Rabbis Vs Journalists

The Jewish Week reported in its June 10, 2009 issue:

The halachic adviser to Ohel Children’s Home and Family Services, which receives millions of dollars in state and federal money, told a Bergenfield, N.J., synagogue audience in 2007 that tax evasion is permissible under Jewish law as long as one doesn’t get caught, according to people in attendance.

The adviser, Rabbi Dovid Cohen, a Brooklyn-based, highly respected halachic expert who also serves as one of three rabbinic guides to Nefesh International, a network of Orthodox mental health professionals, is said to have made the comments about tax evasion during a Shabbat talk at Congregation Beth Abraham in Bergenfield in February 2007.

Now, more than two years later, the repercussions may be taking a toll on Rabbi Cohen and his reputation.

Several in attendance at the talk said that Rabbi Cohen gave an extended response to a question from the audience, asserting that tax evasion is permissible under Jewish law, as long as there is no realistic possibility of being caught, thus causing a chillul hashem, or desecration of God’s name.

The justification was based on the rabbi’s apparent belief that the reason the rabbis of the Talmud forbade stealing from a non-Jew was only out of fear of anti-Semitism.

Virtually every halachic source agrees that tax evasion, as well as theft from non-Jews, is categorically forbidden.

Rabbi Cohen allegedly told his audience that he was making his controversial remarks on Shabbat — he is also said to have asserted that, like the biblical Esau, non-Jews still hate Jews — knowing he was not being recorded, and that if subsequently questioned about his statement, he would deny it.

The rabbi told The Jewish Week on Monday that the statements attributed to him were "totally misunderstood" and that he "repudiated" them.

Based on letters obtained by The Jewish Week, it appears that at least seven people in attendance at the lecture wrote to or called the Rabbinical Council of America, the largest group of Orthodox rabbis, where Rabbi Cohen, though not a member of the RCA, served on its prestigious Va’ad HaPoskim, a group of halachic authorities. Some of the letter writers sought to have Rabbi Cohen removed from the panel; others simply attested to their having heard the rabbi make the remarks, which he denied to the RCA.

Rabbi Steven Pruzansky blogs:

It is a bitter irony clearly lost on its editors that the so-called “Jewish Week” chose to impugn the well-regarded Rav Dovid Cohen during the very week the Torah castigates Miriam for slandering her brother Moshe (actually, mildly rebuking him). Perhaps the message of the weekly Torah portion was unknown to the writer, someone named “Staff Report” – apparently to protect his identity.

Rav Cohen came to my neighborhood approximately two years ago and allegedly said publicly that cheating on taxes is permissible for Jews as long as there is no desecration of G-d’s name through their arrest and exposure. It is hard to believe he would make such a statement, given the preponderance of Rabbinical opinion that the Talmudic principle “the law of the land is the law” applies first and foremost to areas such as taxes. Add to that Rav Cohen’s statement – quoted in the paper – that his remarks had been “totally misunderstood” and that he “repudiated” them, one wonders what was the necessity of finding a “news” story in this, two years after the event that I, living in this neighborhood, had not heard about? Isn’t that lashon hara (slanderous, evil talk) of the worst kind, and so from where do Jewish journalists derive the right to engage in blatant violations of the Torah – while paradoxically claiming the moral high ground and ethical superiority over their subjects ?

Newspapers often speak of the public’s right to know… whatever the journalist deems newsworthy. It is interesting that while Western law speaks almost exclusively in terms of the “rights” of individuals, the Torah never speaks directly of “rights” but quite frequently and extensively about the “obligations” of individuals. “Rights” flow, if they do at all, from the mutual “obligations” people have to each other, but people generally have no inherent right to “know” anything, certainly not if there is no imminent danger to them or to others. We do have an “obligation” to treat each other fairly, decently, and with respect.

But character assassination is the sport of journalists and so it is no surprise that Mr. (or Ms.) Report resurrected a dead, non-story and trumpeted their findings. It is one reason why I personally never read the so-called “Jewish Week” (this particular article was forwarded to me), nor do I understand why any serious Torah Jew would. The spiritual harm is insidious and persistent, and the advantages nebulous at best.

Given the standards that Rabbi Pruzansky lays out, how is his attack on The Jewish Week not lashon hara? When Rabbi Pruzansky says — as he did today — that 90% of Jews are outside the pale because they do not observe Jewish law, how is that not lashon hara? I am not arguing that it is lashon hara. I’m not arguing that Rabbi Pruzansky is wrong. I’m just curious how this whole lashon hara thing works and when you are allowed to attack people and when you are not.

I just want to be a good Jew and to do what the rabbis instruct.

About Luke Ford

I've written five books (see Amazon.com). My work has been followed by the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, and 60 Minutes. I teach Alexander Technique in Beverly Hills (Alexander90210.com).
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