Monday, July 26, 2021

Government Fraud as an Income Option

R' Yizchok Ziberstein (Wiki)
There has been a lot of legitimate anger expressed by many of us  against the fraud in which so many religious Jews have been caught. To say that this is a massive Chilul Hashem is an understatement. 

Let me hasten to add that fraud is not limited to Charedim. There are plenty of non Charedi religious Jews guilty of that. And that a very small percentage of us are involved in fraudulent activity. The vast majority of religious Jews are honest, decent, and ethical people. We would never participate of any kind of fraud. And are as outraged by it as anyone else with ethical sensibilities. However the more religious one is perceived to be when caught doing it, the greater the Chilul HaShem. That is where Charedim come in.

The sad fact is that there have been enough Charedim caught doing it to make it seem that it is a matter of Jewish ethics to perpetrate fraud – especially against the government – if it is for a good purpose. Such as a charity of even to help support a large family.

Nothing can be further from the truth. And yet in a rather famous case from a few years ago, one Chasidic Rebbe was  caught in an elaborate money laundering/tax evasion scheme for purposes of funding his Mosdos (charitable institutions). For which he paid a high price by spending time in prison. And as the cause of a massive Chilul HaShem – which is about the last thing he wants to be known for.

He did end up making a public apology after he was caught. But the sincerity of an after the fact apology is questionable. Was his regret about perpetrating a wrong? Was it only about being caught? Was it  only about the fact that it caused a Chilul HaShem - but otherwise not wrong?

Hard to know the answer to those questions. But an after the fact apology suggests that he saw nothing intrinsically wrong in what he did - other than causing a Chilul HaShem. His public apology actually hinted at that. 

What that Rebbe did caused even more damage than even a Chilul HaShem. The message he sent  is that if done for the ‘right’ reasons fraud is not only permissible – it is praiseworthy! He is was the role model for that!

But the message that Rebbe sent is false. Which is the way mainstream Poskim see it.. Even while there are apparently many individual Charedim that see it the way that Chasidic Rebbe sees it. 

The falsity of that message is highlighted by Rafi Goldmeier in a recent post whereby he reports on a Psak by one of the most revered Poskim in the Charedi world, Rav Yitzchok Zilberstein (who happens to be R’ Elyashiv’s son in law. Can’t be too much more Charedi than that!). 

He was asked a Shalia (a Halachic question) about whether it is permitted to participate in a fraud to get around the Israeli government’s reduction in Charedi subsidies. It involved initiating ‘fake’ divorce proceedings in court so that their wives would be eligible for subsidies as single mothers – even though they would secretly still be married. R” Zilberstein’s response was telling. And of course exactly right:

 In no way should this be done, and the question itself is very much in poor taste, not even taking into account the obvious reasons such as:

1. taking money in a deceitful manner

2. playing games with the foundation of the holiness of our homes

3. "opening the mouth of Satan" - giving him good ideas, to cause more divorces…

Indeed! Fraud at any level is anti Torah. That is the message of one of the most prominent Poskim in the Charedi world.What should not be overlooked though is the following: ‘the question itself is very much in poor taste’. 

And yet it was asked with all due sincerity as though government fraud might be a legitimate and ethical option for purposes of restoring income. That fraud is not automatically dismissed as illegal and unethical by a Jew religious enough to ask Shailos of R’Zilberstein speaks volumes about the lack clarity about ethics in the Charedi world. 

Why this might be the case can perhaps be attributed to the abovementioned Chasidic Rebbe – and others like him - that do not really see a problem. The message about fraud thus becomes mixed. Some rabbinic leaders say it’s OK. Others say it’s not OK. It is merely a difference of opinion. 

I began by saying that the vast majority of the religious world is honest and ethical and wouldn’t dream of defrauding the government. But that there are some leaders that by virtue of their own actions signal that it’s OK – it fudges the matter making it an ongoing problem. One that ought to be the top priority on the agenda of every religious educational or advocacy institution.

When fraud is discovered it has to be condemned immediately by every rabbinic leader in no uncertain terms, regardless of who the perpetrator is.  B'Makom Chilul HaShem, Ein Cholkin Kavod L'Rav. When a Chilul HaShem is involved - do NOT give honor to the rabbi!)

Perhaps more importantly it should be hammered into the psyche of every Jewish student from kindergarten through high school - and beyond. And treated with no less stingency than Chilul Shabbos… and certainly given a higher priority than the length of Shaitels!