Thursday, February 26, 2009

Is Personal Integrity Dead?

Both WebGirl over at The Road Taken and Rabbi Maryles have posts up concerning stealing that sometimes occurs in the frum community.

WebGirl discusses activities such as money laundering and lying to obtain free goods. Rabbi Marlyes discusses stealing from the government. In the past, I've discussed dishonesty in such forms as copying media, illegally avoiding sales tax and even electoral fraud. I've even blogged about my own failings and when I wimped out when I had the chance to stand up for honesty.

While I find it disturbing that such activities go on in the Jewish community, I don't find it surprising. After all, Jews are human too, and we're subject to the same temptations as everyone else. I'd be lying if I said I *never* stole anything in my life, and I suspect the vast majority of people would be too.

However, what I find particularly disturbing is the openness that exists about stealing. No one seems to be ashamed of it anymore - it's simply accepted as a part of the way of doing things. People who are halachically married but not legally so as to qualify for benefits? Not a problem. Paying cash for goods or services to avoid sales tax? It's okay. Running money laundering schemes? Where does it say in the Shulchan Aruch that it's wrong? And so on. The same people who would recoil in horror at the thought of violating a mitzvah d'rabbanan or a such as eating fish and meat together or not wearing a hat during davening, or eating kitniyos on Pesach have no problem being blase about the Torah commandment of not stealing -- which applies whether the money being stolen belongs to a Jew or a non-Jew, a person, partnership, corporation or government.

Rabbi Maryles reports that one person's attitude toward defrauding the government is:

I wasn't aware that defrauding the government was one of the three cardinal sins. My bad.

And yet, I somehow suspect that the same person would not be so blase about a frum person eating treif or a woman wearing a skirt that ends a bit above the knee. Neither of things are cardinal sins either, and yet, I'm sure they would get a reaction (and possibly a violent one in some quarters).

So, why does theft and dishonesty get a pass? Why does stealing seem to be "okay" as long as it's not on the scale of Bernard Madoff, or as long as you're not the victim? Or even better, why do we pay lip service to the idea that stealing is wrong -- why not simply declare that stealing is okay?

Well, okay... perhaps my last suggestion was somewhat over the top - but the underlying question still remains. We pay a lot of lip service to the ideal of honesty. We say that the seal of Hakadosh Baruch Hu is truth. We repeat stories about how scrupulously honest our Sages were. We go so far as to say that one of the primary reasons for the destruction of the world in the days of Noach was because of dishonesty. And yet, all that is lost upon us. All that is lost upon us to the degree that not only do people steal in private (which might be expected -- again -- we're only human), but they do so openly and without any shame.

Lord knows, I'm not perfect. I have my faults and weaknesses. But I would never dream of bragging about something that I've done wrong. I would never even think of being open (and worse, blase) about it. But that seems to be the point we've reached as a society.

You know what? I would trade adherence to all the chumros in the world -- whether justified or not -- to gain a greater adherence to things such as honesty and personal integrity.

The Wolf


Anonymous said...

Amen, brother.

SuperRaizy said...

You're right, of course. But unfortunately, in some communities, Orthodox Judaism has become about image more than substance. There's a huge emphasis on mitzvot bein adam lamakom (which is good, of course) but a real disregard for mitzvot bein adam le'chavero (not so good).

Rich said...

I agree with you 100%.

What ticks me off the most is when frum people justify business schemes by saying it is ok since they are only cheating non-Jews or only cheating the government. don't they realize that this is probably worse since you have stealing PLUS a huge chilul hashem!

OTD said...

Hmm, I thought gezel akum is muttar.

BrooklynWolf said...

No, it's not.

The Wolf

Anonymous said...

What WebGirl is describing is neither laundering money nor illegal so long as the donated money is legitimate and is being given by the shul to legitimate tzedakas.

Anonymous said...

Anonymous 8:08 - If they are pretending to be a "shul" to get a tax deduction, then it is tax fraud. They could set up a real 501(c)(3), if it were a true charity, but I believe you can't get a deduction for money given to a 501(c)(3) if the contribution is essentially earmarked for a specific individual. So this does not sound Kosher. But isn't it just this type of rationalization and lets see how we can get around the rules and be really clever that Wolf is talking about, even if it might not be techinically illegal or even if there is a good cause? Improper tax deductions is stealing and we are all victims.

Anonymous said...

Off the Derech,
I believe you are thinking about "ta'us akum": if a Jew finds that a non-Jew erred in a business transaction in such a way that the Jew benefits, the Jew is not halachically obligated to fix the error (even though he'd be required to do so if the transaction had involved another Jew).

Anonymous said...

Anonymous 8:45 said "but I believe you can't get a deduction for money given to a 501(c)(3) if the contribution is essentially earmarked for a specific individual"

That is incorrect.

Jumping to conclusions based on incorrect information or on things you THINK is no better, in terms of Ben Adam Lechavero than stealing.

Michael Koplow said...

Excellent, Wolfish. It's the fact that people feel OK bragging about it in our community that's so troubling.

It's been said (and you've probably heard this): If only the Mishnah Brurah said that some people have the custom of not stealing, and those who are strict about it are blessed, there wouldn't be such a problem. Instead, though, it's forbidden d'oraita.

WebGirl said...

WebGirl here. What I find interesting is that you all thought I was commenting specifically on the frum community, when actually I was commenting on the generalloss of awareness of what stealing is. In two out of my three examples, the people involved weren't even Jewish! I will admit though, that it is more horrifying when it comes from the frum community, as presumably, we all learned the Ten Commandments in yeshiva. "Lo tignov" except when it's a really big commercial entity and you won't get caught?

I think the world at large is shifting toward a way of thinking based on entitlement, and because times are a little tight, some of us justify a little loosening up of ethical behavior.

It's not a good thing.