Oct 25, 2006
Is there a distinction between religious Jews committing crimes such as fraud, and religious Jews breaking the laws of Shabbat and Kashrut?

The Torah undeniably prohibits all of the above, and the prophets were repeatedly instructed to admonish those who simply went through the motions of looking ‘religious’ but whose moral behaviour was lacking. Clearly therefore, a person identifying themselves as a ‘religious’ Jew is committing themselves to living by Torah law. Merely appearing to be ‘religious’, or using religious ritual as a veneer whilst reneging on the Torah’s laws, is unacceptable within Judaism.

The Torah tells us that when Moses came down from Mount Sinai he brought down the Ten Commandments inscribed in stone. Unlike the classical representations of these tablets, the description in the Torah makes it quite clear that the tablets were actually two separate pieces of stone. The first tablet contained commandments one to five which encapsulated our relationship with God. The second tablet contained commandments six to ten, defining our relationship with mankind. Yet, when Moses witnessed the people worshipping the Golden Calf at the foot of Mount Sinai, thereby negating their relationship with God, he smashed both tablets in front of them.

Many Torah commentators inquire as to why the second tablet needed to be destroyed, since the commandments contained therein (those legislating social relationships) had not been compromised. The answer is that it is imperative that
there be a moral consistency in relationships, whether between man and God or between man and man. The Jewish people cannot be guilty of moral schizophrenia. Therefore, Judaism views abuse and fraud, in the same way as it views the abrogation of Shabbat and circumcision.

As such, it’s not the Torah that produces fraudulent people but rather fraudulent people who don’t allow the Torah to affect them; Judaism isn’t to blame, the individual Jew is. Individuals are culpable because the Torah expects them to be honest and overcome their frailties and temptations.

Moreover, so called ‘religious’ people who behave inconsistently, bring about a chillul Hashem – desecration of God’s name. As the Talmud explains, if someone studies Bible but is dishonest in business and disrespectful in his dealings with people, what do people say about him: “Woe to him who studies Torah… this man studies the Torah, look how corrupt are his deeds, how ugly are his ways.”

However, before accusing people of wrongdoing it is important to ascertain that the misdeed was actually committed. Simply reading about it in the newspaper or hearing about it third hand is insufficient. Judaism demands factual evidence before making any judgments. Furthermore, Jewish laws obligates one to give people the benefit of the doubt, before weighing in against them; this isn’t just an act of piety but an actual Biblical obligation.

The Rebbe of Kotzk put it all together succinctly, by quoting a verse from the Torah, “Do not deceive your fellow man”, 3 adding, “not to deceive another person is mandated by law. However the pious person – the truly religious Jew – also refrains from deceiving himself.”
  1. Yoma 86a
  2. Leviticus 19:15
  3. Leviticus 25: 17
This article was originally published in 60 Days for 60 Years.

TAGS for this article: Ethics