Abramoff, Agriprocessors, Boesky...
I join in the dismay and outrage and embarrassed על חטא- klopping every time a Jew is indicted for improper business practices and immoral activity. Yesterday I heard about another case, and again went through the recriminations.
That said, I must add two caveats from personal experience:
1) The rationalizations for financial impropriety are often very tempting, and
2) Rabbis are sometimes involved in it, without even knowing they are doing anything illicit.
One particular case, from my own experience, comes to mind:
A while back I officiated at a funeral for an unaffiliated family. They made all of their arrangements with a local funeral home, and the funeral director was to pay me for my services.
(Disclaimer: As a general rule I don’t charge for funerals, or other services; people want to do things right, they need a rabbi, so how could I make that difficult for them? Bar Mitzvah training, weddings, funerals, I decline payment. But if people offer payment anyway, then I accept it.)
So the funeral director came to write me a check. He pointed out that this check, in tandem with other checks he might write to me for other funerals during the year, could trigger a 1099 form, so that I would have to pay taxes. Being a nice guy, he asked if he could write the check to my Benevolent Fund, so that I could take the money through the Fund, and avoid having to pay taxes on it.
I’m no tax lawyer, but I believe there is a term for this sort of activity: It’s called money-laundering, sending money from A to B via a third party to avoid paying taxes on it. As I understand the law, it’s just as illegal as claiming a charitable deduction for paying yeshiva tuition.
The offer was tempting:
1) I shouldn’t really have a 1099, since I am not really a contractor of the funeral home. I’m the family’s contractor. The funeral home is only cutting the check because the family gave them the money as a third party. The problem is that the payment is on the funeral director's books, which triggers the 1099.
2) It’s not clear how to classify an honorarium given for funeral services, in the first place.
3) I already pay a ridiculous amount in taxes, because clergy have to pay self-employment tax.
4) I give a lot to help others, financially and otherwise (see a good Orthonomics post on this point, here).
5) And, as, the funeral director took pains to tell me: Everybody does it.
As I said above, the justifications and rationalizations for unethical activity are tempting... but I declined.
My point is not to say, "Torczyner is wonderful." I'm not wonderful; I'm just someone who was raised to be honest.
Rather, my points are these:
1) If we expect our community to act ethically, we - and especially rabbis - had better be ready to act ethically, ourselves; and
2) This applies even to the justifiable cases. In reality, all of them are "justifiable" cases, or at least look like it at the time.
False deductions, funnelling money through a Benevolent Fund, accepting payment in cash, hiring a nanny off the books, these are just as illegal as the crimes committed by Agriprocessors in the scandal du jour.
קשוט עצמך ואחר כך קשוט אחרים, the gemara says, with a sharp play on words: קישוטים are ornaments, but קושטא is truth. Ornament yourself before you ornament others, and make sure you are telling the truth before you insist that others do the same.