1. Honesty

Chapter Contents:

Honesty: confronting “Torah” crime

Feel free to disagree, but I think dishonesty is a problem.

Of course, we all permit ourselves to lie from time to time. The Gemara even expects it במסכת ובפוריא ובאושפיזא (Bava Metziya 23b) and כלה נאה וחסודה (Kesuvos 16b), and permits swearing falsely to escape criminals (נודרין להרגין ולחרמין ולמוכסין שהיא תרומה אע"פ שאינו תרומה - Nedarim 27b).

But those are specific cases which bring harm to no one. In general, the Torah requires us to be honest and open in the way we deal with the people around us. Even in cases of disagreement that can’t be enforced by the courts, you’re still expected to stand by your word (שיהא הן שלך צדק ולאו שלך צדק - Bava Metziya 49a. For some important context, see מנחת חינוך למצוה רכ"ח). In many instances where a beis din has no direct jurisdiction, they’re nonetheless expected to formally convene and ask God to curse a dishonest Jew with a מי שפרע.

I shouldn’t really have to say this: frum Jews - because we at least claim to represent God’s Torah - must always act in a way that reflects His higher moral values. When judged after death, the first question we’ll face is whether our business was run honestly (Shabbos 31a). Torah law requires carefully calibrated weights and measures, using the severe term “abomination” to describe their neglect (Devarim 25:16). And repaying debts is more than just the right thing, it’s a mitzva (Kesuvos 86a).

What does it cost to learn in a yeshiva

So then why is it that many talmidim learning in yeshivos are routinely advised by rabbonim and poskim to provide false information on insurance, welfare, and immigration documents? Whatever some leaders might say in public from time to time, the practice of signing fraudulent contracts to gain access to restricted services is widespread.

The halachic advice is often accompanied by conditions that limit the “heter” to times of need. This is significant. I can’t believe any talmid chacham takes pride in guiding his talmidim to such contemptible - and dangerous - acts. The ones who offer such advice probably feel they have no alternative: “how else can this young man - without his own source of income - continue learning Torah unless he cheats the government? It’s worth the cost”

But is it really worth the cost? Think about how likely it is that - sooner or later - you’ll get caught. Consider the personal consequences: the arrest, the chillul HaShem…you know these things happen.

And is it really true that there’s no alternative? Is dealing with the problem of insufficient funds really such a mystery? Of course Klal Yisrael needs Torah leaders and of course it takes years of uninterrupted learning to build such leaders. But do you really have so little faith in God that you don’t believe He can provide for His future leaders without them suffocating their precious souls beneath layers of filthy lies and deceit?

If the money doesn’t arrive in a halachically and morally acceptable way, then it’s obvious that God has other plans for you right now. Start preparing for them. Although I’m not sure why you weren’t advised to start preparing for this possibility years ago when it would have been far less disruptive to your learning.

Bad excuses

“The few dollars I’m claiming from Medicaid is a drop in the bucket compared to the billions of dollars the government wastes every day.”

So what? If my neighbor enjoys flushing his mother-in-law’s jewellery down his toilet each night, does that mean I can break into his home and help myself to the food in his fridge? Theft is wrong and morally destructive no matter who you’re stealing from.

“The government steals millions in taxes from Jews. I’m just taking a little bit of that back.”

Whether you realize it or not, you firmly believe that a government has the halachic right to collect taxes (I’ll explain how I know that later). Even if most of that money is wasted, it’s still theirs to waste. But the fact is that when you factor in tax credits, social benefits, policing, infrastructure maintenance, and a thousand other programs enjoyed by all citizens, I would be really surprised if any community gave up more than it took. (How is that mathematically possible? Have you seen your government’s debt lately?)

“תלמוד תורה כנגד כולם”

Everyone - regardless of where you happen to be during business hours - has to learn Torah. But first you have to observe the Torah.

What’s your job?

Do you have the right to blindly rely on rulings from genuinely expert poskim even though they run counter to the Torah’s moral standards?

Some would quote Rashi to Devarim 17:11 on the words “Do not turn from the thing that they will tell you, not to the right or left.” But, in fact, only the senior bais din in Jerusalem consisting of judges with authentic semicha has that kind of authority.

Perhaps you’ll argue that it simply isn’t wise to ignore the teachings of poskim wiser and more learned than you. Now that’s a strong point. In fact it would be an act of chutzpah to brazenly assert your opinion over that of someone who has been deeply involved in the study of halacha for many years. And - to make things worse - it would place great strain on your overall relationship with an authority whose wisdom you will need to consult often over the years.

But who said you had to ask? Recognize that cheating and lying are wrong so you won’t need to discuss it with your rav in the first place. After all, you don’t ask a sha’ala before you make brachos or daven, right? What’s obvious is obvious. And if you don’t ask, you’ll be free to assume that your rav is among the many rabbonim who would never permit cheating.

The bottom line: even if such corruption exists, no one can force you to be part of it.

Honesty and community standards

Crime happens in every community. As long as we have free will, some of us are going to make stupid choices.

One test of the moral quality of a Torah community is the way it reacts to its own criminals. Rabbi Shimon Schwab responded to such a moral breach in a famous article that’s available online.

“Rabbi” so and so, who sits in court with his velvet yarmulka in full view of a television audience composed of millions of viewers, is accused of having ruthlessly enriched himself at the expense of others, flaunting the laws of God and man, exploiting, conniving and manipulating - in short, desecrating all the fundamentals of Torah Judaism…

To defraud and exploit our fellowmen, Jew or gentile, to conspire, to betray the government, to associate with the underworld elements all these are hideous crimes by themselves. Yet to the outrage committed there is added another dimension, namely the profanation of the Divine Name…

Therefore, no white-washing, no condoning, no apologizing on behalf of the desecrators. Let us make it clear that anyone who besmirches the sacred Name ceases to be our friend. he has unwittingly defected from our ranks.

What about the criminal himself? Considering the chillul HaShem involved, is teshuva still possible? Perhaps it’s unreasonable for such a person to expect his life to ever return to the way it was before his fall.

Many decades ago, a senior member of the British parliament - a war hero from a noble family - was caught engaged in a disgusting act. From the day of his public shaming until his death years later, this man retreated from public life and abandoned positions and honor. Instead, he worked as a volunteer in a soup kitchen serving a poor neighborhood in London. That’s not a bad model to follow.

Contrast all that with the way contemporary yeshiva communities seem to respond to their criminals. Recent history has seen convicted felons having their faces triumphantly pasted on the covers of magazines and newspapers, being paraded through a series of highly publicized visits with yeshiva leaders, and having enormous sums of money raised to pay their lawyers and court-mandated penalties.

What’s going on here?

Some refuse to accept the possibility that an orthodox Jew could possibly commit a crime, and instead blame the steady stream of convictions on antisemitism and jealousy. Unfortunately, that’s nothing but wishful thinking. Sure, French and Russian antisemitism led to the false prosecution of Captain Dreyfus and Mendel Beilis more than a century ago and it is possible that similar injustices could occur even today.

But imagining that antisemitism explains all of the hundreds or even thousands of “orthodox” criminal convictions in recent years and the need for minyanim, kosher food, and daf yomi shiurim in American prisons isn’t reasonable. (Nevertheless, if you’ve convinced yourself otherwise, then there’s nothing anyone can say that will change your mind.)

Instead, consider the fact that those crimes certainly look real to the world around us - and to our children. With that in mind, it would certainly seem to make sense to at least avoid celebrating the people and events involved. Sometimes there’s wisdom in keeping quiet.

As long as yeshiva communities continue to downplay and even encourage crime and dishonesty, you can expect generations to grow up with an unnatural and unhealthy tolerance for corruption. That can’t end well.