Ask the Rabbi: Is bribery ever allowed?

The Bible itself recognized that ridding of corruption is central to our entitlement to live in the land.

Olmert corruption trial (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM/THE JERUSALEM POST)
Olmert corruption trial
The recent wave of arrests and convictions in bribery cases here has placed a stain on Israeli politics. As President Reuven Rivlin noted, these events not only lead to distorted decisions in specific cases, but also weaken trust in the entire political system.
This fear has been expressed in many Western democracies. Fordham University law professor Zephyr Teachout documented that a major theme at the American Constitutional Convention was the threat of corruption. George Mason warned, “If we do not provide against corruption, our government will soon be at an end.”
Indeed, the Bible itself recognized that ridding of corruption as central to our entitlement to live in the land. “You shall not judge unfairly, you shall show no partiality, you shall not take bribes, for bribes blind the eyes of the discerning and upset the plea of justice. Justice, justice, shall you pursue, that you may thrive and occupy the land that the Lord your God is giving you” (Deuteronomy 16:19-20).
The prohibition was further reinforced in the national adjurations taken on the banks of the Jordan River. “Cursed be he who accepts a bribe to slay an innocent person” (27:25).
While the Bible refers to judges, Jewish law has regularly applied the same prohibitions to all public officials. As the philosopher Stuart Green argued, corruption not only perverts justice, it also betrays the entire governmental system, which can be violated by all public servants. These prohibitions, moreover, apply not only to the bribee but also the briber, who violates the commandment of aiding and abetting (“lifnei iver”) in this disloyalty.
Significantly, Jewish law recognizes that bribes do not require money. The Talmud discusses cases of judges recusing themselves after a litigant performed simple favors for them, such as extending them a hand to cross a bridge.
Some claimed this was supererogatory behavior to avoid appearances of impropriety.
Yet Maimonides asserted that these recusals were mandated by law, especially when intended (even unsuccessfully) to bias judgment – because the judge might (consciously or otherwise) look more favorably on that litigant, or because it would lead to more egregious corruption.
Jewish law also prohibits taking bribes even “to do the right thing,” i.e. to act in the best interests of the public or to find in favor of the deserving parties. Similarly, a public official cannot take money even in cases when a range of choices are available and appear equally advantageous to his constituents. These rules are particularly significant because public officials may errantly believe this is morally acceptable – since they are not necessarily perverting justice. Nonetheless, Jewish law recognizes that such money will pervert the official’s sense of judgment, and furthermore will harm broader trust in the legal system.
The Talmud further asserts that judges may not even accept money from both litigants. Commentators explain that this might cause the official to pervert justice by trying to create a compromise to please all sides, or because all bribery may not be accepted, even when inherently ineffective. Rabbi Haim David Azulay further contended that a litigant may not give a bribe even when he believes his opponent will offer one to the official.
Accordingly, judges may not be paid directly by the litigants. Instead, the community should affix remuneration, preferably paid in advance, so that the judges do not feel beholden to anyone for their salary payments. Alternatively, they may be paid equally by both sides for their time lost (sechar batala) if the payments are universally regulated.
To avoid the inevitable temptations that face public officials, some talmudic sages further suggested that judicial qualifications should include personal wealth.
Most importantly, it was deemed essential that judges maintain the knowledge and piety to adjudicate fairly and without prejudice.
The seven Noachide Laws mandate that gentiles maintain a judicial system. Consequently, gentile officials may not receive bribes and Jews cannot offer them to distort justice, either directly or through middlemen. Many decisors aver this is the case even when both sides offer money and the judge intends to adjudicate fairly.
One possible exception includes cases where the judge is biased against a Jew because of anti-Semitism, and the latter seeks to restore fair adjudication.
However, as Rabbi Avraham Steinfeld has noted, a Jew must remain wary of that assessment, especially when such gifts are against local law and may cause a desecration of God’s reputation (hillul Hashem).
Despite these lofty ideals, Jewish communities have occasionally suffered from corruption problems.
As historian Gedaliah Alon found, this was the case after the Temple’s destruction, with many talmudic sages bemoaning the appointment of unqualified judges. Similarly, in Eastern Europe, many rabbinic posts were purchased by those who were unqualified to serve, or at least less qualified than others.
This led to a 16th-century proclamation against such appointments, which was clearly not fully effective since the practice continued to be condemned well into the 19th century. Rabbi Moshe Sofer asserted that in corrupt rabbinic elections, the vote must be repeated, with the winning rabbi disqualified if he knew of the plot to elect him.
These cases remind us of the terrible threat to bribery and corruption in the most pristine of offices. With the election next week, it behooves us to take into consideration which parties have acted to preserve civic integrity and root out corruption from our political system.
The writer directs the Tikvah Overseas Seminars, teaches at Yeshivat Hakotel and is a junior research fellow at the Israel Democracy Institute. His anthology of columns, A Guide to the Complex: Contemporary Halachic Debates (Maggid), received a 2014 National Jewish Book Award.