May 26, 2019

When Rabbis Engage in Fraud and Bribery…

On November 26, 1936, Rav Ben Zion Meir Hai Uziel delivered a lecture to a large gathering of rabbis in Jerusalem. Titled “The Seat of the Rabbinate,” Rav Uziel’s words were delivered as an introduction to that day’s elections for the Council of the Chief Rabbinate of the Land of Israel. Speaking to rabbis who would potentially join him as part of the Land of Israel’s national rabbinic leadership, Rav Uziel articulated what he felt were the priorities of the rabbinate in the Yishuv that would eventually lead way to the modern-day State of Israel:

When it comes to public and national matters, the issue of Mishpat (The Torah’s Civil Laws) is a weighty and burdensome responsibility (on the rabbi), for it is these matters that establish the path of life towards success or disaster, peace or dispute. God thus commanded us: “Execute the judgment of truth and peace in your gates” (Zecharia 8:16).

When Rav Uziel used the term “mishpat” to describe the Torah’s Civil Laws, what was he referring to?

“And these are the rules (Mishpatim) that you shall set before them.” With this verse, immediately following the giving of the Ten Commandments at Mount Sinai, God begins to legislate the detailed version of the Torah’s system of civil legislation. The word Mishpatim refers to civil laws and ordinances, and by making these laws the first “post-Ten Commandments” legislation of mitzvot, God sends a very powerful message about what it means to be a truly “religious community.” Most people looking to create a “religious community” would begin by building a house of worship. In the Torah, God sees things differently. As the Jewish people are in the initial stages of building their own “religious community,” civil laws governing relationships between people are legislated before the laws on building a house of worship. Courts and judges come before tabernacles and High Priests. Parashat Mishpatim deals in matters that don’t seem “religious or spiritual” to most people — personal injury, damages due to negligence, paying employees on time, borrowing items or lending money, to name just a few – but these actually form the core of how the Torah envisions a religious Jewish society to behave everyday.  The message is that the first definition of being “religious” is how one behaves at work or in business, and how one treats his/her fellow human being. God knows that it’s much easier to behave “religiously” inside a tabernacle, Temple or synagogue. The true challenge is maintaining that religiosity in the workplace and at home.

Well aware of all of this, when he stood up to deliver an inspirational address to rabbis who would be tasked with helping to shape a society that reflected the core values of Judaism within the emerging State of Israel, Rav Uziel chose not speak about ritual laws governing synagogues. Instead, he laid out a set of priorities for the rabbis to deal with:

Our wide ranging Jewish legal literature enlightens our path to help us solve all of the new and contemporary legal problems that living in our new Yishuv places before us. Having this Jewish legal literature in our hands requires us to address and solve these various problems in the most desirable manner.

Rav Uziel then offers a strong word of caution:

To not deal with these issues, or even to put them on the back burner, will cause for our society to move in a different and virtually irreversible direction.

Indeed, Rav Uziel’s words of caution were unfortunately well grounded in Jewish history. Both Temples in Jerusalem were destroyed because the Jewish people in the Land of Israel failed to create or uphold societies based on Mishpatim. As the Jewish people now returned to their land for a third try at Jewish statehood, he did not want to see them make the same tragic mistakes.

This vision of a Mishpatim-centered Jewish society was not Rav Uziel’s original idea.

The Book of Psalms teaches: “Righteousness (Tzedek) and justice  (Mishpat) are the base of God’s throne” (Psalms 89:15). On this verse, the 13th century Sephardic Talmudist Rabbeinu Yonah comments: “Whoever upholds justice (Mishpat) upholds God’s throne, and whoever perverts justice defiles God’s throne.”

The largest and most complex section of the Mishna & Talmud is Seder Nezikin (The Order of Damages), which contains the expanded halakhic/legal details of the civil laws/mitzvot found in Parashat Mishpatim. In one of the most popularly studied tractates in Seder Nezikin – Tractate Baba Kamma – we are taught: “Rav Yehudah says: He who wishes to be a pious person (hasid) should seek to fulfill the halakhot in Seder Nezikin” (Baba Kamma, 30:a).

Rav Uziel’s innovation was less in the concept of articulating the centrality of Mishpatim, and more in elevating this to the highest priority for rabbis in the Land of Israel:

As you approach the seat of the rabbinate that you will sit upon after your election, take to heart that the full domain of mishpat — including all of its problems & issues — has been placed in your hands, and it will be upon you — through trustworthiness, love honor and admiration — to bring the entire nation closer (to the values) of Jewish Civil Law. Mishpat, Tsedek and Din Emet L’Amito– judgement, righteousness and the truthful execution of the law to its fullest extent of truth — serve as the foundations for the unity of our nation.

79 years after Rav Uziel delivered these powerful words, we are the unfortunate witnesses to continued immoral behavior and corruption by Israeli elected officials, and even by some in the highest echelons of the Israeli Chief Rabbinate. As he delivered these words to a gathering of rabbis, Rav Uziel never envisioned, in his worst nightmares, that he would wake up to read an Israeli newspaper article (as we did a few days ago) whose story line reads Former Israeli Chief Rabbi Arrested for Bribery and Fraud of Millions of Shekels.

In the prayer for the State of Israel that we recite in synagogue every Shabbat we say “Send your light and your truth to its leaders, officers and counselors.” It’s not by chance that this prayer was authored by two of the 20th century’s greatest rabbinic leaders ever to hold the title of Chief Rabbi: Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi Isaac Halevi Herzog, and his colleague, Sephardi Chief Rabbi Ben Zion Meir Hai Uziel.

In the spirit of Rav Uziel’s inspirational address to the rabbis in 1936, may God indeed send His light and His truth to Israel’s “leaders, officers and counselors”, and…to its rabbis.