Tradition today: ‘Clean hands and a pure heart’

We did not establish a Jewish state after 2,000 years of exile only to see it turn into a center of corruption.

PRIME MINISTER Benjamin Netanyahu walks in front of a poster depicting the late prime minister Menachem Begin in Tel Aviv in 2010 (photo credit: REUTERS/NIR ELIAS)
PRIME MINISTER Benjamin Netanyahu walks in front of a poster depicting the late prime minister Menachem Begin in Tel Aviv in 2010
(photo credit: REUTERS/NIR ELIAS)
Corruption in governmental officials has become a major concern of Israeli society; and although, since the focus has been on high-ranking officials in the current government, some see this as a partisan issue, it really goes far beyond that.
Considering that major officials, a president, a prime minister, a chief rabbi, government ministers, mayors and others have been found guilty of bribery, corruption and other offenses within the past decade, this is an issue that cannot be ignored. It is and should be a matter of grave concern for all Israelis, no matter what their political views.
Such corruption is a major flaw in any democratic government and is a violation of the norms of Judaism that are embedded in the Torah and in the rabbinic tradition.
We did not establish a Jewish state after 2,000 years of exile only to see it turn into a center of corruption. I cannot help but be reminded of the words of Jeremiah when he stood in the Temple court and warned against what was happening in the society of his days. He called upon the people to “mend your ways and your actions; if you execute justice between one man and another.... Do you consider this House, which bears My name, to be a den of thieves?” (Jeremiah 7:5, 11). How sad it would be if that were to be true of our houses of government.
From the very beginning, honesty has been Judaism’s demand of its leaders. When Moses was starting his work of governing the people of Israel, Jethro advised him to appoint people to help him who were “capable men who fear God, trustworthy men who spurn ill-gotten gain” (Exodus 18:20).
Later, the Torah is very clear about this, when it says that bribery blinds the eyes of a judge, and when it sets out the clear qualifications for members of the Sanhedrin, the supreme governing council: “ shall not take bribes, for bribes blind the eyes of the discerning and upset the plea of the just” (Deuteronomy 16:19).
During Korah’s rebellion against Moses’s leadership, Moses defends himself by saying “I have not taken the ass of any one of them, nor have I wronged any one of them” (Numbers 16:15).
These words were later echoed by Samuel, defending his honor: “Whose ox have I taken, or whose ass have I taken? Whom have I defrauded or whom have I robbed? From whom have I taken a bribe to look the other way? I will return it to you” (I Samuel 12:3).
Unfortunately his sons were not as honest as he. “But his sons did not follow in his ways; they were bent on gain, they accepted bribes, and they subverted justice” (ibid. 8:3). The question today is: are we dealing with Samuel or with his sons?
It is clear to all that outright bribery and thievery are forbidden both by Jewish law and by Israeli civil law, and those who indulge in it belong in jail and not in the Knesset. But Jewish ethics goes far beyond that and demands that those in positions of trust be totally above suspicion. They must avoid anything that even smacks of impropriety. Otherwise, they are not worthy of the positions they hold. For example, the Talmud discusses the proper conduct of those who are in charge of charitable funds:
“When those in charge of the distribution of charity have no one to whom to distribute the funds, they are not permitted to exchange the copper coins [for silver, which would not tarnish] with themselves but only with others. Similarly, those in charge of a soup kitchen, when they have no one to feed, must not sell the food to themselves but only to others, because it is said (Numbers 32:22), ‘ shall be clear before the Lord and before Israel’” (Pesahim 13a).
In these cases, there is no question of actual theft, but there is the possibility of taking advantage of the situation for some personal gain. Therefore, they are prohibited from doing these things. Everything they do must be seen to be above reproach. Other examples are given concerning people who prepared items for use in the Temple worship. They were praised for avoiding doing things that could be misinterpreted as using these items for themselves:
“The Garmu family was expert at preparing the showbread.... Fine bread was never seen in the possession of their children, so that people should not say, ‘They are eating showbread!’ Thus they fulfilled the verse (Numbers 32:22) ‘ shall be clear before the Lord and before Israel.’
“The Abtinas family was expert in preparing the incense.... No bride in their family ever wore perfume, and if they married a woman from elsewhere, they forbade her to wear any, so that people should not say, ‘They are using perfume from the incense for themselves!’ Thus they fulfilled the verse (ibid.) ‘ shall be clear before the Lord and before Israel’” (Yoma 38a).
As the Mishna stated: “It is as important to be seen to be innocent by human beings as by God, as it is said (Numbers 32:22), ‘ shall be clear before the Lord and before Israel’ and [as it is said] (Proverbs 3:4), ‘And you will find favor and approbation in the eyes of God and man’” (Shekalim 3:2).
RABBINIC ETHICS sets a high standard for people in positions of high trust. In the past the State of Israel has had leaders who lived up to such standards.
Menachem Begin was admired even by those who disagreed with his policies for his standards of honesty and lack of ostentation. Personal gain was never part of his life. Dishonesty was abhorrent to him.
President Yitzhak Ben-Zvi was also admired for his modest style of living, as the wooden hut which was his presidential home attests.
Mayor Teddy Kollek dealt with raising huge sums of money from wealthy donors for projects to enhance Jerusalem. No one could ever suspect him of enhancing his own wealth at the same time.
Prime minister Yitzhak Rabin resigned from office because of his wife’s American bank account which was then illegal, because he understood that one in his office had to be not only honest but totally above suspicion. That is what Judaism demands of leaders, and that is the standard that Israel should set for itself – “ shall be clear before the Lord and before Israel.”
In First Temple days, before people could enter the Temple Mount, they were asked, “Who may ascend the mountain of the Lord? Who may stand in His holy place? One who has clean hands and a pure heart” (Psalms 24:3). Perhaps we should ask the same question of those who would ascend to high office in the State of Israel, which was founded on Jewish values.
The writer is a former president of the International Rabbinical Assembly and a member of its Committee on Jewish Law and Standards. He is a two-time winner of the Jewish Book Award, whose latest book, Akiva: Life, Legend, Legacy (JPS), has recently been published in Hebrew by Yediot Press and the Schechter Institute.