Thursday, July 01, 2010

Theft and the Jewish People

It just happened. That was what Michoel Streicher said in defense of his swindle.

The New York Post reports that Streicher was just convicted of swindling a 55 year old woman - a fan of his music - out of $36,000. She gave him the money to buy a Sefer Torah for her. He took the money and promised that the Torah would be under her control and used by some of the biggest rabbis in Judaism.

Of course that never happened. He just pocketed the money. He probably thought’ ‘That was an easy buck!’ ‘She will never know the difference.’

Although Streicher’s crime was not on the grand scale of a Bernie Madoff - nor was it a Ponzi scheme – the crimes were hardly that different. In both cases money was taken, promises were made - not kept - and the money was pocketed. And in both cases they said that they never intended to swindle – that it just happened.

What is different here is that Streicher is an obviously religious Jew with a beard and big black Yarmulkee, who wears his Tzitzis out - and who sings inspirational Jewish music professionally.

And we therefore once again have a picture of religious Jew in handcuffs for a financial crime - a Chilul HaShem.

The article says that he suffers from mental illness. That may very well be true. But he does not suffer from any form of psychosis. He does know right from wrong. He knew exactly what he was doing when he pocketed the money entrusted to him by that woman.

Why is it that religious Jews who should be role models of behavior end up doing these kinds of crimes? I have in the past said that it is because of a faulty education that does not emphasize the terrible crime of Gneivah – stealing money. One will hear Shemusen – lectures in Yeshivos about the minutia of all manner of ritual service to God. One will hear about the importance of Chalav Yisroel – or the importance of wearing the Levush of the Yeshiva (black hats, dark pants, and white shirts). But it seems there is a dearth of lectures about about the terrible Issur of stealing from your fellow man – Jew or gentile.

Rabbi Moshe Francis, Rosh Kollel of the Chicago Community Kollel actually addressed this issue at a Torah U’Mesorah conference of principals in Chicago back in 2000. In his typical humorous way he points to the flaws in the system. I urge everyone to read the essay based on his address. It is a masterpiece. Here are some excerpts:

Today, what is Klal Yisroel's "Achilles heel" – its most vulnerable point?

Rov b'gezel u' miyut b'araiyos, v'hakol b'avak loshon hara –Most commit theft, a minority commit acts of immorality and everyone commits the sin of the dust of loshon hara. (Bava Basra 165a)

Rov b'gezel. Do we combat dishonesty in frum society with similar vigor? Just a few weeks ago, HaRav Mattisyahu Solomon, shlita, electrified the audience at the Midwest Agudah Convention by quoting the Smag (Mitzvos Asay -74). "Now that the Galus has been prolonged for so long, Jews should separate themselves from the vanities of this world and seize the seal of HaKadosh Boruch Hu, which is truth.

They should not lie to Jews or non-Jews or mislead them in any way. They should sanctify themselves even through that which is permitted to them, as it says, 'The remnant of Israel will not commit an injustice and will not speak falsehood, and deceitfulness will not be found in their mouths.' And when HaKadosh Baruch Hu will come to redeem them the non-Jews will say that He acted justly because they are truthful people and the Torah of truth is in their mouths. But if they [the Jews] conduct themselves deceitfully with non-Jews, they [the nations] will say what did HaKodesh Baruch Hu do? He chose for his portion, thieves and cheats."

When I was a child in Yeshiva, I don't remember there being a great emphasis on honesty – that is, until I became a talmid of HaGaon Rav Avrohom Pam, shlita. I can still vividly remember him telling the story about Rav Yisroel Salanter and the shochet. A shochet once told Rav Salanter that he was giving up schechita because he just couldn't bear the awesome responsibility – the risk that he might cause others to transgress the issurim of eating improperly slaughtered meat. "What will you do instead?" asked Rav Salanter. "I plan to begin a career in business," said the shochet. "Business?" asked Rav Salanter incredulously, "Business involves more potential issurim than schechita and they are less widely known. It is a far greater risk."

When I was about to embark on a year of study in Eretz Yisroel, I had two transportation options. A Rosh Yeshiva told me that a regular ticket would cost a little over $300; one provided through a loan from the Jewish Agency would cost about $600. The Jewish Agency, however, did not always collect on their loans, so it could end up as a free ticket. I presented the two choices to Rav Pam. He said, "I don't understand. A loan is a loan even if they don't ask you for the money back. You still must repay it. You should definitely choose the first option."

What can we do in our own yeshivos katanos and mesivtos to promote honesty? Recently I heard a joke: A principal calls a kid's parents to school. "I'm afraid your child was cheating," the principal says. "He and the boy next to him had the same answers." "How do you know our son was cheating?" ask the parents. "Maybe it was the other boy." "Look at question 13," says the principal. "The other boy wrote 'I don't know.' Your son wrote 'I don't know either.'" Although this is a joke, it is symptomatic of today's cavalier attitude towards cheating.

Another factor is that in yeshivos, secular studies are often viewed as a necessary – or not so necessary – evil. A yeshiva bochur may rationalize cheating if he views the time spent studying for secular tests as pure bittul Torah. We all know cases of cheating in the yeshiva system. I recently heard about highly-regarded girls cheating on admission tests for seminaries. One principal told me that a teacher in his school accused a girl of copying a composition from someone else. In defense, the girl's mother said, "My daughter definitely didn't copy it. I know. I wrote it for her."

How do teachers react when they catch a student in the act? Usually with a reprimand or by lowering the child's grade. This, however, neglects the underlying issue. Our children must learn that cheating is totally incompatible with being a ben or bas Torah. Are they aware of the halachic and moral implications of their behavior? The sefer Halichos haOlam says that, "copying on tests is included in the prohibition of geneivos daas – misleading another person.

It is prohibited even when one misleads a non-Jew. If a person receives monetary benefit as a result of cheating, that is considered theft. Similarly, if one receives an academic degree earned through cheating and uses this diploma to earn a living, he transgresses the prohibition of theft." HaGaon Rav Moshe Feinstein zt"l is cited as the source of these rulings. But

Update : (7/3/10 11:26 PM CDT)

I have been told by many people that Mr. Streicher suffers from serious mental illness. As such he may not be the best example of what I tried to say in this post. But while it mitigates his swindle - it doesn't excuse it. That said it is my sincere hope that this man gets the psychiatric treatment he needs so that he can overcome his mental illness.