At their essence, perhaps Jewish ethics can be best regarded as a subset of tribal ethics — whatever is good for the group is good. This is different from the universalist Anglo outlook I grew up with in Australia where there were few if any differences between the moral obligations you owed your group vs the rest of humanity.
I converted to Orthodox Judaism because I believed it was the best system for making good people and a good world. Perhaps I was naive. After 20 years in Orthodox Judaism, I’ve noticed that there is no discernible ethical difference as a result of greater Jewish observance. People who keep kosher are no less likely to cheat than those who don’t. In fact, it seems to me that the more assimilated the Jew, the more likely he is to obey the law of the land.
I have heard stories of young couples giving money to an uncle, with a different last name, to use as a down payment on a house. Then they would live there while the government (taxpayers) were paying their mortgage. Rumors of second-party checks being used as currency had made their way to the coffee rooms in Israel. Still, I was not prepared for the dominant culture of Lakewood.
My first encounter with the systemic corruption was, sadly, at the local Jewish book store. When the rabbi rang up the books, the price changed when I took out my debit card. Unfamiliar with the custom of the city, I asked “is it a different price for cash and credit?” “No,” he said, “I just need to charge you tax if there is a record of it.” Unfortunately, this was only the beginning.
The system is broken and it starts at the top. I tell the following story with a very heavy heart. It involves a rabbi that was kind to me. He inspired me and honored us with naming our son. This Rav once told me that people are like borer (the act of separating on Shabbat): you have to take the good from the bad. It is with that I intention that I share this reflection because there is there so much good in Lakewood.
I opened the frum (religious) gym at 5:30 a.m. and was a personal trainer before yeshivah started for the day. When I got the job, the owner asked me how I wanted to be paid. “The 1st and 15th?” I answered, not really understanding the question. “No. Do you want me to pre-tithe it for you?” He then explained how there was a wonderful outreach organization that would give him back 90% of a monthly “donation” he made to them in cash. He would get a deduction, no one would have to pay taxes or declare it as income, the organization could continue its “holy work”, and I wouldn’t have to tithe it (give 10% of it to charity).
I was silent with disgust, and then it got worse. “Ask a shilah,” he said. “Everyone does it.” Out of curiosity, I called my local Posek. “Cheat!” He ruled, with enthusiasm, as if it were a mitzvah.
Here is a common scam in Orthodox life:
A New Jersey rabbi and his wife were arrested with three other Jewish couples for underreporting their incomes to receive government benefits.
The couples, including the rabbi’s brother and wife, were arrested Monday in raids that resulted from an investigation into Lakewood, a New Jersey town that is home to a large haredi Orthodox community. More arrests are expected, Ocean County Prosecutor Joseph Coronato said, according to The Associated Press.
The FBI and the New Jersey State Comptroller’s Office launched the probe.
By underreporting their incomes, Rabbi Zalmen Sorotzkin and his wife, Tzipporah, and the other couples defrauded state and federal assistance programs of over $1 million, according to criminal complaints, AP reported.
The Sorotzkins were charged in state court with illegally collecting more than $338,000 in benefits. They will plead not guilty, their attorney said, according to AP.
Another couple, Mordechai and Jocheved Breskin, was charged with illegally collecting $585,000.
In federal court, Zalmen Sorotzkin’s brother, Mordechai, and his wife, Rachel, were charged with another couple, Yocheved and Shimon Nussbaum, with illegally collecting benefits, including Medicaid.
In my understanding, most yeshivos in America are supported by ill-gotten gains and survive by dubious accounting practices. But who cares about the goyim, right?