January 10, 2008
The Spinka money trail—and the informant who brought them down
(Page 3 - Previous Page)In the last decade or so, a number of Chasidic institutions on the East Coast have been charged with such crimes, including the 1997 case against the Skverer Hasidim in Rockland County, N.Y., where four men were found guilty of defrauding the government of millions of dollars in federal Pell Grants. But in the Orthodox community, many defended them, despite the crime, because the money was used to support needy yeshiva students.
"Nobody here owns a yacht," a resident reportedly said, and the feeling then -- as with many such institutional fraud cases -- that if the money is used to help the community and not line someone's pockets, it's not so bad.
That, in fact, is a pervasive attitude these days in Brooklyn, where the Spinka case raised fewer eyebrows than in Los Angeles, because the attitude is everyone does something. This kind of discussion has been a hot topic on many Internet blogs that discuss the ultra-Orthodox community.
"The government are thieves, what gives them the right to take 40 percent to 50 percent of someone's income? Anyone who can save yiddishe gelt from going down that toilet is doing a mitzvah," one contributor wrote on the Vosizneias (Yiddish for "What Is News?") blog.
The blog comments, though, seem to be about evenly divided between two camps: On one hand are those castigating the government or the bloggers posting the news for spreading gossip; on the other are those demanding that the community finally put a stop to criminal behavior.
One particularly poignant plea came from New York white-collar defense attorney Joel Cohen, in an essay published in 2006 titled, "Jewish Felons: The Problem of Criminality in Observant Communities." Cohen described witnessing a disturbing rise in crime among Orthodox and Chasidic Jews.
"The problem in the observant community, however, is not merely occasional, nor does it often make headlines. Daily, in metropolises around the country, yarmulka-wearing criminal defendants appear before the bar of justice," he wrote.
Some prisons -- especially in New York, Los Angeles and Miami -- have daily minyans, visiting rabbis, kosher food, classes and Shabbat meals, Cohen wrote. "The most common charge is fraud: against businessmen and run-of-the-mill citizens alike, most frequently involving victims outside of the Jewish community, against the government, against insurance carriers, against banking institutions, health care fraud, money-laundering and stock-swindling."
Cohen pleads with his fellow Orthodox Jews to denounce the criminal activity:
"Only with the open denouncement of wrongdoing from within the particular observant community can the community hope to demonstrate and protect the Torah's commitment to honesty in one's interpersonal dealings as being at least equal to, if not greater than, its commitment to technical observance of mitzvoth," he wrote
DON'T BLAME THE MESSENGER
But the most talked-about aspect of the case -- both among bloggers and at Shabbat tables on both coasts -- has been the involvement of Kasirer. From the start, most here guessed accurately who he was -- an informant who turned state's evidence to save his own skin -- but what they wanted to know was what was he? Was he a moser -- an informer, who, according to traditional Jewish law, must be killed for turning against a Jew and is denied access to "the world to come."
The Talmud forbids a Jew to inform on another Jew to a secular government, even if that Jew violated both secular and Jewish law.
Today, among poskim -- Orthodox rabbinic deciders -- there is a debate over whether a Jew may turn in another Jew in a democratic state. Some rabbis say that laws of moser do not hold in the United States because they were established to protect Jews from corrupt and anti-Semitic governments that would likely torture and give Jews worse treatment than other prisoners than merited by Jewish law.
This is not the case today in a democracy, they say. "These rules apply only to one who informs on another to bandits and so endangers that person's money and life, as these bandits chase after a person's body and money, and thus one may use deadly force to save oneself," it is written in the Aruch Hashulchan, ("Laying the Table," a book about Jewish law written in the late 19th century).
But many insist that the laws of moser do apply today, and that it is forbidden by Jewish law for one Jew to inform on another to any secular government.
Rabbi Ezra Batzri in "Dinnai Mamonut" ("Laws of Money") says informing is prohibited. "All rules of informing are applicable even currently .... Even if they bring all matter to court, it is clear that, through interrogation and the police, government can destroy people, and in many places they do, in fact, destroy people."
Some rabbis say you cannot be a moser, even in America, except when the person doing the questionable act may be a danger to others -- a child molester, a rapist, a murderer. In those cases, it would be "permitted" to inform the authorities, writes Rabbi Hershel Schacther, a top posek. Which means that in the case of financial wrongdoings, a Jew is not allowed to inform on another Jew.
When the Spinka case broke, the Rabbinical Council of California (RCC) discussed the informant issue, RCC President Rabbi Meyer May said. But the council decided to let other halachic authorities deal with the question.
"There is no way to explain how perfidious what RK did is. He violated the spirit of Jewish law," May said. "Having said that, it doesn't justify what was done on the other side [by the defendants]."