Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu attends a session of the Knesset, the Israeli parliament, in Jerusalem in 2017..
(photo credit: RONEN ZVULUN / REUTERS)
The raging debate in Israel that has spread from the Knesset to the streets regarding corruption is not simply about cigars and champagne. It goes to the core of who we are as a Jewish state.
The Bible (Exodus 23:7) teaches outright: “Distance yourself from a false word.” The Talmud (Shavuot 31a) lists many actions which are not outright lies, but which are forbidden based on this verse because they are misleading.
Moses warned Jewish leaders not to take bribery because doing so “blinds the vision of the wise” (Deuteronomy 16:19).
Israel’s Declaration of Independence makes clear that the state “will foster the development of the country for the benefit of all its inhabitants; it will be based on freedom, justice and peace as envisaged by the prophets of Israel.” Those prophets are quite strong on the importance of truth and honesty:
King David declared that a person should strive to “speak the truth in his heart” (Psalms 15:2), and should “guard lips from speaking deceit” (Psalms 34:13).
His son King Solomon taught that “Unequal weights are an abomination to the Lord, and false scales are not good” (Proverbs 20:23).
Jeremiah criticized his generation in which people “have taught their tongue to speak lies, they weary themselves to commit iniquity” (9:4). He continued, decrying that “one speaks peaceably to his neighbor with his mouth, but in his heart he lays in wait for him... ‘Shall I not punish them for these things?’ says the Lord” (9:7-8).
Zephaniah foretold that “The remnant of Israel shall not do iniquity, nor speak lies, neither shall a deceitful tongue be found in their mouths” (3:13).
The Sages in Talmudic times drove this point home even further. Tractate Pesahim (113b) teaches that God “hates a person who says one thing with his mouth and another in his heart.”
Tractate Shabbat (55a) declares that the “seal of God is truth.”
The Mishna (Bava Batra 5:10) describes in great detail how a shopkeeper must wipe down his measures and scales to make sure that all of his business deals are scrupulously honest. And most glaringly, the Talmud teaches (Shabbat 31a) that God’s first question to people after they pass away and face judgment is whether they were honest in their business dealings.
Perhaps the greatest sign of the importance of honesty and truth in Jewish thought and tradition is that Jews all over the world introduce the Yom Kippur service with the Kol Nidrei prayer. The day on which we ask God for atonement begins universally with an annulment of our vows, and the recognition that we must be a people who are true to our word.
I was thus astonished to hear that leading rabbis in the religious Zionist movement met with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu this week and emerged making light of the allegations against the prime minister.
“To say that there is a problem because you accepted a cigar?” said one rabbi. “If it weren’t humorous it would be an unparalleled scandal... People want to change the government in this way because they can’t succeed at doing it through the ballot box.”
Another rabbi said: “Those who are supposedly fighting corruption are themselves corrupt.”
I am in no position to determine whether the prime minister is guilty – there is a legal process that must make that determination. But to dismiss the possibility that he was involved in receiving gifts in exchange for personal favors before the criminal justice system has run its course is to belittle not only an important Jewish value, but a pillar upon which Israeli democracy is based. They are so concerned about the scandal toppling a right-wing government that must preserve greater Israel? What type of Israel are they indeed trying to preserve? An Israel which does not hold itself to the standard of the prophets of Israel?
The same question must be asked of the ultra-Orthodox minister and fellow Knesset members who are trying to pass a law about the Sabbath day in Israel in the “holy and righteous” guise of preserving Judaism and Jewish tradition. Are they going to step down and topple the government if the police do recommend that the prime minister be indicted? If not, how can they claim to be the guardians of “authentic Judaism” while continuing to serve in a government led by a prime minister who the police recommend be indicted for bribery and dishonesty? Are they unaware of what Judaism has to say about such behavior?
I hope that the anti-corruption demonstrations continue from both left-wing and right-wing Israelis, and that if the police recommendations regarding the prime minister are as daunting as they are rumored to be, that all of Israel – Likud voters included – will stand tall and say we cannot tolerate this type of behavior from a leader in a Jewish state.
The author served as a member of the 19th Knesset with the Yesh Atid party.