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Religious Jews Don’t Launder Money

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We in the Orthodox community have been very badly hurt of late. Five rabbis were arrested in New York and New Jersey for allegedly laundering money and another for organ trafficking. The fact that rabbis, who must be held to a higher standard of morality and ethics, have been accused of such crimes is deeply troubling.

Let’s start with the “religious” facts. The Talmud explicitly states that that the law of the land is binding upon the Jew (Baba Kama 113a). This means that a Jew has a religious duty to follow the domestic laws of a gentile country. While halachic authorities debate the scope of this precept, all are in agreement that the rule applies to taxes and tariffs (unless blatantly discriminatory).

According to most authorities this rule has biblical backing; one who transgresses it is thus transgressing a biblical command. People who are truly religious don’t transgress Biblical commands.

Simply stated, according to Judaism if you don’t like the law of the land you live in, you have one of two choices: move to another country or get used to it. Contravening civil law is not an option.

And I know that the overwhelming majority of Torah-observant Jews have great integrity. I’ve looked up to many of my teachers, prominent rabbis, as the most honest people I have ever met.

If you don’t like the law of the land you live in, you have two choices: move to another country or get used to itAs for the rabbis arrested, are they guilty of the crimes they are accused of? I don’t know. They certainly are innocent until proven guilty, and I do hope that they will be proven innocent of all charges. Nonetheless, it does seem that a small segment within the Orthodox community seem less than concerned about crime directed against the government.

Which raises the obvious question: Why? Why would a Jew who would never consider eating pork or turning on a light on Shabbat consider swindling the government? After all, the same Torah, the same G‑d, has determined both to be absolutely forbidden.

I believe that the reason for this is historical. Jews living in Eastern Europe prior to and during the 19th century were subjected to tough tax laws. The same is true of many of the native lands of Sephardic Jews.

In Poland, for example, as late as the 1920s, forty percent of all tax revenue was raised from Jews. This despite the fact that Jews only constituted ten percent of the population. At the same time, the Jews were the recipients of less governmental services than their gentile counterparts.

Because of the unfair tax burden imposed upon them by undemocratic governments, as well as the fairly rampant government-sanctioned anti-Semitism, Jews often felt that tax evasion was perfectly ethical and legitimate. To them it was the government that was immoral, not them. As such, yeshivah boys were taught not to eat pork, not to transgress the Shabbat, not to steal from their fellow citizens…. But they were never taught the evils of cheating a (fair) government.

Unfortunately this attitude towards government and taxes has lingered in the minds of some despite the fact that we now have a fair system of government and Jews are not unfairly taxed.

Old habits die hard.

Now clearly none of us is perfect and anyone who ever exceeded the speed limit or illegally double parked has broken the law. This is only human. However, when breaking laws becomes something that is tolerated, that’s another story. It’s not enough that most people in the Orthodox community have tremendous integrity and would never lie or act dishonestly. We need to expunge the sympathetic attitude that exists towards those who commit white collar crime.

There is no excuse for complacency here; a stand against this type of behavior needs to be takenThese arrests must serve as a wakeup call for us all. The rabbis and teachers are the ones who must lead. There is no excuse for complacency here; a stand against this type of behavior needs to be taken.

Jews who take their religion seriously and truly fear G‑d don’t cheat; and when they hear about others who do they are outraged and do all they can to put a stop to it.

I conclude with the following story. While I was a young student studying in Canada, I needed to visit a doctor. A Canadian friend offered to give me his medical card so that the appointment would not cost me money. When I mentioned this to my revered teacher he invited me over to his house. In his living room he severely admonished me. To him using another person’s medical card was one of the worst crimes a Jew could commit. He then paid for my doctor’s visit from his own money.

The lesson my teacher taught me on that day must be the lesson that all yeshivah teachers impart to their students.

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