“Do not take a bribe” (Exodus 23:8). I wish we didn’t have to look to national headlines to remind ourselves of the Jewish law not to accept or give bribes. But unfortunately another scandal, coming out of the Orthodox community, has shaken us.
Many were shocked to hear about the plot to steal the Republican nomination for New York City mayor, and that a New York State Senator, a City Councilman, the Bronx Republican Chairman and Queens Republican Vice Chair, and several others had been arrested for their alleged participation in the plot. What is even more surprising is that the government’s star witness, who acted for the FBI by posing as a political kingmaker and who helped tape incriminating conversations, is a member of the Satmar community in Monsey, NY, and is himself a criminal.
Moses “Mark” Stern has been described by one New York paper as a “deadbeat” who owes $126 million to Citigroup and who recently entered a guilty plea to criminal charges. When reporters came to his mansion to try to obtain an interview, they noticed a sign on his door indicating that his water was about to be disconnected for a $616 bill, and what appeared to be major renovations that were incomplete and abandoned. Stern’s problems began in 2007, during the recent housing boom, when he secured loans from Citigroup to purchase shopping centers in four Southern states. A year later, he purchased a mansion in Monsey and began to renovate it. The bank became concerned that the loan was being used for purposes other than what Stern had stated, and then the housing market collapsed. Stern’s current financial status is unknown.
Stern has also been portrayed as a man who can raise large sums for the right politician. Federal authorities had charged him with making donations through third parties to hide his participation. Records indicate, for example, that a Monsey couple gave more than $100,000 to New York State Attorney General Eric Schneiderman, who has acknowledged that Stern is a supporter. Whether he actually has the political clout that some claim he has or not, Stern apparently used that reputation to gain the confidence of a number of politicians in this scandal. Time will tell whether he is the government’s ace in the hole or whether, as defense attorney Gerald Shargel has stated, the case has a “shaky foundation.”
“Stern is also a cousin of Tuvia Stern — the notorious swindler who threw a lavish bar mitzvah in his jail cell in the Tombs in 2009, sources said. Before he was locked up, Tuvia spent 20 years on the lam after he was busted in 1989 for stealing $1.7 million.”
This case damages everyone, and one looks in vain for a moral compass involved. The government is damaged by allegations that anything can be purchased for the right price, as was the norm in the Boss Tweed and Tammany Hall era a century ago. The Satmar Chassidic community is sullied by the image of an unscrupulous businessman who has turned state’s evidence for uncertain reasons. The entire Jewish community is sullied by extension. Where is the outrage from the Satmar community?
Perhaps there is a parallel in history. When President Franklin D. Roosevelt appointed Joseph P. Kennedy to be the first head of the Securities and Exchange Commission in 1934, many were outraged that such a crafty businessman would be the policeman for big business. President Roosevelt is alleged to have responded: “Set a thief to catch a thief.” Unfortunately, that may the best we can say about this affair.
Proverbs (15:27), most poignantly, states, “Sonei matanot yichyeh – One who hates gifts will live long”. The gift-seeker (and often times the gift-giver) is at risk for corruption and bribery. The Chavas Yair, the great 17th century German rabbi, explained (136) that the Torah prohibition “Do not take a bribe” focuses on the recipient and not the giver because if there is no recipient there can be no givers. One may feel compelled at times to give gifts from mixed motives but any judge representing justice learns how to detect these gifts and is always obligated to reject them. But the blackmailers and givers of bribes are of course not off the hook. From a halachic perspective, it is forbidden (geneivat da’at) to offer gifts to authorities who can spin justice in your favor even where one knows they don’t accept them since it creates a debt.
Some legal authorities have even justified bribing gentiles since its “minhag Yisrael” (our long held custom) chas v’shalom! Many in the Orthodox community seem to think that the ends justify the means. we can get funding to support our schools or politicians to align with our communities then anything is justifiable to get there. More and more we are seeing that you will get caught. Not only will the individual of poor judgment have to face the consequences, but also the community.
The Orthodox community is now bleeding. We cannot sweep the blood from our tainted image under the carpet. Even if the high majority of religious Jews are operating with yashrut (forthright justice), if we support or don’t publicly speak out against the minority we have not fulfilled our responsibility. Even worse, we are implicated in a perversion of justice. Each community has its own issues whether it is Centrist Orthodox, Satmar, Lubavitch, or Lakewood and each respective community must proactively educate and inspire its community toward ethical and law abiding behavior and also address any signs of misbehavior as soon as possible. When we don’t we tarnish the image of our holy Torah and eternal people. We must challnege ourselves to be better because we love our fellow Jew, because we love the Torah, we love G-d, and we love justice. We must enter a new paradigm and it will require bold courage and leadership. We must, once again, reclaim our prophetic destiny to be “a light unto the nations.”
Rabbi Shmuly Yanklowitz is the Founder and President of Uri L’Tzedek, the Senior Rabbi at Kehilath Israel, the Founder and C.E.O. of The Shamayim V’Aretz Institute and is the author of “Jewish Ethics & Social Justice: A Guide for the 21st Century.” In 2012 and 2013, Newsweek named Rav Shmuly one of the top 50 rabbis in America.”