Thursday, September 10, 2009

Stopping Crime Before it Starts: My Conversation with a Convicted Felon

Earlier this week, I posted a piece about Sam Antar and the importance of apologies. I posted the article at 9:35am Israel time. At 9:40am, Sam sent me an email in which he wrote the following (by the way, he gave me permission to share his correspondence):
My point is that many people are victimized by criminals when they accept their apologies at face value. Too often apologies are never followed by redemptive behavior. That is why I am very skeptical about apologies when I discuss the issue in public. I don’t want people to be victimized by phony apologies and I want them to exercise caution against empty gestures of redemption. Hashem cannot be fooled, but people are often fooled and victimized by criminals taking advantage of their desirable trait of forgiveness.
Most interesting is his signature (which he also uses on his blog):
With great respect,
Sam E. Antar (convicted felon)
I don't know about you, but most of us try to run away from our past; we hide our indiscretions and try and present a front to the world of, if not perfection, normalcy. Sam, on the other hand, seems to have decided to define himself by his crime. At least for now - and for the past fifteen years - he has defined himself as a "convicted felon". I've been thinking about Sam quite a bit since that morning, and especially the notion of apologies, redemption and forgiveness.
The Mishnah (Sanhedrin Chapter 2) lists several types of people who the rabbis prohibited from serving as witnesses in a Jewish court of law. The list includes people who loan on interest, professional gamblers of various types as well as thieves. The Talmud (Sanhedrin 25b) wonders about the rehabilitation of a professional gambler. When does the gambler become sufficiently rehabilitated to allow him to testify? The Gemara answers:
ואימתי חזרתן? משישברו את פיספסיהן ויחזרו בהן חזרה גמורה דאפילו בחנם לא עבדי
And when are they rehabilitated? When they destroy their cards and repent so completely, that they don't even play for free.
Rehabilitation is possible. But it's not enough to just say, "I'm sorry." The gambler must take specific, concrete action to demonstrate his own rehabilitation.
Reading Sam's website and listening to him talk made me think of that passage. How many of us would have the courage to sign our emails, "Reuven Spolter, former embezzler", or "Reuven Spolter, unconvicted tax fraud"? Or, being more honest, "Reuven Spolter, yeller at children when I'm upset"? When does Sam - or any of us for that matter - cease from being a "convicted sinner"? When do we get to erase our past and move on?
One could argue that he will always be a convicted felon. It's part of his past. He did the crime, and even though he did the time, you can't erase facts. You have to live with your past. But the very idea of Teshuvah seems to contradict this idea. If I repent wholeheartedly, my Teshuvah has the power to turn back the clock and somehow undo that which I've done, to revise my history and no only erase my sins, but actually elevate them.
אמר ריש לקיש: גדולה תשובה, שזדונות נעשות לו כשגגות, שנאמר +הושע יד+ שובה ישראל עד ה' אלהיך כי כשלת בעונך. הא עון מזיד הוא, וקא קרי ליה מכשול. איני? והאמר ריש לקיש: גדולה תשובה שזדונות נעשות לו כזכיות, שנאמר +יחזקאל לג+ ובשוב רשע מרשעתו ועשה משפט וצדקה עליהם (חיה) +מסורת הש"ס: [הוא]+ יחיה! - לא קשיא; כאן - מאהבה, כאן - מיראה.
Said Reish Lakish: So great is Teshuvah that [after repentance] intentional sins are transformed for him into unintentional sins, as it is written (Hoshea 14) "Return O' Israel to Hashem your God, for you have stumbled in your sinfulness." We see that a 'sin' is [the term used to connote a sin committed with] intention, and yet the verse calls it a 'stumble'. But did not Reish Lakish [also] say: So great is Teshuvah, that his intentional sins are considered merits, as it is written (Yechezkel 33), "And when the wicked returns from his evil and performs justice and charity upon them he shall live"? This is not a question. This [second statement] refers to Teshuvah from love, and this [first statement] refers to Teshuvah out of fear.
This represents one of miraculous aspects of the gift of Teshuvah that God grants us. Repentance has the incredible power not only to erase but to transform the sins we committed into merits for us. When a person uses his sins to make the world a better place, although he is a "convicted felon," in a very real sense he is not. He's no longer that person, but a different, better person.
Sam needs to continue to call himself a "convicted felon". Maybe that's how he presents himself to give himself credibility when talking about criminal behavior. But I think that it's more than that. Maybe for Sam Antar, the title of "convicted felon" isn't so much a badge a shame anymore, but a description that continues to spur him to teach about and combat white-collar crime. It's a way of saying, "Look what I was, and now what I've used my sins to become."
In anyone's book, that's what Teshuvah is really all about.

In our short email exchange, I told Sam that I wanted to ask him a few questions. He soon called me and we had a fascinating discussion. To be continued...