Wednesday, December 23, 2009

A History of Lawlessness

R. Harry at Emes-ve-Emunah has a question following the sentencing of the Spinka Rebbe:

Are Chasidim more prone to fraud against the government than other religious Jews? Is it common in their circles? According to this document it is not only common but generational.

I just received and read a copy of the US attorney’s sentencing recommendations for the Spinka Rebbe. It seems pretty clear that the type of thing that the Spinka Rebbe was found guilty of is a fairly common and widespread practice among other Chasidic groups.

...It is very apparent that they see nothing wrong with cheating the government in this way. That it is so widely done is a shameful black mark all of Jewry. This is an almost unprecedented Chilul HaShem in scope and size. I am embarrassed and ashamed that those who pride themselves on being the most religious among us are so deeply involved in governmental fraud.

Looking at the question from a historical perspective, I have a couple of thoughts. First, although I think it is unfair to categorize Jewish crime as a specifically Hasidic issue, it is interesting to look at the origins of the Hasidic movement insofar as they might inform Hasidic self-perceptions when it comes to dina malchuta dina. The Baal Shem Tov and his followers were rebelling against the authority of their day. Initially this was just against the rabbinical establishment, but it soon spread beyond that as the rabbis attempted to bring the secular authorities, particularly in Russia, in on their side. As the Hasidim struggled to sustain their movement against both religious and state opposition, I assume they also must have had to develop a mentality of doing "whatever it took" to keep themselves going, whether it followed "the law" or not.

To a large degree, this is not really surprising; this approach has been part of Jewish thought for millenia: if you outlaw practicing Judaism than the Jews who practice it become outlaws. There are many stories about noble Jews defying laws to practice their faith. While these characters and their actions are often characterized as brave role models, they also contain a core value which condones, or even encourages, defying authority when that authority is seen as illegitimate. You see similar dynamics when Jews start getting drafted into the Russian Army- people doing everything they can to get out of it, providing Jewish access and services to Jewish recruits despite Russian law, etc. None of this actions are objectively bad, but they provide another precedent where secular law is superseded by Jewish law. The "Jewish rebel" phenomenon happens over and over again: The Kotzker and Gerrer rebbes on the run from the Russian Army, the pre-State Zionists gathering arms and policing their own communities rather than relying on apathetic and untrustworthy government forces, etc. There is a long Jewish history of bending or breaking the law when Jewish leaders feel that it is necessary.

So, when push comes to shove, plenty of Jews have shown, again and again, that just because the law says something doesn't mean they intend to follow it. To a certain degree this a good thing; it shows an independence of thought and conscience and a skepticism of government and law that, given the precarious Jewish treatment at the hand of governments throughout history, is perhaps only healthy and natural. Government and law shouldn't be put up on a pedestal. We should always question potentially immoral laws and follow our consciences.

The problem, though, is that this reasoning, if stretched, can also be used to justify almost any illegal action-- if the community feels persecuted, if they feel they "really need" to do something to help themselves (i.e., steal or cheat), if they perceive the government or the government agency as being antisemitic, anti-Orthodox, anti-whatever. This danger is compounded in cases where the rank-and-file have been educated to view only their own leaders and community as legitimate, and where secular law is seen as, at best, not terribly important, and at worst, irrelevant. This is an issue that affects Hasidim, Mitnagdim, and even Religious Zionists in Israel. Have some leaders who teach that the government is illegitimate and that its laws are unfair or unimportant, and you have a perfect system in which the law will be systematically ignored or broken. If your primary loyalty and values are to God, your religious leader, and your community, NOT to the state, not to the larger area where you live, not to the rule or law or to your fellow citizens, then you basically have no civic background in which you can really value law. The sad part as it relates to Mafdalim in Israel is that you have groups of people who have previously been the most patriotic and the most committed to helping the state who are now feeling persecuted and disenfranchised and (some of whom) are in the process of turning away from it and actively disobeying its laws.

So no, it's not just a Hasidic problem. It's not even an exclusively Orthodox problem. All sorts of Jews engage in illegal activities, and as recently as World War Two (and certainly World War One) you still had secular Jews in Europe whose Jewish identity may contributed to the feeling that "goyishe" laws did not apply to them. I would attribute this in part to the sense that they were not represented in their countries' governments, not treated as citizens, or explicitly discriminated against. In short, they were disenfranchised and alienated from their countries, and therefore saw no reason to follow their laws.

The question is what has changed since. In Western democracies, Jews do have a voice. They are treated equally. They can succeed financially and politically. In Israel, Jews can participate in just about any sphere of activity they chose. But within some sectors of Orthodox Judaism, you still see a very dramatic sense of "us and them." They do not feel like they are part of the state-- any state. And that is where you see a cultural and even political association with breaking the law-- where Jewishness itself becomes a rationale for why the law doesn't apply.

Dina malchuta dina... Unless you're Jewish and don't feel like it. In which case, never mind.

No comments: