`114 Is your rabbi driving under the influence?
Chananya Weissman
July 27, 2021

Many people believe that rabbis should never be suspected of being corrupted by money, prestige, or other external pressures. They believe that ironclad trust in the integrity of rabbis is praiseworthy, even a religious obligation. Just the opposite is true; such a belief is not only naive, but antithetical to the Torah.

Indeed, the Torah devotes many mitzvos to warning rabbinic judges against bribery, malpractice, bias, and other forms of corruption. After commanding us to appoint judges, the Torah warns that bribery of any kind “will blind the eyes of the wise and corrupt righteous words” (Devarim 16:19). Chazal add that even a great chacham who takes a bribe will not depart the world without blindness of the heart, and even a total tzaddik who takes a bribe will not depart the world without a confused mind (Kesubos 105A).

A judge does not even need to accept a bribe to be corrupted. Even thinking about a potential bribe is enough to incapacitate a rabbi from judging truthfully (Tanhuma 8, Rash on the Parsha).

This is not a hypothetical mitzvah like ben sorer u'moreh. Open up a book of navi to a random page and there is a good chance you will find a prophecy about the corruption of judges in ancient times (or you can just see the first chapter of Yeshaya).

Those who believe it wouldn't happen today are willfully blind or mentally ill. Why wouldn't it happen? What makes them believe the rabbis of today are more pious and impervious to corruption than their predecessors? Those who injected themselves with who-knows-what at the behest of such rabbis have taken a very foolish, un-Torah gamble with their lives, and will have to give an accounting for it in the next world. The rabbis who misled them will not be able to help; they will be judged separately.

How can we know whether or not a rabbi is “driving under the influence”? We cannot always know with certainty, but the Torah warns us that corruption comes with the territory. It is our responsibility to be cautious and look for the warning signs.

Yisro advised Moshe to look for judges who would have the following characteristics: men of valor, God-fearing, men of truth, who hate profit. Yisro did not focus on scholarship and “expertise”, but on character (Shemos 18:21). The former can be acquired, but poor character combined with authority is an incurable cancer.

(Chazal teach us that Yisro included the three characteristics mentioned in Devarim 1:13 – wise, understanding, and known to their tribes – but the Torah emphasized character over intellectual traits. See Chizkuni to Devarim 1:15 and Devarim Rabba 1:7, which he cites.)

The most interesting trait that Yisro mentioned is hating profit. Who in the world hates to profit? We cannot survive without profiting in some way in business or through our labor. There is nothing wrong with turning a profit, or even with becoming wealthy, but a person of character is not obsessed with “increasing his growth”, or “maximizing his profits”. The blessing of Hashem is what makes one wealthy (Mishlei 10:22), not turning the curse of Adam into the purpose of one's life. A person of character wishes he could devote all his time to loftier things, and has no interest in vain indulgences. He recognizes that an opportunity to make money is also a burden, one which may cast him adrift from his true purpose, not enable it.

Such a profit is something he hates.

Such a person is worthy to be a judge.

According to many commentaries, Moshe was unable to find enough men of such sterling character to fill the many courts, and had to settle for the other three traits. Again, if even Moshe was unable to find sufficient men of character and truth, who would not be lured by profits, why would anyone believe the rabbis of today are on a higher level? It is not even wishful thinking; it is recklessly delusional.

If a rabbi is drawn after money, it is almost certain that he will drive under the influence sooner or later. I'm not talking about rabbis who live a flamboyant lifestyle – they are a disgrace in any case – but about rabbis who have an appetite for profit.

Nowadays becoming a rabbi is not so much a calling as a profession. Kiruv is an industry. Positions in smaller communities are viewed as stepping stones to land more prestigious and prosperous opportunities. For most rabbis, Torah is a career; a crown to boost one's ego and a spade with which to dig (against Avos 4:5). Such people are beholden to their materialistic aspirations. They know that one misstep can derail their career, and they will always play it safe. The more Torah they know, the better they will be able to cover for it.

In better times our sages were generally independent, creating natural separation between their finances and their expressed opinions on Torah matters. This separation gradually eroded, to the extent that most rabbis today are up to their noses in conflicts of interest. Those who maintain their objectivity in spite of that are superhuman, not the norm.

Indeed, this is why so few rabbis will say a provocative word about perverse “lifestyles”, the murder of unborn children, fighting our enemies, or anything else that might disturb the establishment. They are beholden to the establishment! In many cases they are salaried employees of the establishment. If they do not receive a paycheck directly from the government, their institution depends on the government, not to mention wealthy patrons who own the buildings and all those who preside within. Rabbis in prestigious positions are expendable and easily replaced, and they know it every second of every day.

In the times of Chazal this dynamic was unacceptable for any rabbi who wished to be taken seriously. A rabbi is forbidden to take money for judging or performing most other religious functions. Chazal instituted a special dispensation for judges to receive payment for their time, and only in such a manner that it will have no bearing on their objectivity (see Bechoros 29A).

In those days the people lived under a feudal system, and the king would appoint tax collectors to oversee various regions. The tax collector was granted autonomy in how he divided the regional tax burden among the individual citizens. Naturally, they showed favoritism to their inner circle, often absolving them of taxes entirely, and placed a heavy burden on those who crossed them, with the force of the government behind them.

Tax collectors were legalized gangsters who abused their positions, and Chazal viewed them accordingly. A Jew who became a tax collector was no longer regarded as a chaver; essentially, those who were scrupulous about halacha would stay away from him.

The great rabbis needed Rav Huna bar Chiya to clarify halachos for them, and sent Rabba, Rav Yosef, and eight hundred rabbinic emissaries to meet with him. Upon learning that Rav Huna had become a tax collector, they sent him the following message: “Go to your prestige, go to your former status.” As Rashi explains, “Let him go to the prestige that he chose for himself as a tax collector; we will not go to him.”

Rav Huna immediately sent them word that he resigned the position. Rav Yosef still refused to meet with him, but Rabba accepted Rav Huna back into the rabbinic society, in accordance with a later, more magnanimous ruling (Bechoros 31A).

We see that Chazal had zero tolerance for people who strayed after prestige and inappropriate ties with the government. Even if it was the greatest sage, whose wisdom they depended upon, he would be banished from the Talmudic discourse and his rulings rendered moot. One way or another they would get along without him. Torah must be pure.

Chazal epitomized the integrity that we lack in our times. Here are just two of countless examples.

When the Jews made aliya in the times of Ezra, the Leviim did not join him. Ezra penalized them by instituting that maaser rishon would be given to the Kohanim instead of the Leviim. Centuries later, the sages wanted to gather a large enough group of rabbis to abolish this takana and return maaser rishon to the Leviim. They sought out the great Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi, whose opinion would surely sway people, assuming he would support the initiative because he was a Levi and stood to gain from it.

Of course, he ruled the other way and upheld the takana (Maaser Sheni 31A).

Akavia ben Mahalalel was known for outstanding wisdom and fear of sin. He ruled in four areas against the consensus of the other sages and stuck to his guns even after the halacha was established. His colleagues urged him to retract his opinion, for the sake of unity, after which they would make him the head judge.

Akavia replied: “Better for me to be called a fool all my days, rather than be wicked before God for an hour. They should not say that he retracted for the sake of a position of authority.” (See Ediyos 5:6.)

Woe to our society, in which most people would rather be wicked before God all their days than be called a name. Woe to our society, in which rabbis look the other way or say what is expected of them to keep their positions.

Indeed, if they look the other way in small matters, they will look the other way in big matters (Vayikra 20:4, Rashi from Toras Kohanim). This is Torah, and one who does not believe this does not believe the Torah.

Chazal foretold that in the days before Moshiach comes, the gathering place of sages will turn into a whorehouse (last Mishna of Sotah). These provocative words are theirs, not mine, and one who has a problem with them does not follow Chazal.

The vast majority of rabbis today are deeply under the influence of money, prestige, and ties to the establishment. Their ability to rule objectively has been hopelessly corrupted, and no amount of scholarship can compensate for this. On the contrary, the greater the scholarship, the greater their ability to fool themselves and others.

We are a generation of orphans, lacking gedolim we can trust in dark and confusing times. We have no choice but to take greater responsibility for our welfare than we might believe we are capable of, and turn to Hashem for clarity.

At the same time, we must take a critical look at our entire educational system and rabbinic establishment. We cannot wait for Moshiach to do all the work. If our society is churning out rabbis who behave like whores, who sell out the truth for profit and prestige, then we bear responsibility for changing this system from the ground up.

The first step is accepting the uncomfortable truth.

The second step is valuing integrity over “expertise”. Many people who favored the latter and got injected with who-knows-what have jeopardized everything with this mistake. May God clear their minds and save them.

The third step is stripping all the corrupt rabbis from their positions and prestige.

The fourth step is returning to the ways of old. We must establish a system in which rabbis can drive under the influence only of the Torah and their conscience.

We can do this. And we must.