Friday, April 16, 2010

Taking Bribes

In the wake of recent allegations of accepting bribes against prominent Israeli politicians, including in particular a representative of the Ultra-Orthodox community, I've seen anonymous commenters across the web justify this alleged behavior as acceptable. Let us set aside the people involved and, for our purposes, make no assumption of guilt and discuss the issue itself. Is it acceptable for a public official to accept bribes?

There is a fascinating responsum of the Chavos Yair (no. 136) in which the author relates a discussion between his brother-in-law, the rabbi of Mannheim, and a Christian government official named Carl Ludwig. The two often shmoozed on intellectual matters and, within this collegial framework, Carl Ludwig asked him why so many religious Jews would attempt to bribe him when he sat as a judge. The responsum consists of possible rationales people might offer to justify bribing a judge.

For example, if one litigant bribed the judge, the other litigant might feel a need to bribe the judge also in order to balance the scales. Or if the judge is inherently biased in favor of one litigant, perhaps for reasons of racial or religious discrimination, the other litigant might want to bribe the judge in order to make things more fair. It is hard to say that there is no time and place where bribery is appropriate. Consider a corrupt regime like Soviet Russia: was it really forbidden to bribe a judge or government official? Failing to do so was often equivalent to accepting a prison sentence or worse.

An important point the Chavos Yair raised is that the language used in the Torah regarding bribe is somewhat surprising -- "Do not take a bribe" (Ex. 23:8). Shouldn't it say that you may not offer a bribe? Rather, says the Chavos Yair, the primary prohibition falls on the judge. There are reasons why one is not allowed to give a bribe -- causing someone to stumble, perverting justice -- but the primary injunction is on the recipient. The reason, give our above discussion, seems understandable. There are times and places where one might feel compelled to offer a bribe but no judge is ever obligated to accept one.

The parameters of bribery are discussed in an excellent article, "Nesinas Shochad Le-Oved Tzibbur" in Techumin 5 (1984) by R. Avraham Tzvi Sheinfeld: link. However, it is important to note that the prohibition does not apply just to judges. The Birkei Yosef (Choshen Mishpat 9:10) and Arukh Ha-Shulkhan (Choshen Mishpat 9) rule that bribery is forbidden to any public official.

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