To read Rabbi Leff’s teshuva (Jewish legal opinion) on “Whistleblowing: The Requirement to Report Employer Wrongdoing” click here.
Amy Klein wrote a fascinating article in LA’s Jewish Journal about a financial scandal involving money laundering and tax fraud on the part of a Chasidic yeshiva in New York (Spinka), with help of colleagues in LA. You can read the article by clicking here.
How, you might be wondering, could a yeshiva get involved in such an activity?
The truth is, it is a lot easier than you might think for a non-profit organization to become involved in fraud and tax evasion. Here’s how it works. A wealthy individual wants to reduce his taxes. So he gives the yeshiva a $1 million donation – on condition that they return something like $900,000 in cash to him. Mr. Big Bucks gets a million-dollar tax writeoff – easily worth something like $300,000 in real money – and the yeshiva gets to keep $100,000 for their efforts. For most yeshivas, a $100,000 donation is pretty significant. They did this over and over; authorities identified over $8 million in fraudulent transations in one year alone.
But it’s against the law. How can kippah-wearing criminals justify such behavior?
They make all sorts of excuses to themselves. The government takes too much of our money. It’s a mitzvah to keep “yiddishe gelt” away from the secular tax authorities. No one is getting hurt. They don’t feel they are doing anything wrong, since they are using the money to support yeshiva bochers learning Torah, they are not using the money to buy yachts.
Notwithstanding any of those excuses, what they are doing is illegal, it is corrupt, and it is wrong. Not only are their clothes stuck in Poland in the 19th century, their attitude toward the authorities is as well.
When a government singled out Jews for “special” treatment, when all taxes were subject to negotiation, when the government may have either been conducting pogroms against Jews, or turning a blind eye to those who did, one could perhaps justify not paying taxes as a form of “civil protest,” as a way to avoid funding institutions that were out to harm you. America in 2008 is not the same as Russia in 1808, when Jews were expelled from the countryside. America has been very good to the Jews indeed – and to try and steal from government using a rationale that applied to a different government hundreds of years ago is a disgrace, and a chillul Hashem, a desecration of God’s name.
Klein’s article talks about the debate among Orthodox rabbis about whether it is permissible to be a “moser,” someone who hands a Jew over to secular authorities, in this day and age. To me it is scandalous that there are rabbis that say we should be protecting Jews who violating the laws of a country as democratic, fair, and good to Jews as America. Daniel Treiman in a post on Bintel Blog makes a comparison between this culture and the culture of “stop snitching” put forward by “gangsta rappers.”
I also mention the effect of popular culture on our willingness to speak out against corruption in a teshuva I wrote which was approved the Conservative Movement’s Committee on Jewish Law and Standards in New York last month. The teshuva, “Whistleblowing: The Requirement to Report Employer Wrongdoing,” was approved by an overwhelming majority of 18 to 1, with a few abstentions. You can read it here.
The Conservative movement is sometimes criticized as being a kind of “Orthodox lite,” we are criticized for always looking for “kulot,” for leniencies. I am proud to say that when it comes to moral issues such as this one, we are stricter than many of our Orthodox colleagues.
And this is clearly what God wants of us. The Holy One is more concerned with how we treat each other than He is concerned with our punctilious observance of ritual commandments. It doesn’t mean, God forbid, that we should not obey the ritual commandments. When the prophet Isaiah railed against the hypocrites of his day, people who punctiliously brought beautiful sacrifices and then cheated their neighbor, when he quoted God saying “is this the fast I desire?!” it didn’t mean people shouldn’t fast on Yom Kippur. It meant they shouldn’t fast if their religious observance is going to be accompanied by immoral behavior. I wonder if the rabbis involved in this scandal felt at all embarrassed when reading that passage from Isaiah in shul on Yom Kippur. I hope they bowed their heads in shame.
To be strict on ritual commandments, and lax on moral commandments, is completely bass-ackwards. To wear a kippah while cheating your neighbor – or the government – is a classic case of “immersing in a mikvah with a sheretz in your hand.” Whatever good you do is completely wiped out.
And to argue that one should not report a Jew engaged in wrongdoing is to condone such behavior. To stand by and watch someone engage in fraud and to say nothing is to become an accomplice in the fraud.
The Talmud (Shabbat 31a) tells us that when a person passes away and is brought before his Creator in his final judgment, the very first question he is asked – the very first – is “did you conduct your business affairs with integrity?” Only after that is he asked about other mitzvot.
Shabbat Shalom from Ir Hakodesh, Jerusalem…