical placement office tried to farm me off to a synagogue in Christchurch, New Zealand. I could have been the grand rabbi of Christchurch. When I refused, they tried to sell me on Cape Town, South Africa. And then one last option: Wichita, Kan. They would not give me a shot at anything near a significant Jewish community, choice ground reserved for the chosen and the connected. So I had to find a big-city congregation on my own. And to me, that is the American dream: making it on one’s own.

Clinton came in as the “man from a place called Hope,” the ’60s idealist who could feel the pain of the little guy. Clinton’s dad had left his mom, and his mom had left him to be reared by a grandmother or an aunt while she worked long hours. When his stepfather threatened to punch out his mom, Clinton stood up to the bully. From such beginnings, he made it to Yale and then became a Rhodes scholar. It was a great story, much true and admirable. But over eight years, he closed the book on his own story.

Soon, he was renting out the Lincoln Bedroom as if it were his personal Motel 6 for rich donors. He abused his position of power, and now he has bequeathed a legacy stained by granting pardons to four crooks whose village grand rabbi effectively has been deemed to have delivered 340 votes for each pardon.

Similarly, Clinton has pardoned an alleged tax-evader who chose two decades of European exile to the alternative of arguing his innocence in an American court of law — and whose ex-wife helped raise some million dollars to Democratic Party candidates and causes, then beseeched Clinton for a pardon. Those four Chassidim defiled everything that is remotely holy in Judaism as they cheated society out of approximately $40 million dollars, creating a bogus yeshiva built on lies. But the grand rabbi had delivered a bloc of more than 1,300 votes to Hillary. And, as Hillary has written, “It Takes a Village.”

So Teddy Roosevelt’s legacy to America was the Square Deal. Franklin Roosevelt’s legacy was the New Deal. And, for all their posturing through the 1990s as populists for the little guy in the Roosevelt traditions, the Clintons’ legacy to America is the “New Square Deal.”

There should be a problem with the calculus that if I steal $10 million dollars and keep $9 million of the loot for myself but disperse the remaining $1 million to charitable causes, then I deserve to be guest of honor at an institution’s annual dinner dance. There seems something far more noble in the person who never gets honored but who awakes at 5:30 in the morning, lays tefillin, prays to G-d, goes to work, works hard and accounts for every penny, davens again, feeds a family honestly though humbly, comes home late at night, perhaps after finishing a second job because it takes two jobs to break even, then davens a third time and drops into bed from exhaustion after spending a few moments with the children to teach them values like love, honor, respect, honesty, loyalty, trust, devotion.

It really is horrible, just plain awful, when people who proudly boast that they do not read newspapers and who think that all non-Jews are reincarnated Chmielnitzki Cossacks and Russian pogromists, decide that it is OK to cheat and steal in the name of our Torah. The United States is a warm, kind, and generous country. There is no anti-Jewish head-tax here. And the only ghettoes in which Jews reside in America are those that Jews voluntarily create for themselves, while the only walls within which Jews are enclosed are those at the exclusive “gated communities” for which residents pay a premium.

This mess has become the first Great American Scandal of 2001, occupying the center of the nation’s news and gossip for two weeks. When one considers the extraordinary efforts expended by many American Jews to win mercy for Jonathan Pollard, as well as the efforts to gain forgiveness for Michael Milken after the setbacks in his personal life and all he has done for children and their teachers since paying his debt to society, it is humiliating and downright degrading that the outgoing President of the United States has saddled our community with this legacy of shame for the American history books.

We always speak of the “price of freedom.” Now we know that price in two forms of currency: cash and ballots.