Friday, June 12th, 2009

One of the most disturbing aspects of a controversy we covered this week never made it into the story, due to constraints of deadlines and space.

The report was about a prominent Orthodox rabbi’s alleged statements suggesting that it is permissible to cheat on one’s tax return, presumably because Jews only have to be honest in their halachic dealings, and not necessarily in activities outside of that universe.

The rabbi in question is a halachic expert with much communal responsibility and respect who was responding to a question put to him following his Shabbat talk at a synagogue two years ago – and noted that he could not be quoted on Shabbat and would deny ever having made the statement.

Several people in attendance wrote letters to the Rabbinical Council of America, a prominent Orthodox group, urging that the rabbi, who is not a member of the RCA, be removed from its Vaad Haposkim, a panel of halachic authorities.

The RCA responded that, based on the rabbi’s subsequent denial to them, the case was closed. Some people who say they heard the controversial statement in shul that day claimed “whitewash,” and were appalled when other rabbis insisted that the complainants were fabricating the story.

The rationale then given was that it is permissible to do whatever is necessary (including lie) to protect kavod haRav, the honor and reputation of a rabbi, and for the good of the community.

This argument isn’t new. Being untruthful dates back to the Bible. Abraham said his wife, Sarah, was his sister to protect himself, Isaac did the same regarding Rebecca, and Jacob told his father, Isaac, that he was Esau to get the blessing of the first son. Some biblical commentators were upset with the subterfuge, others said the ends justified the means.

The debate has continued ever since, and it turns out that Jewish texts are rich, complex and nuanced when it comes to the ethics of lying. In Jewish law, one is obligated to tell the truth as a witness in court, but beyond that, there is no command: “thou shalt not lie.” Indeed, the Talmud suggests one can tell a lie for the sake of peace.

But how do we define “peace,” and what are the boundaries today in protecting the reputation of someone who winks at, if not allows, unethical and illegal deeds?

Surely if a halachic authority would be seen eating a cheeseburger, his reputation would be finished, on the spot. So why is it that when such an authority says cheating the government is kosher, at least some colleagues would say his reputation must be defended?