One of the reasons I like reading international fiction in translation so much is because it’s always so fascinating to see the issues that concern us—the universal issues that trouble all people and unite us as human beings dealing with the same problems with our children, our spouses, our parents, our jobs, our futures, etc.—to see those same issues focused through an entirely different prism than the one through which we’re used to viewing them. I wrote to you last year about the way the novels of the late and truly great Egyptian author, Naguib Mafouz, had that effect on me, and I’m having a similar experience now reading the books of an Irish author, Hugo Hamilton. In fact, I’m planning to write about Hamilton’s latest book, Disguise (which also has a very strong and very compelling Jewish theme), later this year. I’ll tell you more about it when I do.
Today, however, I’d like to write about that same concept from a slightly different vantage point. It’s not only through literature that we can sharpen the focus we bring to our Jewish lives, after all, but also through the contemplation of current events. And that brings me finally to the subject of this letter, the strange (and upsetting, but also challenging) story of Raymond Guay, the man whose sudden appearance in a small New Hampshire town has caused such a ruckus in these last few days.
Raymond Guay was convicted in the 1973 murder of a little boy named John Lindovski, whom he allegedly attempted to molest, then chased into the woods and shot in the head. This took place in Nashua, New Hampshire, and he was tried and convicted there, then sent to prison. He escaped in 1982, then managed to hold a Concord, New Hampshire, couple hostage until he was recaptured, whereupon he was sent to prison in California to serve the duration of his sentence plus the extra years now added on as a result of the escape and the hostage-taking incident. And, while in California, he had still more years added to his sentence for stabbing a fellow inmate with a fork during a dispute.
In the end, however, he served all his time and was just recently sent back to New Hampshire on supervised parole, where a pastor in the little town of Chichester, about ten miles to the northwest of Concord, took him into his home for a few months to provide him with a place to live while adjusting to the concept of living in the world after spending most of his life in prison. This gesture has not made the Reverend David Pinckney into a popular figure in town. Some residents have been supportive, but most appear implacably hostile. The New Hampshire papers report that gun shots have been heard at night in the vicinity of the pastor’s home, presumably to give audible expression to the town’s dismay. There was a town meeting last night to discuss the matter. The atmosphere was not cordial.
The pastor, for his part, is standing his ground. Also living in his home are his wife and his four children, and the pastor says he has no fear for their safety. More to the point, he believes that the man has turned over a new leaf, that he has found in faith an antidote to the frustration and rage that led him to murder, and that he has earned the right to a second chance to live a decent and good life. The neighbors are divided in three groups: some few agree, some more agree but want him to seek his second chance anywhere else than in their town, and most appear vehemently to disagree.
Reading this story and following it, as I have, over the last few days, has challenged me to revisit some of the notions I regularly put forward from the bimah, especially during the High Holiday season, but which I rarely pause to revisit critically or too carefully. Some notions just say themselves out loud once you’re in the right position and speaking to the right audience on the right day of the year! But that kind of rote preaching is not worthy of a congregation of intelligent, thoughtful listeners, nor does it do much credit to the rabbi delivering such pre-packaged ideas to his listeners. So let’s go back to some of those ideas and evaluate them in light of the Reverend Pinckney’s actions over these last few days.
In our Jewish world, we often speak of repentance, imagining that each of us possesses an almost innate ability to undo past sin through public confession of wrongdoing, mental resolve to behave better, and especially through the traditional media of penitent behavior: fasting, prayer, and giving tzedakah. The Machzor we use on the High Holidays returns over and over to these ideas, putting them forward forcefully and eloquently. We say, and we repeat over and over, that we truly to believe that the power of atonement derives directly from the will to turn away from sin and to overpower one’s own baser inclinations to do wrong. But missing, it suddenly strikes me, from the whole concept is any actual suggestion of how to determine if someone is being sincere or not. Obviously, none of us can look into the heart of another. None of can say with absolute certainty if another’s formal renunciation of sin is feigned or real, phony or real. And yet we welcome into our midst all who seek solace in penitential prayer, in the warmth of a supportive community, in tradition. And we are bidden not endlessly to recall these people’s sins, but to accept that people do change, that change is possible, that people are not condemned by past bad deeds endlessly to repeat them.
Well, that all sounds noble and good, but what do we really think of the Revered Pinckney’s willingness to take a man’s resolve to sin no more at face value, to accept his repentance as real and not contrived or insincere? The reverend wrote an essay in yesterday’s Concord Monitor in which he stated clearly that he sees in Guay a changed man, a man who has renounced crime and embraced faith for sixteen years, an individual who deserves to have his repentance taken seriously. Is it unduly harsh or only realistic to observe that there is something peculiar about restoring a murderer to “real life” while his victim remains forever lifeless? Or in supposing that a man who could murder a child would not stoop to lying to a minister or to a parole board? Or is just the opposite the case? Is there something noble about the reverend’s willingness to accept that human beings can serve their time and then move on to better parts of their lives? Raymond Guay didn’t sentence himself to jail, after all. He was sentenced by a judge and he served his sentence. And yet, despite my general inclination to judge all people kindly, there is still something nagging at my conscience and holding me back from endorsing the reverend’s action as something I myself would do.
Rambam writes in the Mishneh Torah that there are sins for which even repentance and Yom Kippur cannot atone, but for which ultimate atonement solely comes with the death of the sinner. That much, I surely do believe. And perhaps within that thought is a compromise notion: that the Biblical teaching that human beings can only see each other’s outer veneer whereas God can look deep into the heart can be as liberating as it is sobering, that within that thought is the freedom to grant even the worst criminal a chance to try to make amends, to do some good in a world to which that same person has hithertofore only brought sadness and woe…and for us to do so secure in the sense that even if we ourselves have been fooled, then there is surely a Judge in heaven who cannot be fooled by even the most artfully feigned moral metamorphosis.
Our Torah endorses the notion of capital punishment under terms far more stringent than our secular criminal justice system imposes, but that the notion itself exists prompts me to formulate one final thought. Terrible crimes deserve terrible punishment, but when the punishment has been inflicted and the criminal appears adequately to have atoned and truly to have embraced a finer path in life, then it should be enough for us all to leave ultimate judgment to the Ultimate Judge and to allow our human inability to peer into the hearts of others make us not cruel or vengeful, but merciful and kind.