(By Rabbi Yair Hoffman for the 5tjt.com)
This past Motzei Shabbos, yet another Lev Tahor leader was arrested for kidnapping. The FBI made the arrest in Brooklyn, NY. The accused individual, Aron Yeshaya Rosner, was living in Williamsburg. Reports are surfacing that there is now an active behind-the-scenes campaign underway for Pidyon Shvuyim. There is also a similar campaign underway for the other five leaders of the cult – Nachman Helbrans, Meyer Rosner, Chaim Yankel Rosner, Uriel Goldman, and (First name unknown) Malka – that were arrested in Mexico last week. What follows is a halachic analysis of this topic. This article will attempt to present an unbiased view of the underlying issues.
[Full Disclosure: This author has written several articles concluding that the Lev Tahor organization is a true cult in every sense of the word.]
There is a fundamental halachic disagreement between the Poskim that cuts to the heart of the underlying issues. It is between the Radbaz (in his commentary on the Rambam Hilchos Matanos Aniyim 4:13) and the Yam Shel Shlomo (in his commentary on Gittin 4:72) whether the laws of Pidyon Shvuyim apply to someone who actually stole money under circumstances where there exists extraordinary punishment.
The Yam Shel Shlomo writes clearly that the halachos of Pidyon Shvuyim do not apply to someone guilty of actually stealing money – even if the person’s life is at stake. The Radbaz disagrees completely and writes that it certainly does apply. It is clear, however, that even the Yam Shel Shlomo would agree that, while it may not be considered Pidyon Shvuyim, there is still an Inyan to save him if possible.
APPLICATION TO LEV TAHOR
Let us apply this debate to our case. Lev Tahor has been accused of very serious issues, both by former members of Lev Tahor as well as actual family members of the sect’s founder. Among some of the accusations are kidnapping, serious beatings, and much more. If the Yam Shel Shlomo ruled that Pidyon Shvuyim does not apply to someone guilty of actually stealing money – then most certainly it would not apply to someone accused of kidnapping. The Radbaz would disagree. However, an argument could be made that the Radbaz only advanced his position because theft does not constitute a clear and present danger to others. Here, it may be strongly argued that someone who would stoop to kidnapping a child from his mother would be a clear and present danger to others and should not be freed.
WHO DO WE PASKEN LIKE?
Which position has become normative Psak halacha – that of the Yam Shel Shlomo or that of the Radbaz? This too is unclear as the Poskim in the past have not issued a definitive ruling. The Jewish people, however, are rachmanim bnei rachmanim and have always responded generously to appeals – even if the person may be guilty. Once again, however, the issue of these people being dangerous to others is not insignificant. Indeed, this author posed the question to two major Poskim from the New York area. Both of them ruled unequivocally that there is no Mitzvah of Pidyon Shvuyim here. It seems to this author that their concern was the danger they pose to others.
There are a number of former Lev Tahor children who have been taken in by wonderful baalei chessed in our community. [Having been in touch with two such families, this author is genuinely proud to be a member of the same people as these remarkable individuals. They truly give b’lev v’nefesh to these young neshamos in an attempt to provide them with a normal life.]
THE ARUCH HASHULCHAN
There is also a fascinating Aruch HaShulchan which deals with the contemporary application of this Mitzvah. Rav Yechiel Michel Epstein (1829-1908) zt”l in Yore Deah (252:1), [in the laws of Tzedaka qualifies the Mitzvah of Pidyon Shvuyim:]
“And all this was in earlier times, and even nowadays in far flung wildernesses such as Asia and Africa, where bandits fall upon travelers and take them into captivity to the point where it is necessary to redeem them with large sums of money, as is known from the caravans that travel in the western wilderness.”
It seems that the Aruch haShulchan is suggesting that the full blown Pidyon Shvuyim and all of its associated Halachos are essentially a thing of the past and no longer applicable in the Aruch HaShulchan’s time.
THREE READINGS OR REACTIONS TO THE ARUCH HASHULCHAN
There are three possible reactions and or understandings of this Aruch HaShulchan
Possibility One – One can argue and disagree with his position by saying, “the Aruch haShulchan writes that nowadays, Jews in prison do not constitute Pidyon Shvuyim – but we disagree. There is certain Pidyon Shvuyim here.” But again, would they disagree when there is a clear and present danger to others?
Possibility Two – One can understand this Aruch HaShulchan as ruling that there is certainly a form of Pidyon Shvuyim here – it is just that he is positing a lower level Pidyon Shvuyim. Granted it does not have all the Halachos of the full Pidyon Shvuyim in the Rambam and in the Gemorah, but there is certainly a Pidyon Shvuyim here.”
Possibility C – One can say, “The Aruch haShulchan is certainly ruling that there is no Pidyon Shvuyim here – even a low level form of it. However, there is certainly an Inyan to help out.” In this case, however, the helping out might cause others to be endangered.
Whenever one deals with pidyon shvuyim, there are actually four issues that need to be examined. The first one is the issue of the person’s guilt or alleged guilt. The second issue is that of the person’s own physical and mental safety and well-being. The third issue is whether the person presents a danger to others. And the fourth issue is whether jail would be good for the person. All of these issues are certainly factors in the decision as to whether we should designate funds to assist in getting the person’s freedom.
Let us start with the issue of guilt. Rav Aharon Felder zt”l spent 14 years with Rav Moshe Feinstein zt”l. In his Rishumei Aharon, he cites the following vignette of Rav Moshe Feinstein zt”l:
One time, a religious Jew entered the Beis Midrash to speak with Rav Moshe Feinstein zt”l. He began to relate how his son is sitting in jail on account of dealing drugs. He requested that Rav Moshe write a letter to the judge on behalf of his son to have mercy upon him. Rav Moshe turned to him and said, “Your son makes people ill and damages them; Let him sit in jail.” Even though the father pleaded and persisted, he refused to budge. He added that his actions were against the laws of the state and he cannot do whatever he wants (Rishumei Aharon Vol. I p.22).
It may well be that Rav Moshe held l’halacha like the Yam Shel Shlomo – when there is no significant danger. In light of this debate, when there is established guilt then we may talk about Safek Pidyon Shuyim which, unless there are other important factors or issues, we should treat no differently than unequivocal Pidyon Shvuyim.
Let us now move on to the issue of safety. If the person is innocent, and does not present a danger to others, but issues of his or her own personal well-being and safety come into play – even if one is a proponent of Possibility two or three in the Aruch HaShulchan – then real Pidyon Shvuyim may come back into play.
To examine the issues of safety, however, we need to look at the particular health and age of the person in question as well as the type of people in the particular prison under discussion. For example, a few years ago, an elderly man with health issues was sentenced to prison. There is no question that even though he was in Otisville – prison for him was a certain death sentence. The medical care in the U.S. Federal Prison System is abysmal and he died shortly after he began to serve time. It is clear that there was no lower level Pidyon Shvuyim Type B for this person. Rather, that case fell into the Yam Shel Shlomo/Radbaz debate.
In most of our state prisons, according to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, about 1 in 400 prisoners die each year while in custody. These numbers seem pretty bizarre because the crude death rate in the United States seems to be higher than that, hovering at about 1 in 250. According to these figures, one can certainly understand the Aruch haShulchan’s differentiation between the past and present.
But here, Lev Tahor may be different. Members of this group of people may find prison life quite mentally unnerving. Although they are clearly off-base, it seems to this author that their mental health would be much more fragile in prison than that of a regular frum person. Yet, still we must consider the damage that they have done to so many others in this cult. Why is his blood any redder than that of innocent children?
What would the halachic differences be whether we categorize it as Possibility A – Pidyon Shuyim – or Possibility B or C? The Rambam in the Laws of Tzedaka (8:10) writes that Pidyon Shvuyim beats supporting the poor and clothing the poor because a real case of Pidyon Shvuyim includes the hungry, the thirsty, and the unclothed. Their lives are also in danger.
DANGER TO OTHERS
The leadership of this group has caused a churban to hundreds of family members of those who have been attracted to Lev Tahor. The long-term damage to hundreds of kids and now adults have untold repercussions. This is a factor that would affect whether or not we should be giving tzedakah toward an effort to mitigate their crime.
WILL JAIL BE GOOD FOR THEM?
It is this author’s view that hardened cult members rarely break down and realize the error of their ways through the application of punishment. Also, it is a very difficult matter to determine what would ultimately be good or bad for a person.
NOTWITHSTANDING THE RAMBAM
Although the Rambam lists no less than eight verses that one violates if one ignores rendering assistance in these cases, in our case the danger to others is a gamechanger. The Rambam’s eight verses are: 1] Lo saametz es Levavcha – Do not tighten your heart(Dvarim 15:7) 2] veLo Sikpotz es yadcha – Nor shall you tighten your hand (Dvarim 15:7) 3] Lo saamod al dam rayacha – Do not stand idly by your brother’s blood (VaYikra 19:16) 4] Lo yirdeno beferech leainecha – Do not let him go down in excessive labor in front of your eyes (Vayikra 25:53) 5] Pasoach tiftach es yadcha lo You shall surely open your hand for him (Dvarim 15:8) 6] Vechai achicha imach – And your brother shall live with you (Vayikra 25:36) 7] Veahavta lerayacha kamocha –love your friend as yourself (Vayikra 19:18) 8] Hatzel lakuchim lemavais – Save those taken toward their death (Mishlei 24:11)
It is this author’s conclusion that there is no Mitzvah or even inyan to help the leaders of Lev Tahor evade jail charges. This is also the opinion of one of the leading Poskim in the NY area. May Hashem bring yeshuos and nechamos to Klal Yisroel.
The author may be reached at [email protected]
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