Leaving aside religious conviction, local laws, and even secular morality for a moment, consider this question: What would you do if you were homeless and stumbled across a very valuable object that could help you eat and get back on your feet?
A diamond engagement ring was accidently thrown into homeless Billy Ray Harris’ cup but when he saw Sarah Darling again, he made sure to get the ring back to her. Once this good deed hit the headlines, over 7,000 donors have pledged over $150,000 to support Harris. Harris’ response is most telling: “I like it, but I don’t think I deserve it… What has the world come to when a person returns something that doesn’t belong to him, and all this happens?” What Harris considered the obvious right thing to do, and his motivation to carry that out in the face of a lucrative (and probably much-needed) payoff, may not be everyone’s inclination, but it should be.
Jewish law is unequivocal about the obligation to return lost items (Deuteronomy 22). The Torah prohibits ignoring property that clearly was lost and keeping a lost object, and commands returning such an item. Halakhah says that these laws only apply to objects that have a siman (a distinguishing feature that only an owner would be able to identify). A typical $1 bill on a sidewalk, for example, has no distinguishing feature indicating that it has a particular owner. This limitation only applies, of course, if there is no other way to identify who the owner is. The rabbis teach that it is midat hasidut (pious and good) to work to return a lost object even when it has no clear unique feature to it. How does our modern society fare on this subject?
Some data on lost items is encouraging. Worldwide, in 2009 airlines lost 300,000 bags of luggage, more than half during flight transfers. About 97 percent of these bags were eventually returned to their owners, but about 80,000 bags were eventually given away, offered for sale, or destroyed. In another largely encouraging example, in 2012, the ASPCA published the results of a poll of cat and dog owners. Of those reported as lost, 93 percent of dogs and 75 percent of cats were returned to their owners. Of dogs found, only 15 percent were identified by microchip or identification tags and 6 percent were found in shelters, so most were returned by the good will of strangers.
Sadly, there are also many examples of people who were tempted to take what did not belong to them or to hide items that came to them through unethical means. For example, as of October 2012, about 400 TSA employees have been fired for stealing items from airline passenger luggage.
The art world, even in the best of times, is filled with fraud, as many art works have "disappeared" from museums and never reappeared, most likely because an unscrupulous art collector has hidden it away in their private quarters. One of the most notorious examples of modern art theft occurred during the Nazi era, when thousands of art objects were stolen from Jewish citizens and museums throughout Europe. In the succeeding decades, many of these objects were returned to the original owners or their descendants, but progress has been slow. In 1998, the United States joined more than 40 other nations in signing the Washington Principles on Nazi-Confiscated Art, which was supposed to set up principles that would help descendants of former owners recover art objects stolen by the Nazis. However, the Holocaust Art Restitution Project and other organizations have accused many American museums of deliberately being uncooperative or delaying the transfer of these art objects to their rightful owners. If the accusations are true, the museums would be violating the Jewish commandment not to keep a stolen object and not to hide the stolen object in order to retain possession.
While much of the documentation on many objects stolen during Nazi rule is murky, there is no contesting the facts of the most famous case of stolen art. The "Elgin Marbles," statues taken from the Parthenon in Athens by the British ambassador in the early 19th century and still on display at the British Museum in London, have drawn controversy for some time. The Greek government has requested their return for about 30 years, but the British are adamant that the Parthenon statues belong to the world and that they have the best ability to display them, an argument that betrays a continuing colonial attitude. The UNESCO convention in 1970 established rules (mostly voluntary) restricting the ability of one nation to expropriate property from another country without legal authority, but these rules only cover transactions after 1970.
These types of rules, and people regularly and without fanfare carrying them out, are both a mitzvah in the Jewish sense and a norm that builds trust within and across societies. When one has lost something, it can be very disorienting. If a lost item is returned, it rebuilds ones sense of trust in one’s fellow person. Daily, we see inspiring examples of those who go out of their way to return valuables, while we also see depressing examples of people who claim to be refined, yet behave in a deceitful manner to prevent people from recovering lost goods. Jewish law can teach us much in promoting and achieving a just society, and universal morality and shifting social norms will create needed change. Whatever the source, looking out for our fellows and the worldly possessions that contribute to who we are, the integrity that comes with acquiring something honestly, will ensure deeper societal trust making the world a better place to live.
Rabbi Dr. Shmuly Yanklowitz is the Executive Director of the Valley Beit Midrash, the Founder & President of Uri L’Tzedek, the Founder and CEO of The Shamayim V’Aretz Institute and the author of “Jewish Ethics & Social Justice: A Guide for the 21st Century.” Newsweek named Rav Shmuly one of the top 50 rabbis in America.”