Dear Jew in the City,
Isn’t being honest and ethical part of a religious Jewish life? Sometimes I read about Orthodox Jews committing fraud. What does Judaism forbid, and why are people such hypocrites?
Disillusioned and Disappointed
Dear D & D-
No doubt this question was motivated by last month’s news in which seven “ultra-Orthodox” Jewish couples were arrested in a raid amid allegations of welfare fraud. Before answering your question, I’d like to mention that just a few weeks earlier, sixty-eight people were arrested in a welfare fraud raid in Pennsylvania. Why was the arrest of 14 people national news but not the arrest of 68? Largely because the 68 didn’t include any “ultra-Orthodox” Jews (AKA “chareidim”). People take a certain amount of glee when Jews, particularly chareidim, are caught up in such scandals. Anti-Semites love it because it substantiates their feelings about Jews, money and conspiracies. Even some Jews love it because they think the chareidim consider themselves better than everyone else, so they enjoy seeing them “put in their place.” Unfortunately, it’s more than just the offenders who suffer from such stories. Many modern Orthodox Jews think that all ultra-Orthodox Jews are up to such things, many secular Jews assume it about all Orthodox Jews (including the modern Orthodox), many non-Jews assume it about all Jews (including secular Jews), etc. It’s a huge chillul Hashem (desecration of God’s Name) and it doesn’t do anybody any good.
Now as to your question, of course Jews are obligated in honesty and ethics! The Torah is replete with commandments making this clear. Many types of theft are prohibited, including robbing someone with stealth, such as by breaking into their house in the dead of night, and robbery by force, such as mugging someone in an alley. (In halacha, robbery by stealth is called geneiva and robbery by force is called gezeila.)
We are also commanded explicitly to be honest in business transactions. Leviticus 19:35 tells us, “You shall not commit injustices using weights, measure or volumes.” We are specifically prohibited to cheat others by shorting them in anything that is measured, whether it’s a bolt of cloth or a pound of cole slaw. If it’s sold by length, weight or volume, we are responsible to see that our customers get what they paid for. To do otherwise is called “avel bamishpat,” a perversion of justice. That’s pretty strong terminology for a petty, passive offense that the customer might not even notice. The language of the verse likens the merchant to a judge because this is actually a very serious matter.
The very next verse (Leviticus 19:36) continues this theme by adding, “Proper scales, proper weights, proper dry measures and proper liquid measures you shall have; I am Hashem your God, Who brought you out of the land of Egypt.” This is an obligation for all merchants to ensure that the tools of their trade are accurate. If we have unreliable implements, it’s a foregone conclusion that someone’s going to get cheated, even if only accidentally. An example of this mitzvah in action is that it is prohibited for a merchant to have weights made of a material that will naturally erode and get lighter.
The Talmud (Baba Metzia 61b) explains the end of this verse – “I am Hashem your God, Who brought you out of the land of Egypt.” God knows every minute detail of all creation. He knew everyone’s parentage in Egypt so that during the plague of the first-born He could punish those of Egyptian paternity but not those of Jewish paternity. Similarly, God knows which merchants have crooked weights and He will pay them back for that as well.
It doesn’t stop there. Not only are we required to have honest tools, it is prohibited even to possess dishonest measures. Deuteronomy 25:13 enjoins us, “You shall not have large and small weights in your pouch.” Even if one doesn’t plan to cheat his customers, merely having access to dishonest weights can tempt someone into such misdeeds. Accordingly, such potential stumbling blocks must be discarded.
Some people wrongly think that Jews are permitted to rob non-Jews or to cheat them in business. There are even anti-Semitic web sites that quote Talmudic dicta out of context or completely fabricate such things in order to make it appear that this is the case. This is completely inaccurate. Judaism believes that all mankind is obligated in the seven universal (Noachide) laws, one of which prohibits theft in all its forms. Jews and non-Jews have reciprocity when it comes to mitzvos, just like states recognize one another’s drivers’ licenses. Accordingly, any mitzvah in which non-Jews are obligated, we must treat them the same as we do other Jews. This includes honesty in business transactions.
These are just some of the Torah’s many examples of honesty in business. The general rule is “Keep yourselves far from a false matter” (Exodus 23:7).
Now for your second question, about people being hypocrites. I hesitate to label people hypocrites so quickly. If a “green” activist condemns SUVs but flies across the country in a private jet, using more fuel in one shot than a soccer mom uses in a year (true story), I think that’s hypocrisy. On the other hand, when a particular political figure, a former secretary of education, advocated for virtues and called for limiting our vices, many called him a hypocrite because his own vice was gambling. I hesitate to call him a hypocrite because gambling wasn’t on the list of things he condemned. (Apparently he either didn’t consider gambling a vice or he specifically omitted it from his book because including it would have made him a hypocrite!)
So are the Orthodox welfare cheats hypocrites? I don’t know; did they ever speak out against the evils of defrauding the government? If so, they’re hypocrites. If not, they’re just flawed.
Koheles (Ecclesiastes) 7:20 tells us that there’s no person in the world so righteous that he only does good and never sins. It’s natural for people to be tempted – that’s why we’re not allowed to hold onto any inaccurate business tools we may have! But just because someone stumbles in one area, that doesn’t mean they’re insincere in other areas. None of us are perfect and we all do things we know we shouldn’t (though perhaps not as spectacularly criminal as in this case). None of us can truly judge the entirety of another person based on one lapse, no matter how huge.
The malfeasance itself is to be condemned in no uncertain terms. It was gratifying to see that the Lakewood Vaad (rabbinical council) quickly issued a statement that stated unequivocally “[t]here is no such thing as ‘justified’ theft” and “there is never any excuse for dishonesty in any form.”
The Torah demands honesty and we cannot justify criminal behavior when it occurs. Nevertheless, we can condemn the behavior without presuming to know what’s in the hearts and minds of the perpetrators. None of us deserve to be judged by our flaws alone.
Rabbi Jack Abramowitz
JITC Educational Correspondent