"A common misconception about chillul Hashem is that it includes anything that is looked down upon by people. But for something to qualify as chillul Hashem it must first be a sin; and the fulfillment of an obligation" – like refusing to commit mesirah against another Jew, even in a democracy where Jews are treated fairly by the legal system – "cannot, by definition, be a chillul Hashem.…committed Jews need make no apologies for what the Torah teaches."
New York - Mesira Analysis By Rabbi Avi Shafran
Rabbi Avi Shafran • Ami Magazine
New York - Last Wednesday a small group of Jews was present in a Los Angeles courtroom as U.S. District Judge Margaret Morrow heard arguments on whether a 64-year-old frum Jew should be found in contempt of court for his refusal to testify against other Jews before a federal grand jury.
After completing a two-year sentence in regard to a tax evasion case on behalf of a group of religious institutions, the man was served with a subpoena to testify before a grand jury in the government’s continuing investigation of the case, and now finds himself facing the possibility that the judge will rule him in contempt, a decision that could result in additional incarceration. The case at issue concerns the group’s network of institutions, which apparently accepted donations from wealthy contributors but issued receipts in excess of what was actually received, allowing for donors’ tax breaks on the larger amounts.
At the heart of the man’s current situation is the Jewish prohibition of mesira, literally, “handing over”—the forbiddance, codified in Jewish religious law, of informing on a fellow Jew to secular authorities.
“Because the transgression of mesira is so dire,” the man asserted to the Los Angeles Times through a Yiddish interpreter, “my mind won’t change until I die.”
His attorney, Michael Proctor, said the man had obtained Jewish legal decisions that the serious prohibition of mesira applies in his case and that, as a result, he should not testify.
“It’s not conceivable,” Mr. Proctor told the judge, “that he is going to, quote, ‘break’.”
On the other side of the issue stands Assistant U.S. Atty. Daniel O’Brien, who argued that such a religious stance, if not punished, could serve as a “convenient tool” for law- breakers to hide behind. Because there are other Jews, Mr. O’Brian contended, whose testimony will be vital to the case, permitting the Jewish man to avoid testifying could “stifle” the investigation.
Prosecutors have also reportedly contended that the man’s position is unsupported by Talmudic law.
The Los Angeles Times quoted Rabbi Michael Broyde, an Emory University law professor and a member of the Beth Din of America, as contending that, in the paper’s paraphrase, “a commonly held view is that the principle doesn’t apply in a just, democratic state.” There are, how- ever, other views among respected decisors of Jewish law.
In any event, the Jewish man’s attorneys assert, what matters is not whether the rabbi is correct in his interpretation of Jewish law, but the fact that his belief is sincere and that he is committed to it. Finding him in contempt and sending him to jail, they say, will be “vindictive rather than coercive.”
The judge has postponed her decision for now.
Reaction has been varied to a frum Jew’s continued refusal to share information about fellow Jews with government authorities because of his belief that to do so would violate the prohibition of mesira. The mainstream media have largely reported the case straightforwardly (although a reporter for a major Jewish news service asked this writer if the “tactic” employed by this man is a common one; the response he received was that a religious conviction is not a tactic).
On the street, and in the even grimier blogosphere, however, a broad range of perspectives has been aired, many of them deeply critical of the Jewish man’s stance. Among common reactions have been assertions that the man is endangering Jews by his stubbornness, and that he has created a chillul Hashem (desecration of G-d’s Name) by his refusal to name names.
It is important to separate the issue of mesira from a crime that is committed. Dealing dishonestly, whether with Jews, non-Jews or governments like ours, is forbidden by halacha. The sources are clear about the requirement incumbent on a Jew to heed the law of the land—dina di’malchusa—with regard to monetary and other civil matters.
Also worth recognizing is that the prohibition of mesira does not always apply, particularly in a society with a justice system like that of the United States, which does not systematically treat Jews badly and whose laws are generally fair and just. In cases, for example, where a Jew poses a threat to others—such as a violent criminal or child abuser—and cannot be controlled by communal efforts, decisors are in agreement that the prohibition of mesira is trumped by concerns about the potential harm the wrongdoer poses to the public.
Cases like this man’s, however, are not in that category. His implication of other Jews in the crime for which he has paid his debt to society will not remove any threat to society; it will only create the likelihood that other Jews may come to harm. Although there are halachic decisors who might not consider mesira as applying at all in a country like the United States, there are certainly many—including Rav Moshe Feinstein, zt”l—who have stated clearly otherwise. The rabbi has consulted with his personal rabbinic guides and received a similar determination.
A common misconception about chillul Hashem is that it includes anything that is looked down upon by people. But for something to qualify as chillul Hashem it must first be a sin; and the fulfillment of an obligation cannot, by definition, be a chillul Hashem. Were society to suddenly see circumcision as a barbaric and terrible rite, practicing bris mila despite the societal disapproval would constitute a kiddush Hashem, a sanctification of G-d’s Name, not its opposite. The man’s refusal to inform on others, rooted as it is in halacha, is laudable.
American history includes a long and illustrious history of citizens putting personal conscience before the law of the land. The civil disobedience of the 1950s and 1960s in the face of racial discrimination is rightly celebrated today. Dedication to a religious ideal deserves no less respect than dedication to a secular one. If a person is willing to give up his freedom in the service of a higher ideal, he should be respected for his selfless and principled choice.
The prohibition of mesira might strike some, even some otherwise halacha-respecting Jews, as discomfiting. The idea of a requirement that a Jew seek to protect the well-being of other Jews, especially when they may have committed crimes, may stick in some contemporary craws. But even leaving aside the fact that many religious and ethnic groups display special concern for “their own” (just as families are more protective of family members than strangers—a fitting comparison here), committed Jews need make no apologies for what the Torah teaches.
Whatever the judge decides, one thing is clear: the man ready to be jailed for his principles intends no contempt of any earthly court, only to honor the Heavenly one.
[Rabbi Shafran is an editor at large and columnist for Ami Magazine]
To be fair, I most open my remarks by noting that I have believed for years already that Rabbi Avi Shafran is an unmitigated ass.
His list of gaffes and horrible statements – especially those denying the extent and severity of child sex abuse in the haredi community – seem almost endless.
And in this case of mesira or not mesira, Shafran doesn't disappoint.
He understates the rabbi's crime, fails to mention the rabbi's name, even though he was convicted and even though his major co-conspirator – the Spinka Rebbe – admitted his crime, pleaded guilty, spent time as he was awaiting his sentence telling haredim not to steal, and is now a resident of Otisville's federal lockup.
Shafran must think there is virtue in hiding those facts from his haredi readership.
I think showing haredim that a hasidic rebbe is a convicted felon who was caught defrauding the US Government has a lot of value – not the least of which is to show haredim that the government is not afraid to arrest, convict and imprison even their leaders if those leaders commit crimes. Certainly, if the government is willing to do this to haredi rabbinic leaders, it will do it to rank and file haredim, as well.
But Shafran would rather mask the facts to protect the reputations of convicted felons and the haredi community that he would tell the truth.
Note that Shafran even downplays the crimes involved.
What the Spinka Rebbe and his gabbai, Rabbi Moshe Zigelman, the rabbi who now refuses to tell the government what he knows, did is different from what Sharan claims.
The solicited "donations" from wealthy Jews and returned to those wealthy Jews 90% to 95% of each donation as laundered money.
This meant these wealthy Jews could claim tax deductions far in excess of what they were legally entitled to, which cost the government a lot of money.
It also meant that men trying to cheat their business partners or investors or shareholders could do so, taking the Spinka-laundered cash and hiding it under their mattresses or in offshore bank accounts.
And, of course, it allowed men to do the exact same thing to wives they were divorcing.
Shafran does note that "dealing dishonestly, whether with Jews, non-Jews or governments like ours, is forbidden by halacha. The sources are clear about the requirement incumbent on a Jew to heed the law of the land—dina di’malchusa—with regard to monetary and other civil matters."
But he also notes that the Spinka gabbai's refusal to give information to the government about his fellow thieves is "laudable," because it is halakha's position, and halakha's position can never be a chillul HaShem.
In other words, a Jew is forbidden to steal even when stealing is defined according to civil law (more about this in a moment), but he is forbidden to tell the government what he knows about his fellow Jewish thieves if the government catches him.
What Shafran does not tell you is that there are prominent haredi rabbis – Menashe Klein chief amomg them – who rule that a Jew can steal from non-Jews, especially from corporations and from the government – without breaking Jewish law.
This means that Shafran's apparent blanket statement that halakha forbids this type of stealing is false.
Indeed, Klein's opinions are what the Spinka Rebbe in part relied on to run his scam.
But worse than this glaring omission is Shafran's claim that halakha would forbid the Spinka gabbai from telling the government what he knows. "[Rabbi Rabbi Moshe Zigelman's refusal to inform on others, rooted as it is in halacha, is laudable," Shafran says.
But it's not.
Halakha actually has a provision on what should be done when the government knows the names of Jews who have broken the law but needs testimony from another Jew to convict them or to recover the stolen property.
Because the crimes are already known, because the government already knows Jews did this – they stole, cheated, and defrauded – telling the government what you know about these crimes is no longer a violation of mesira.
In fact, it is mandatory, something that must be done to protect the wider Jewish community from being branded as thieves and from creating exactly what Shafran wrongly says can't be created here – a massive chillul HaShem.
In fact, the only potential way out of that halakha is to say that America is not antisemitic, that its courts are fair, that Jews get the same treatment in them everyone else does, and that American law is just and fair.
Of course that would obviate the reasons behind the halakha of mesira, making the halakha moot – unless a rabbi wants to attach meaning and import to the halakha of mesira that does not exist in classical sources, thereby raising mesira above the actual reasons the halakha was instituted and holding the halakha as some type of inviolable totem on par with the unity of God.
In other words, because America won't hate Jews for their refusal to inform on other Jewish criminals, this strain of halakha would say that we should exploit that kindness and fairness and refuse to testify.
As you might guess, the rabbis who hold this way are overwhelmingly haredi, and a disproportionate number of them appear to support Menashe Klein's permit to steal.
That Shafran picks and chooses his halakha, that he is extremely intellectually dishonest, and ethically and morally bankrupt is nothing new.
Rabbi Moshe Zigelman is not standing up for his God and his God's law.
Rabbi Moshe Zigelman is dragging both down into the sewer with him.
And Agudath Israel of America's spokesman, its butt buddy of crime, fraud and child sex abuse, is helping him do it.
[Hat Tips: HonestlyFrum, the Lion.]