Why People Cheat

by Rabbi Jay Kelman

The past fifty years have witnessed an amazing transformation of Jewish life in North America. We have succeeded in transforming the treife medinah(unkosher land) into a land filled with yeshivot, Torah tapes, chesed organizations, glatt kosher food, mikvaot and daf yomi classes. However there does appear to be one major area where increased observance of and dedication to the details of halacha still eludes us. I refer to the general category of business ethics, the section which occupies the most space in the code of Jewish law.

Unfortunately all too often (once is too often) we hear about ritually observant Jews involved in white collar crime; tax evasion, money laundering, embezzlement, and fraud. Perhaps even worse is the attitude that one so often hears in casual conversation. ‘I am only an employee so I can’t write off any personal expenses’, or ‘of course I pay my contractor in cash’ thereby helping him evade his tax responsibility and thus stealing from the honest taxpayer. In an era where increased stringency has become the norm in so many ritual areas why is it that it is leniency that is the norm in our money dealings?

For some the phenomena is culturally based. Unfortunately many people hail from areas where Jews were actively and legally discriminated against. Thus to level the playing field Jews had to resort to cheating. This attitude was then carried over to our democracies. One still hears the incorrect assertion that from goyim one may cheat.

I do not wish to suggest that our behavior in this crucial area is worse than any other group. However it does not require a very close examination of our general business practices to realize that a serious problem exists.

Judaism equates silence with acquiescence. Those who have the ability to address a problem but do not do so are equally culpable in the eyes of the Lord. It is in this spirit that I put in writing some of my own personal observations, based on my experiences as a chartered accountant as a pulpit rabbi and discussions with friends and colleagues.

We were all created with a natural love of material possessions. This has many positive features; if not for our desire to make money people would cease to build thereby making society as a whole poorer. However our inclination for more, more and more often leads us astray. The Talmud declares that (along with gossip and sexual impropriety) everybody sins somewhat in the area of money. The problem is increased exacerbated by the high cost of leading a Jewishly meaningful life, adding to the temptation. Furthermore it is so easy to get away with it. The plethora of ‘cash only’ businesses combined with the extremely remote possibility of getting caught make the temptation too great for many. This combination of (perceived) need, greed and easy access is hard to overcome.

The problem though goes beyond the personal desire for money. Our society idolizes material success. Hence even people who don’t need the money to make ends meet are tempted to cheat. Even our religious institutions unwittingly contribute to this problem. When was the last time you saw a teacher being honored at a dinner? How many buildings are named for social workers who have devoted their lives to Jews in need? While I understand the need to honor financial donors, how many organizations check the business reputations of a potential honoree? While many institutions will refrain from honoring those who disregard ritual norms, it is the rare one which will apply the same standards to ethical norms. Thus, there is no social ostracizing of those who neglect this crucial area of Jewish life. Unfortunately the problem is so widespread and accepted that those who follow the ethical norms of the Torah in this area are often viewed as naive simpletons. People have often complained to me that I speak on the issue of business ethics too often. One member of my synagogue even told me that by speaking out on the subject it will be more difficult to attract members to the shul. Once society accepts a norm it becomes difficult to change. After all if everybody does it, it can not really be wrong.

We live in a society that distinguishes between private activity and public life, a distinction which in many ways is foreign to Judaism. However its affects are clearly felt within the Jewish world. Much of the increased observance that we have thankfully witnessed, has focused on areas that are external and visible to others. Business activity generally takes place away from our religious environment and very few of our brethren have any idea what our standards are. Hence there is no religious norm to conform to.

A further distinction that people incorrectly make is that between ritual and ethic. We have compartmentalized our lives into religious and secular components. Unfortunately people then classify business activities into the secular component which is somehow divorced from religious norms. We have failed to integrate all of our activities into a religious framework. The basic notion that Judaism does not recognize anything as being secular, there are only varying levels of holiness, has been ignored. Ethics to many, just is not a Jewish issue; after all there is (apparently) nothing distinctly Jewish about this issue. In an era where religiosity is often defined by the amount of cultural barriers that are erected, those areas that we have some degree of commonality with other groupings tend to be neglected.

Reinforcing the notion that business ethics is not a religious issue is the fact that rarely do many of our Rabbis speak on this subject. Perhaps with the paucity of Jewish life after the war it was understandable that religious energies would be devoted to kashrut, shabbat, mikvaot, and Jewish education. Perhaps Rabbis naively thought that ethics would come naturally to a Jew. It was inconceivable that a Jew who would sacrifice economic gain in order to keep shabbat thereby showing his faith in the Creator, would show total lack of faith in the ability of G-d to provide economically for us. This is why the first question asked to us by G-d after 120 years is nasata v’natata b’emunah, did you deal faithfully in business. The question is asking more than how honest we were in business; it is asking were our dealings conducted with faith in G-d as our ultimate provider.

Even on those occasions when rabbis speak out they are often ignored. The perception is that the Rabbinic leadership does not really understand the business world, that they are living in an ivory tower detached from the real world.

We must make things perfectly clear. A Jew who is ethically wanting, no matter how meticulous in his relations with G-d, is not a religious Jew.

Much more important than the diagnosis of the problem is finding a cure. While the evil inclination will continue to resist efforts to curb its appetite for money, this yetzer hara can be ‘defeated’ as we challenge it for productive purposes. Not so long ago, everybody, including observant Jews themselves, thought that traditional Judaism could not survive in America and were thankfully proven wrong. Similarly a concerted effort to address this problem is bound to have positive results. The first step towards a solution is recognizing the gravity of the problem, and the centrality of the issue to the definition of being an observant Jew.

It is time to make this issue a priority. We must teach and re-teach the basic Jewish values of honesty, full disclosure, and integrity in all of our dealings. Our rich heritage includes such teachings as: the flood happened because of the sin of robbery, that the first question that G-d will ask us is whether our business dealings were conducted honestly, that it is a Biblical obligation to follow the civil laws of your country of residence, that due to dishonest weights Amalek comes (Midrash cited by Rashi Devarim 25:17), that robbery is “more difficult” than adultery (Baba Batra 88b), that G-d abhors social sins but can tolerate idolatry (see commentary of Meshech Chochmah to Exodus 14:24). We must stress the notion that our prophets have told us over and over again that absent social ethics G-d does not want, in fact He even despises our sacrifices (Isaiah 1). And we all know that prayer has replaced sacrifices.

We must not allow those whose business practices are not up to Torah standards to be held as role models for a Torah lifestyle. We must ensure that all of our activities are conducted in a manner that will result in a kiddush Hashem. We must continue to work until people will stop and say what a wonderful Torah the Jewish people have, look at the honesty and integrity of those who keep it.
Rabbi Jay Kelman is a founding director of Torah in Motion, an educational institute dedicated to inspire Jews to engage with the challenges and opportunities of the modern world through the prism of Jewish law, values and traditions. Rabbi Jay teaches ethics and Rabbinics at the Community Hebrew Academy of Toronto, and authors a monthly column for the Canadian Jewish News entitled Money Matters. Rabbi Kelman served for nine years as Rabbi at Beth Jacob V’Anshei Drildz and was a practicing accountant, earning both his Chartered Accountancy (Canada) and CPA (USA) designations; working in the International tax Department of a large international firm.