Rob Rinder

Why I'm thinking of murderers this Rosh Hashanah

Happy (early) New Year to you all!


LONDON, ENGLAND - OCTOBER 05: Robert Rinder attends the launch of Judge Rinder's new book "Rinder's Rules: Make the Law work for you!" at Daunt Books on October 5, 2015 in London, England. (Photo by Eamonn M. McCormack/Getty Images)

September 07, 2023 16:46

Last week, I had lunch at Mazal, currently my absolutely favourite kosher restaurant. Not only are their falafels glorious, but they’re also just up the road in Camden, so I can easily wobble home post-stuffing.

I’d popped in with the lovely Rabbi Dovie Schochet and, after some of the usual legal and rabbinical gossip, we got to discussing where I’d go for the High Holy Days. As a bit of a shul slut, I’m spoiled for choice. I’ve got memberships at several (it’s a way of covering my religious bases — I don’t want to get to heaven and be told I was eating fishballs in the wrong place).

Although they’re not quite with us yet, Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur are already on my mind. They are an essential part of my year and always have been. For me, the Days of Awe inhabit a unique intellectual and spiritual sweet spot, focusing as they do on sin repentance, and forgiveness. As a lawyer, as a Jew, as a person on this Earth, they raise questions I never stop pondering.

In fact, just before I’d met Dovie, I’d been on Good Morning Britain, cross-examining a government minister about proposed changes that would force convicted criminals to attend court when victim impact statements are read.

It’s an issue that has received renewed public attention after Lucy Letby’s refusal to hear such statements from the families of her victims. An immensely brave campaigner called Cheryl Korbel — whose daughter’s murderer similarly stayed in his cell during sentencing — has been working to ensure criminals are made to listen (it will, she hopes, be named Olivia’s Law, after her daughter).

Some may wonder: why does it matter so much that they do?

All too often, it doesn’t serve as any kind of punishment. Many defendants are immune to words.  I saw it again and again when I was a criminal barrister: piercing that veil of indifference can often seem impossible. I don’t even think the act necessarily brings “closure” (whatever that word really means) to families and victims.

But I feel strongly that it’s still truly necessary because of those extraordinary occasions when it does trigger change.

I often think of the sentencing of the American killer Gary Ridgway, who brutally murdered 48 women. He pleaded guilty and, at his hearing (which is available to watch online), many family members told him about their pain. Understandably, lots expressed hatred and disgust, and their hope that he’d suffer for his crimes. He sat impassively through them all. But when one grieving father said that as a man of faith, he wanted to offer forgiveness, Ridgway finally broke down in tears. It’s an astonishing moment.

It didn’t diminish the repulsiveness of his crimes or undo the devastation he brought to so many lives (nothing ever could), but something shifted.

Because listening to and hearing — really hearing — pain can, every now and then, be the starting point for genuine change. Sometimes it kicks off a process of introspection. It may not happen there and then, but can cause the first cracks in the facade to appear.

For the families, it doesn’t act as an ending, but might allow them to begin their healing — cleansing themselves of unimaginable sorrow — and so start a journey towards forgiveness.

We aren’t committing monstrous offenses like the people I’ve mentioned. But this is an idea that’s true for everyone: that to begin repentance, we need real recognition of what’s been done. It’s at the heart of our selichot during the upcoming festivals, that obligation to look at our wrongdoing squarely and ask properly for absolution.

Justice — whether human or divine — always wants us to consider honestly what we’ve done and how to make amends. It’s the same in our relationships with each other, with our families, the community, and the Almighty. And doing so brings real rewards.

As we discussed Rosh Hashanah over our perfect falafel, Rabbi Dovie told me a story I’d not heard before.

It was about the Baal Shem Tov and a chazan whose singing of the selichot was criticised for being too exquisitely beautiful for such solemn prayers.

When they met, the rabbi asked the chazan: “Why is your melody so sweet?” He replied: “Because it’s a wonderful thing to be able to take in your dirty laundry and know it’s going to be cleaned.”

I couldn’t agree more. It’s a thought that I’ll carry in my heart later this month … wherever I end up sitting.  Happy (early) New Year to you all!

September 07, 2023 16:46

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