J.J Gross
J.J Gross

Parshat Shoftim: How is it even possible to bribe a tzaddik?

Parshat Shoftim which urges the Jews to designate honest judges and to abjure bribery for “bribery blinds the eyes of the wise and twists the words of the righteous” (Deut. 16:19).

Evidently the Torah is making a distinction between the wise (חכם) and the righteous (צדיק), making it clear that one can be wise without necessarily being righteous and vice versa. Specifically, that righteousness is not necessary, and certainly not sufficient, to qualify one to be a judge.

But the real question is why the Torah added the second part of this verse. Yes, we understand that even a wise judge is blinded by bribery.  But what connection does this have with צדיקים .  And in what context is a tzaddik bribed altogether?

I would like to suggest the following:

A wise judge who is bribed in a particular case becomes blind for that particular case only. In other words, his having been corrupted in case A does not necessarily mean his judgment will be impaired when adjudicating case B in which he was not bribed. After all, in litigating torts, all a judge has to do is determine the facts and consult the statutes.

The Torah then goes on to tell us that when a righteous person (צדיק) accepts money from donors who expect recognition of some sort for their largesse, his words become twisted forever. Nothing he says subsequently on any subject can ever again be trusted.

We see this all the time – the way roshei yeshiva and rebbes accept money, ostensibly for their institutions and for the sake of increasing Torah in the world. Even assuming these rabbis have the noblest of intentions, that they do no personally benefit in a material way, and that they are not in quest of self-aggrandizement through the enhanced prominence and grandeur of their institutions – the very moment the donor expects some sort of honor and recognition in return for his philanthropy the rabbi becomes fundamentally corrupt and his words are forever twisted.

One has to merely observe the behavior of so many ‘gedolim; when the ‘gvir’ come around. Suddenly his schedule is wide open; the moneyman cuts to the head of the line; the words of ‘chanifa’ (sucking up) that spill forth from the rabbi’s mouth make purple prose seem plain vanilla.

It doesn’t stop there. The sheker that flows like honey from the rabbi’s lips is outdone only by the degree to which the rabbi will go to bat for the donor – be it by sending amicus curiae letters to the court when he is indicted, loosening the rules of admission or behavior for the donor’s child, or hooking the donor up with others for questionable business deals.

In my personal experience I’ve seen this over and over again. But the most egregious case was a Din Torah in which I was the plaintiff and the defendant was a very wealthy and very prominent mainstay of a major “Torah institution” – so major in fact that its township has become synonymous with Torah in America.

The Bet Din was agreed upon by both parties, and both parties signed a document stating that they would abide by its decision.

As it happened, this was a rare ‘open and shut’ case. After due deliberation, the Bet Din decided unanimously and totally in favor of the plaintiffs.

The arrogant defendant then refused to pay. This meant that either the plaintiffs would never see their money, or they would have to go to civil court to collect, in which case there would be a serious חילול השם (desecration of G-d’s name) as the court would see a frum man who refused to fulfill his signed commitment to abide by the ruling of a Din Torah.

The dayanim (rabbinical court judges) were very upset, not only because of the egregious and cavalier manner in which this multi-millionaire refused to pay the $10,000 he owed to two little guys.  They were especially upset because of the חילול השם that would result thereby.

In an effort to head off this disgrace, the chief dayan – a close friend of the rosh yeshiva of the institution mentioned above – called the rosh yeshiva (a world-renowned godol) and asked him to discreetly approach the defendant and urge him to settle the case in order to avoid a disgrace.

The dayan was shocked when the godol turned him down flat. There was no way he would offer his good services to forestall this shanda.

I was less surprised, and expected nothing other than rejection on the godol’s part because bribery is, indeed, מסלף דברי צדיקים – it twists the words of the righteous, and nothing they say can any longer have any veracity.

For those who are curious – yes, we had to go to court, which then froze the assets of the mogul until he paid his debt. It cost us 20% of proceeds as we had to pay a lawyer to bring the case for summary judgment.  The following year the defendant was honored as “man of the Year” by the very famous Torah institution.  The paeans of praise that poured forth from the Rosh Yeshiva on the dais were predictable – מסלף דברי צדיקים, in extremis.

About the Author
J.J Gross is a veteran creative director and copywriter, who made aliyah in 2007 from New York. He is a graduate of the Hebrew University in Jerusalem and a lifelong student of Bible and Talmud. He is also the son of Holocaust survivors from Hungary and Slovakia.
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