Jews and Stealing

The ways we justify theft cannot free us of its corrupting influence.

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Reprinted with permission from A Book of Life (Schocken Books).

"Rabbi Yohanan said: When a person robs his fellow even the value of a perutah [penny], it is as though he had taken his life away from him, as it is said, ‘So are the ways of everyone that is greedy of gain, which takes away the life of the owners thereof’ (Proverbs 1:19)" (Babylonian Talmud, Bava Kamma 119a).

The Torah instructs us not to steal or deal dishonestly (Leviticus 19:35-36). Most people would affirm that not stealing and not cheating are important moral principles and, if asked, would deny engaging in such practices. Yet the tradition realizes that it is not grand theft but the category of petty theft that involves the average person. As Rabbi Yohanan says above, in the eyes of the tradition there is not such thing as petty theft.

                       

The consequences of theft are twofold: one on the victim, and one on the thief. The victim is deprived of something that was hers. The thief is burdened with the knowledge that he has done something wrong. The thief then enters a world (even if only temporarily) of fear of discovery and of corrupting self-justification.

"It’s Only a Penny"

One justification is to say that it is "only" a penny–that is, to posit that what was stolen is not valuable or important to its owner. In truth, we seldom have an accurate idea of a thing’s value or importance to its owner. Related to this justification are the claims that the owner is rich and therefore the item won’t be missed and perhaps that the thief deserves it more.

How often have you heard someone say that it is okay to do x because "they" are a large corporation? Whom does it hurt to use a cable descrambler in order to get pay TV channels for free? This justification misses the point. Whether the one being cheated is an individual or a corporation, as the tradition points out, any theft is wrong.

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Michael Strassfeld is the rabbi of the Society for the Advancement of Judaism, a Reconstructionist synagogue in Manhattan, co-author of The First Jewish Catalog, The Second Jewish Catalog, A Night of Questions: A Passover Haggadah, and author of The Jewish Holidays: A Guide and Commentary.

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