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Thursday, December 20, 2007

The Money Laundering Allegations

Over the next couple of days, you will probably be confronted by someone that demands that you apologize for or explain the alleged financial peccadillos that a certain religious leader has been accused of.

When I was in law school, some scandal broke involving a religious Jew and monetary hanky panky. I, a yarmulke wearing, bearded student, was generally viewed as "one of them." A professor, Jewish, but not Orthodox, asked me how I could understand this kind of behavior from a man who claims to be faithful to the Torah, whose life style reflects a constant awareness of religious principles through dedicated and disciplined faithfulness to the myriad restrictions and requirements involved in Orthodox Jewish life. This is what I answered.

1. We cannot accurately assess holiness. All we can do is observe the appearance of holiness. The appearance of holiness is, by definition, superficial. Sometimes, even the person himself might believe that he is an honest and faithful role model of religous fidelity; but if his religious stance developed from community mores and habituation, mitzvas anoshim milumodo, then it is only a thin facade, as is said about the meraglim. That is not the case here, by the way. The accused happens to be a sincere and deeply religious man.

2. They didn’t withstand a temptation. Being holy is not the same as being an angel, and people sometimes make mistakes.

3. There is, within some groups, a memory of the not too distant times that gentile governments were enemies of and persecutors of the Jewish people. This historical fact remains imprinted in their group-consciousness, their particular ethnic culture, and results in their viewing the government as a dangerous enemy, or at best as illegitimate, and certainly not entitled to loyalty or respect.
Professor of American Jewish history at Brandeis University, Jonathan Sarna, is quoted as having said "I think that in Eastern Europe, especially where corruption was rampant, it was very common for Jews to engage in, shall we say, 'extra-legal activities,' when they believed they were doing so not for their personal gain but for the good of the community or for some higher purpose." Since the governments for the most part were corrupt, it became part of the culture, he said - a culture that unfortunately may have at times carried to the United States.

4. People who grow up in constant awe of God and His law, and whose lives reflect an incessant obligation to heed the smallest iota of that divine law, may feel that the only law that has any validity is the law of God, and that anything else is capricious, inane, and nonsensical. (This is true, of course. God’s law is perfect, while mankind legislates only on a human, and therefore limited, scale. When the two conflict, one must follow God’s law. This naturally, though falsely, leads to disparagement of human law even when there is no conflict.)

5. This is not an answer, but one must realize that on the scale of crimes, from jaywalking to murder, the crimes we hear about are not far from the low side of the scale. It is the Torah that protects us from even thinking about committing the heinous crimes that others consider to be within the realm of the possible.

6. Also, we remember the time that certain people refused to pay their taxes, because the money supported what they felt was the immoral war in Vietnam, or the nuclear arms race, or whatever. If people feel that the government is immoral, and that it uses their money for immoral purposes, they may feel they have a right to avoid supporting that government.

7. The third Mishneh in The Ethics of the Fathers, Pirkei Ovos states "Vihi morah shamayim aleichem," may the fear of heaven be upon you. The Rav there says "ahf ahl pi she’attah oveid mei’ahavah avod gahm kein mei’yirah," even if you serve God out of love, serve Him out of fear too. For one who serves from love will be scrupulous regarding positive works. One who serves from fear will refrain from negative acts. Perhaps some of us focus too much on the voluntary and loving aspect of religion, and pay not enough attention to the fear of God aspect.

8. Necessity. Sometimes we have to do things that are inherently bad because circumstances force us to balance the bad against the good that could be achieved through the contemplated act. This is called Asei docheh lo sa'aseh. The ends are always a factor in determining the legitimacy of the means. Chillul Hashem is an absolute and incontrovertible barrier to such acts. Victimless monetary flimflammery is not. Here's a hypothetical: a man dies intestate. That means he left no will. The state cannot find any relatives at all. Under state law, the estate will revert to the state treasury. An estate finder calls you up out of the blue and says that you and the intestate have similar unusual last names, and you both seem to have come from the same area in Europe. Are you perhaps related? You think to yourself, no, I never heard of the guy, and I know all my relatives; if we're related at all, it would have to be tenth cousins at the closest. On the other hand, all family records went up in smoke during the world wars. They will have to trust family depositions about family lore and long-dead common relatives. You would in any case give the money to the worthy poor. Would you call this criminal behavior? What if you or a loved one desperately need a medicine, and the druggist will not sell it to you unless you give him your home, or a rodef is coming after you and you need to steal a car to get away. Is theft justified? (Yes, it is true that according to the Ra'avad one must face death rather than steal from another person. The Ra'avad stands alone in his opinion. And even according to the Ra'avad, one may pay fair market value for the item and take it.)
Again from Professor Sarna:
"I think the idea is that Jewish education is so important and so expensive and the folks say to themselves, 'we're forced to pay for public education which we don't use,' and they manage to sometimes justify in their own minds these kinds of activities that are for the sake of a holy end."

9. Anyone that paid cash for a discount, or employed an illegal alien for house or yard work, is guilty of tax evasion. A difference in scale is not necessarily a difference in moral standards. Many people feel that taxes are like speed limits: there is a law, and there are penalties for breaking the law, and the laws and the penalties are fair and necessary. But going over the speed limit is neither wicked nor immoral. We all realize that Dina De'malchusa Dina does not make it assur to exceed the speed limit. So let's not be sanctimonious. Most people that are !!shocked!! when these things happen are just engaging in "I'm not religious, but if I were religious, I would be more religious than those hypocritical religious people are." It's just another form of denial, a way of recasting their religious failure as moral superiority.


Anonymous said...

The appologetics demonstrated by your post are nearly beyond words. To equate speeding and money laundering is ludicrous. To excuse money laundering as a large scale equivalent of paying cash for cleaning service is silly. It is the magnitude of the crime which in fact categorizes it as a misdemeanor or a felon.
The issue here is Chilul Hashem and the magnitude of Chilul Hashem is reflected in the magnitude of the crime. Is there a greater aveira? Had the story involved some other non-Jewish religious group would you have been so understanding? I doubt it.
The rebbe is unfortunately going to take the brunt of the burden as an enabler even though he may not have personally gained from the alleged crime. By being an enabler he and his colleagues certainly violated lifnei iver. Those who laundered money were not likely motivated by their experiences with corrupt governments in Europe or elsewhere. They were people of means who had made their money in this society and system and know its strengths and weaknesses. They simply thought they had another way of increasing their wealth and doing some good at the same time by helping out a worthy mosad. (Read the indictment if you have doubts).

Barzilai said...

But the truth is that you probably agree with the underlying premise of my apologetics. I don't think that any of the people involved would actually steal money from other people. Do you? Let's assume you agree with me on that point. If so, why did they think this was less immoral? Don't you have to think about that as well?

It's hard to respond to being characterized as ludicrous, because that term expresses an adamantine and unchangeable opinion makes dialogue difficult. Furthermore, you begin your comment with two conclusory statements, "is ludicrous" and "is silly". This too lessens the likelihood of a thoughtful give and take.

My point was that some crimes are punished not because of their inherent wickedness, but rather to force compliance. Not giving money to the government is simply a refusal to comply with the government's demand. This refusal is not on par with refusing to pay a loan or fraudulent business transactions. The fact that the penalties are so great is only to force compliance.

"To excuse money laundering as a large scale equivalent of paying cash for cleaning service is silly."
A quantitative difference does not always mean there is a qualitative difference. It certainly doesn't here.

"Those who laundered money were not likely motivated by their experiences with corrupt governments in Europe or elsewhere."
I believe that, as Dr. Sarna said, there is an ingrained attitude in certain groups that stems from centuries of oppression. This meme, or more, is impressed into members of the group and is close to indelible. Furthermore, it is the sense of 'otherness' that is essential to the survival of groups that so obviously don't fit into American society that leads to a feeling of "us vs. them."

And finally, I certainly agree that they were wrong to expose themselves to even a small risk of exposure, considering the extent of the chillul Hashem. But who on God's earth would have thought that such a miserable, execrable person existed that would masser them?

Anonymous said...

While I agree that they probably wouldn't steal from an individual, I think the reasoning is somewhat different. The government is a nameless faceless entity. I suspect that is why they feel free to defraud it of taxes.

As for "who on God's earth would have thought that such a miserable, execrable person existed that would masser them?" I suspect that the government agent that made them the deal thought so.I doubt that they massered just because.

Certainly the same person who could rationalize why it's OK to commit fraud is capable of reasoning thusly. "If I don't cooperate, then I will certainly go to jail (unless Barzilai Esq. can get me off <:-) ). Going to jail entails a possible sakanah (he may have been threatened with real jail and not some prison-lite). If I cooperate the other parties may be able to make a deal which will keep them out of jail and just have to pay heavy fines. So, it's my sakanah versus their money so I should cooperate"