Innocent until proven guilty. This is a fundamental concept in American jurisprudence. It is also a fundamental Torah ethic. One must be Dan L’Kaf Zechus to a fellow Jew and presume his innocence in cases of doubt.
Rabbi Dovid Cohen deserves no less. He is not only a fellow Jew - he is a Posek of major stature. He is consulted on wide variety of many complex issues in Halacha by people and organizations across country and across the wide spectrum of Orthodox Judaism. Until recently, he was one of the Poskim consulted by the Rabbinical Council of America (RCA).
I also happen to know many people who are themselves worthy of being Poskim and have consulted him on issues of their own. He is an individual whose knowledge of Torah law and stature among other Poskim is so great that he can fearlessly Paskin L’Kula (leniently) on issues where others Paskin strictly - and be accepted as valid. He is fearless. But if what the Jewish Week reports is true - that fearlessness it seems has now gotten him into big trouble.
I have been urged many times to write about it by various individuals who say they were at that lecture in Bergenfield. They say it is common knowledge about him. And that we have a moral imperative to expose him. And yet they were unable to bring any proof other than their own testimony. So I have resisted doing so. Until now.
I am not going to write the following as a criticism of Rabbi Cohen. He has denied all these accusations. I am instead going to write about how an individual who is guilty of the things he is accused of should be treated.
Here is what the Jewish Week said:
The halachic adviser to Ohel Children’s Home and Family Services, which receives millions of dollars in state and federal money, told a Bergenfield, N.J., synagogue audience in 2007 that tax evasion is permissible under Jewish law as long as one doesn’t get caught, according to people in attendance…
Several in attendance at the talk said that Rabbi Cohen gave an extended response to a question from the audience, asserting that tax evasion is permissible under Jewish law, as long as there is no realistic possibility of being caught, thus causing a chillul hashem, or desecration of God’s name...
The justification was based on the rabbi’s apparent belief that the reason the rabbis of the Talmud forbade stealing from a non-Jew was only out of fear of anti-Semitism.
He has apparently never said anything like it when he could be recorded. In Bergenfield it was said on Shabbos. I’m told that he also said that he would deny it if anyone in attendance revealed his views. In fact he did just that:
The rabbi told The Jewish Week on Monday that the statements attributed to him were "totally misunderstood" and that he "repudiated" them.
I cannot tell you with certainty if these accusations about Rabbi Cohen are true. What I can say is that the few people who contacted me that were there testified that he said exactly what he is being accused of saying.
I cannot imagine a bigger Chilul HaShem then a Posek telling fellow Jews in public the kinds of things Rabbi Cohen is accused of saying.
Medieval biblical commentator Rabbi ShlomoYitzchaki (Rashi) famously states: Esav Sonei L’Yaakov. That is interpreted to by some to mean: All non Jews hate the Jewish people.
It is likely that those who say these kinds of things Rabbi Cohen is accused of saying use this Rashi as part of their justifications. But it is falsely used. Esav is not to be judged automatically as hating us. And even if we mistakenly believed that all non Jews hate us - nowhere does it say we are allowed to hate them.
Non Jews are to be judged by the merit of their actions. We are required to treat all of mankind with the respect due to one created in the image of God - B’Tzelem Elokim. This hardly means that we should cheat them if we can get away with it. That is so disgusting; so condemnable; so abhorrent that I literally shake with anger at the very thought that another Jew - let alone a Posek of Rabbi Cohen’s stature - would even consider saying such a thing. It is wrong from the word go.
The Chilul HaShem it makes is of the highest order. I do not think one can do Teshuva for it. The damage done is immeasurable. Any one who calls himself a Posek who says this to another Jew whether in public or private should be ostracized from the Jewish community. It doesn’t matter what his stature is.
An individual who attended the event in Bergenfield was so appalled at what he heard that he asked a world class Rosh HaYeshiva about it without identifying of whom he spoke. The reaction by this Rosh HaYeshiva was of ‘shock and pain’.
He then quoted from the Rambam’s Perush HaMishnayos on Kelim - which I shall paraphrase.
In a digression from a Mishna explaining its technical details the Rambam denounced all forms of cheating non Jews as a Toevah - an abhorrent act! Stealing from a non Jew is completely forbidden by Halacha and G’neivas Daas – fooling or cheating them - is part and parcel of that Halacha.
The Rambam mentions the prohibition of Gneivas Daas twice (Mechira 18:1 and Deios 2:7). In Hilchos Mechira he deals with the impact upon the other and upon him. In hilchos Deios he deals with the ethics of anyone guilty of it and the ‘spiritual cancer of deceit.’.
The Rambam also says(Gneiva 1:1) that Gneivas Akum is worse than Gezel Akum presumably because of the added deceit. Likewise with Gneivas Daas (Mechira 18:1).
Additionally anyone who makes public statements which are a Chilul HaShem and then thinks he is protected because he can deny he ever made them is ridiculous. His denial will easily be refuted by the hundreds of people who can testify that they heard him say it!
Any assumption that the US government is an Akum is itself problematic. Many Poskim do not consider Christianity as idolatry for non Jews. And what about Dina ‘Malchusa Dina- the Halachic requirement to follow the law of the land? Besides we live in a democracy governed by the people and for the people. We Jews are all a part of the people. Stealing from the government means you are stealing from Jews too.
A final thought. Even if one were somehow possible to Halachicly justify all of what Rabbi Cohen is accused of saying - if he did indeed say it he cannot possibly escape being a Menuval B’Reshus HaTorah.