Between dignity and deceit: Ancient principles and modern challenges

Even if one could get away with something unethical, with deceiving another person, it is incorrect, improper, barbaric and desecrates God’s name.

February 5, 2015 17:59
4 minute read.
Moses painting

Moses receives God’s Holy Commandments, in a woodcut by Julius Schnorr von Carolsfeld from ‘Die Bibel in Bildern,’ 1860.. (photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)


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There are few commandments in our Jewish tradition which have total acceptance as to their moral necessity, yet have generated a myriad of conflicting interpretations and applications. Yet perhaps the abundance of discussion in our tradition about the commandment “Thou shalt not steal” is in fact indicative of an ongoing debate – about who we want to be.

In rabbinic texts as well as among medieval commentators, there is little agreement about the applications of this core commandment. Rashi and Nahmanides interpret “Lo tignov” as a reference to kidnapping, gneivat nefashot, rather than theft; while Ibn Ezra and Sforno claim that Lo tignov encompasses stealing both people and property.

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Later commentators argue that the commandment alludes not only to standard theft but also to the theft of a person’s self-respect, by not responding to his greeting; or attempting to win someone’s gratitude or regard through deceit, known as gneivat da’at.

At the core of these applications is the question of the basic human dignity of the person who previously was in possession of his freedom, his property and his perception, and has lost it. But from ancient times to today, an even larger questions looms: Is this protection of human dignity a protection the Torah seeks for Jews, or does it extend to all peoples? As we shall see, it does not take a liberal 21st-century interpreter to imagine that God’s sanctity depends on respecting the dignity of all people, and on the equal application of ethical principles to all human beings, not just Jews.

Indeed, a possible halachic interpretation of the command against stealing might include the widening of its application, along with the widening of the ethical considerations of those such a command seeks to obligate and protect, including the non-Jew.

The ancient sages actually predicted this question and some sought to clarify it, lest we have any debate of the broader universal implications.

In the Jerusalem Talmud, we find the following curious but instructive tale: “The Roman government once sent two officers to learn Torah from Rabban Gamliel, and they learned from him... When they were finished, they said to him, ‘All of your Torah is pleasant and praiseworthy, except for these two matters in which you maintain... that it is prohibited to steal from a Jew, but that it is permissible to steal from a non-Jew.’ “At that very moment, R. Akiva decreed that stealing from a non-Jew would be prohibited because of hillul Hashem [desecration of God’s name]” (JT Baba Kama 4:3).

A related story is also told in which Shimon Ben-Shetah, a great sage and businessman who traded in cotton, was given a gift of a donkey from his students, who didn’t want him to have to work so hard. After they bought him a donkey from a “certain Syriac,” they found upon it a precious stone. The students rejoiced, telling their rabbi he would never have to work again.

When Shimon Ben-Shetah learned about the stone, he asked his students if the owner knew about it. They told them the owner did not, so their rabbi told them to return it.

The text then brings a source and asks: Even if stealing from a non-Jew is forbidden, is not appropriating his lost property permitted? But the narrator answers rhetorically, “What do you think, that Shimon Ben- Shetah is a barbarian?! He preferred hearing: ‘Blessed is the God of the Jews’ to all the riches of this world” (JT Baba Metzia 8c).

In other words, even if one could get away with something unethical, with deceiving another person, it is incorrect, improper, barbaric and desecrates God’s name. Our sages have clarified this multiple times in multiple texts, over many generations.

Yet in this contemporary reality, one might think that some have forgotten these concerns of the Talmud and Nahmanides. Hillul Hashem is what happens when Jews defile, steal and uproot the property of others, even/especially of our neighbors, our others, in the State of Israel or anywhere else. But there are reports that such deceit is taking place in many corners and levels of society. Still, too few of the offenders – especially those in power – are found guilty by authorities, and too few influential voices have spoken out against or taken action to prevent such deceit.

The desecration of God’s name occurs in precisely these situations, when an ethical aspect of Jewish law is applied only to some. This desecration occurs when one treats the property and the person of another in a less dignified way than one would demand for oneself. And when we fail to uphold the ethical values that we want to represent who we are, we bring on deserved critique.

On the other hand, kiddush Hashem, the sanctification of God’s name, occurs when what we do, how we act, how we apply law, how we take care of hungry children, protect the innocent and the stranger, protect ourselves and our country, represents the best of who we want to be. Every act – or failure to act – brings on this deserved praise or critique, not only of the individual but of all of us.

It is not easy to hold others responsible – but if we don’t, we are all responsible for the critique and desecration of God’s name that ensues.

Yet the reverse is more true, and what our tradition ultimately seeks us to have us do: Act in a way that makes those around us say, “Blessed is the God of the Jews.”

The writer, a rabbi and PhD, is the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion’s national director of recruitment and admissions, and a president’s scholar.

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