Jonathan Pollard and the sin of the metzora

Pollard is no saint.

Free Pollard campaign posters 370 (photo credit: Courtesy of Justice for Jonathan Pollard)
Free Pollard campaign posters 370
(photo credit: Courtesy of Justice for Jonathan Pollard)
Jonathan Pollard is no saint. This fact is often harped upon by his detractors, but in truth, even the greatest advocates for his release need not hesitate to recognize it.
Officials in the intelligence world have called him a “blabbermouth” and a “wacko,” and have remarked on his heavy drug and alcohol usage. He took payment for his espionage, perhaps to pay off debts he had incurred, which opened him to allegation that his motives were purely financial.
The FBI even released evidence that he offered confidential information to Pakistan and South Africa.
Some of the above is fact, some is conjecture. But none of it is the reason Pollard was sent to jail, or the reason that he sits there, more than 10,000 days later, and hence, none of it is really relevant to the case as it stands today. The case for clemency is not about character, it’s about mercy and justice. But Rabbi Shmuly Yanklowitz, founder of the Orthodox social justice organization Uri LeTzedek, and a cherished colleague, goes a step beyond the standard ad hominem attacks which attempt to undermine the efforts to gain Pollard’s release. In an article published recently in The Huffington Post, Yanklowitz suggests, in the tradition of classic rabbinic exegesis, that not only is Pollard no saint, but that we ought to treat him as a leper.
“The spiritual leprosy case as described in [the portion] Tazria-Metzora reminds us of the Jonathan Pollard case... he must dwell outside of our community until he completes his sentence,” writes Yanklowitz, quoting the verse “he shall dwell in isolation” (a reminder of Pollard’s seven (!) years in solitary confinement – ironically, a practice Yanklowitz vehemently opposes, calling it torture, which opposes Jewish values). We must not waste any precious communal resources on this misguided cause any longer, argues Yanklowitz.
If we are to continue along the lines of Yanklowitz’s exegesis and take a look at the biblical treatment of the person afflicted with tzara’at (the “metzora”), however, we notice that, in fact, a great deal of communal resources were dedicated to the treatment of the afflicted.
Most striking in this vein is the rabbinic comment on the verse “and the impure one shall call out ‘impure’” (Leviticus 13:45). The Talmud explains this “calling out”: “He must make the public aware of his pain, so that they might ask for mercy on his behalf” (Shabbat 67a).
As Yanklowitz reminds us, tzara’at has traditionally been understood as a punishment for hurtful speech. Why then is the community enjoined to ask for mercy on behalf of the metzora? Shouldn’t we be happy to distance this harmful influence from our midst? Perhaps we might suggest that the fate of the metzora, as much as it is a reflection of his own, personal sin, is also a reflection of the state of his community.
For after all, if he was spreading tales, there must have been an eager audience of listeners available.
The community does not simply banish the metzora and forget about him.
They bear a continual responsibility to him, to pray on his behalf, and indeed to send their spiritual leader, the kohen, on regular visits to check on his health.
Perhaps in this way, the community is encouraged to examine their own role in the metzora’s affliction.
LIKE THE sin of the metzora, Jonathan Pollard’s crime, his punishment, and the attitude to both, are all a reflection of a deep dilemma with which the American Jewish community has great difficulty grappling. It is this dilemma that evokes such strong emotions from his detractors and stands at the core of their opposition.
It is the dilemma of dual loyalty, and Yanklowitz discusses it in the second half of his article.
“Pollard’s example, unfortunately, gives support to those who would question our loyalty as Jews to the United States, and our community must repudiate his example.”
Last week’s Torah portion introduces the se’ir la’azazel – the original scapegoat, which dies in order to cleanse us of our sins. In a sense, Pollard’s continued imprisonment for betraying his trust to the United States cleanses the rest of the Jewish community of the “sin” of dual loyalty, of the unjust accusations that our loyalty to the Jewish state trumps our loyalty to the United States. To support Pollard’s release is, for Yanklowitz, to confirm those accusations.
Then let’s confirm them, or at least, let us face them head on. Yes, dual loyalty is a real question. It’s undeniable. Many Jewish- Americans (certainly not all, and sadly, perhaps not even most in any significant way) bear loyalty to the United States as well to Israel, just as every other American with a hyphenated identity may bear a dual loyalty – Japanese-Americans, Iranian- Americans, Korean-Americans.
And there’s no reason to limit this quandary to dual loyalty in the nationalistic sense; the same dilemma exists for Catholic-Americans, Muslim-Americans, Communist-Americans, Vegan- Americans, Anarchist-Americans. The issue always exists in theory, but any rational person can appreciate that it ought to be troubling and demand attention only when those loyalties are in a state of conflict.
In general, the Jewish community’s loyalty to Israel is absolutely consonant with its loyalty to America. In a recent study, Israel ranked seventh in a list of countries viewed favorably by Americans, higher than Mexico, Russia and China. Rationally, then, your average American should worry more about the dual loyalty of three million Russian-Americans, four million Chinese-Americans, and 33 million Mexican Americans, among others, before spending time worrying about the Jews.
At a time when the president speaks of the “unbreakable bonds of friendship” between Israel and the United States, the Jewish community should feel confident that our dual loyalties are in harmony with one another.
But then along comes the Pollard case and, like the metzora, challenges the community with an uncomfortable reality. There may come a time, or a situation, where these two loyalties which are held so dear do indeed come into conflict, when the community, or a particular individual will have to decide which one trumps. Implicit in Yanklowitz’s statement that “we operate on moral principle” in navigating our loyalties is the recognition that it could be that our moral principle will point in either direction.
This is entirely legitimate, and situations like this actually come up in small ways for American Jews all the time, as they come up for every hyphenated- American. When I vote, do I see the needs of Israel or America as more primary? When I give charity, do I give more to Israeli charities or American charities? Each conflict of this type needs to be analyzed individually, based on the stakes involved.
At the end of the day, whatever his motivations were, however tainted you believe his character may be, Pollard was faced with a particularly complicated and difficult example of this same dilemma, of the type that very few American Jews ever need to face. Pollard had access to intelligence information that the Israelis were not being given, that would be helpful to them, that could save Jewish lives.
It was not information that directly endangered Americans, but rather, as the partially declassified damage report attests, information about Arab, Pakistani and Soviet military capabilities. It was the type of information that had allowed Israel to bomb Iraq’s nuclear facility in 1981, information which a questionable policy change by Admiral Bobby Ray Inman dictated was no longer being shared with Israel in 1984.
I don’t know what was in Pollard’s head when he made that decision, so I can’t say whether he was working on moral principle or not, but I certainly think a strong moral case can be made for his decision. Consider the following analogy.
If you were in a position in which you were exposed to documents which you believed could help protect the lives of your family members, without causing significant harm, but were bound morally, professionally and legally not to share that information with them, would you do it? The correct answer may be: it depends.
It depends on how important the protection this information affords is, how “insignificant” the harm, it depends on how strong the family ties are on the one hand, and the professional/moral/legal ties on the other. Does it change matters if until now you haven’t been particularly loyal to your family? If you’re paid for your work? If you hope that your betrayal will bring you fame? In the Pollard case, as in the above analogy, you have a Heinz dilemma concerning which legitimate moral opinions can be formed in either direction. But let’s be clear. If one is of the opinion that Pollard’s choice was the correct one in his particular, unique circumstance, are you saying that American Jewish loyalty to Israel always trumps loyalty to the United States? Of course not! And, in fact, one could hold the belief that what Pollard did was absolutely wrong, but still be in favor of clemency in light of the unprecedented severity and length of his punishment, his expressions of remorse, and his poor health.
This is a position now held by former director of Central Intelligence R. James Woolsey, and Lawrence Korb, senior aide to Caspar Weinberger, the defense secretary who recommended Pollard be sentenced to life in prison despite a plea bargain to the contrary. A call by the Jewish community for Pollard’s pardon by no means undermines the community’s fundamental loyalty and commitment to the United States.
The leper is a repulsive individual, and it is far more comfortable and convenient to simply expel him from the camp, to forget about him, and the difficult communal issues his predicament raises. It is more comfortable and convenient to let Pollard die in prison, to escape the difficult questions of dual loyalty, to succumb to the irrational fear that advocating on behalf of Pollard will endanger the USIsrael friendship.
But the Torah delineates not only the expulsion of the metzora; it also takes great pains to precisely describe his return home. To this end, the Torah requires the investment of communal resources, and the rabbis add a requirement for communal introspection. Saint or not, the Jewish community has a responsibility to Jonathan Pollard, to “make the public aware of his pain so that they might ask for mercy on his behalf,” and to invest the communal resources required of us to finally bring him home. ■
The writer, a rabbi with ordination from YCT Rabbinical School and the Chief Rabbinate, is an educator and mashgiah ruhani at the Hartman Institute’s Charles E. Smith High School for Boys in Jerusalem.