Victor Hugo’s 1862 novel Les Miserables serves as the story for one of the most successful theatrical musicals of all time, both on Broadway and London’s West End. But it also serves as a platform for considering a philosophical question about categorization. Jean Valjean steals a loaf of bread to feed his sister’s starving children. His five-year prison sentence was extended to nineteen. Upon his parole, he is issued a “yellow passport” that effectively ruins his chances of finding a job or otherwise leading a normal life. He is an outcast for making one – justifiable – mistake. Is he a criminal? From the standpoint of the legal system depicted by Hugo and by simple definition, one who commits a crime is a criminal. But from the reader’s standpoint it seems unfair and misguided. An otherwise good and compassionate man who commits a wrongful act for selfless reasons should hardly deserve being censured as a criminal.
However, Hugo cleverly complicates matters. Valjean subsequently steals a bishop’s silverware. Were it not for the bishop’s mercy, convincing the police that the silver actually belonged to Valjean, he would have been consigned to prison again, perhaps for life. Setting aside the bishop’s faith that Valjean would use his ill-gotten gains for good, is Valjean now a criminal? Hugo lets readers decide as the plot unfolds. That is the privilege of good literature. The question remains open. Criminologists like Matt Di Lisi (American Journal of Criminal Justice Volume: 25 Issue, Spring 2001) like to distinguish between “career criminals,” those who make their living through crime, and non-career criminals including “extreme criminals” – those who commit heinous crimes. On this distinction, Valjean is not a career criminal and perhaps not a criminal at all.
Interestingly, it seems that the Talmud would agree. The Mishnah (Hagigah 26a) considers the case of a thief who broke into a house and stole certain vessels. Likely after some remorse, he returned the stolen items. The question that concerns the rabbis is whether the erstwhile thief is credible when he says that he only touched the vessels he stole and no others so that the householder need not worry about the contamination of other vessels if the thief was ritually defiled. The judgment is that we should believe the thief. To put it differently, theft does not necessarily impugn the character of the thief.
Bryan Stevenson, the executive director of the Equal Justice initiative, and the subject of the 2019 film Just Mercy, famously stated: “I believe that each person is more than the worst thing they’ve ever done.” Our biggest mistake does not define us. This is the abiding message of Rosh HaShanah. We may be guilty of wrongdoing. But wrongdoing alone does not define us nor should it deter us from repentance. We are more than that.