It seems obvious that taking a bribe is bad — but why?  After all, you may think that you can still be objective.  What’s the harm in taking a ‘gift’?  Unfortunately, we are faced repeatedly with allegations that our elected leaders are guilty of bribery.  It is a good time to examine the matter from the inside out.  In this piece, I examine why bribery is really bad, not just because it is against the law, but because it causes a type of brain damage.

At the Shabbat dinner table a few days ago, we had a discussion regarding bribery.  Why?  Because the warning against taking bribes featured in the weekly Torah portion, Mishpatim.  The Torah clearly says in Ex. 23:8 that “You should not take a bribe.”  We talked about the broad meaning of this concept.  It does not only apply to judges in a courtroom, where a monetary bribe may sway judgment in favor of the guilty party.  It also applies to many less obvious situations.

The field of medicine has seen a large shift in attitudes and legal restrictions over the last several decades regarding bribery.  It used to be that doctors received extravagant gifts of expense-paid holiday vacations, fancy dinners, or box seats at a sports game from representatives of drug companies.  In that situation, doctors were not necessarily accompanied by the giver and there was not necessarily even a frontal pitch made to use the giver’s products – although there was no shame if the representative of the drug company also participated and freely schmoozed with the doctors.  Today, it is widely appreciated that the recipient of the ‘gift’ cannot avoid being biased in favor of the products of the ‘generous’ drug company.

What is the problem, though, if you, the doctor, think that the giver’s drug for a certain medical indication that you treat is at least as good as the competitor’s medication?  The plain answer is that the excessive gift causes you to lose objectivity, and there is no getting around that.  The doctor cannot help but be swayed, both consciously and unconsciously, to prescribe the drug even when the patient may not have needed the treatment.  And, he may be inclined to prescribe an inferior treatment.  You, the Reader, would not want to be treated by such a doctor.  This happened quite often in the past, and still happens to some degree.  It is a form of bribery that is under the radar.

I want to know if the problem with bribery is just a practical one to prevent the swaying of judgment or is it a more basic issue of corruption that relates to our human minds.

The Torah itself provides the answer to my question.  It is not common to find the explicit reason for God’s commandments written plainly in the Torah text, but here is such a case.  The full verse that was cited earlier is:

“And you should not take a bribe, for the bribe blinds people who are otherwise able to see and distorts the words of righteous people.” Ex. 23:8

The classic commentary of Rashi (R. Shlomo Yitzhaki, 11th century French Torah sage) illuminates the deeper meaning.  Rashi explains that the verse is true even when the accepted ‘gift’ is intended to sway the judge in favor of the righteous party – in whose favor the judge would have sided even without the bribe.  In that case, there is no practical difference in the outcome and yet the Torah teaches us to refrain from taking the harmless gift.  Why is that?  Because, as the latter part of the verse states, the bribe blinds those who were previously able to see, in a figurative sense.  We often refer to narrow-mindedness as ‘myopic’ or ‘tunnel-vision.’  The Torah’s use of the visual metaphor conveys that the bribe recipient can no longer ‘see’ right from wrong.

The bribe has the further effect of distorting statements of righteous, well-intended, people – statements that would have been more objective.  Simply put, a bribe is bad because it changes the human being, whether or not it changes the practical outcome.

That brings us to the brain.  The Torah is essentially informing us about how the human brain is wired. It is stated as fact, rather than the empirical results of psychological experiments.  I see it as follows.  Our thought patterns are subject to certain tendencies that we generally refer to as “human nature”.  One type of thinking is Judgment, whether in a court of law, in a doctor’s visit, or in any situation that demands objectivity.  Judgment can be impaired when there are diseases of the brain, such as Alzheimer’s.  But, judgement can also be distorted or biased under circumstances of bribery.

In my last blog, I discussed how the brain can change when you learn new things.  That feature of the brain is called neuroplasticity.  Unfortunately, it works in both directions.  If you practice good moral behavior, your brain will change to facilitate the good behavior.  However, if your thinking is influenced in an immoral way, then your brain will have a tendency to be less moral in the future. The connections between your cells actually change.  The more you accept the immoral ideas as legitimate and the more you practice the immoral behavior, the greater the facilitation of the immoral thoughts at the level of the brain circuits.  As a result, the thoughts seem more natural, and the improper behavior becomes less effortful.

I said in the beginning that bribery causes a type of brain damage, and I meant that figuratively.  It distorts how we think by changing our expectations of reward and our sense of justice.  Often bribery has clear conscious goals, such as immediate financial gain.  But, even seemingly harmless cases cause harmful changes to our unconscious thought patterns – and thinking is due to networks of nerve cells that are connected in specific ways.  So, bribery harms your brain in the most essential way – in the way that causes the bribe-taker to stray from truth.

Dr. Ely Simon is a neurologist working in Modiin, Israel and is the author of Embracing the Unknown: A Fresh Look at Nature and Science.