Why would members of a faith community, in this case haredim, ultra-Orthodox Jews, resort to crime? In posing this question, I understand the number of criminals in the haredi world is less than the number of non-criminals. But I also realize that many prominent haredim – from Igud HaRabbonim’s Gershon Tannenbaum to Chabad’s Aaron Rubashkin and family and Shaya Boymelgreen – are directly involved in actions that may be criminal or illegal or have already been judged so. I also note that the short list above can easily be expanded, and that none of these men have lost status in their communities because of these actions and, in fact, may have gained status because of them.
Further, the culture of fraud – I think here of certain pay phone scams of the 1980s and ’90s, a Rockport shoe scam, phone card scams, asimonim scams in Israel during the 1990s, welfare fraud, hot school lunch scams, etc. ad nauseum – appears to run both deep and wide, encompassing community leaders and yeshiva kids alike.
Three common answers are given:
- Cheating the Soviet government was often the only way to survive. I major non-hasidic rabbi (I can’t remember who, if you do, please tell us) feared that communism would hurt Jews because it replaced (at least in theory) traditional tzedaka (charitable giving by individuals) with total state for the poor. He feared Jews living under the communists would forget how to be generous and compassionate. While that happened to a degree, the failed Soviet system actually bred a generation of petty criminals, used to stealing from the state in order to survive. They and their children still steal, this line of reasoning goes, even though the need to steal to survive has long past.
- Economics. The Haredi world is like an inverted pyramid, with several very wealthy men and government programs supporting the masses of haredim incapable of earning enough money to support their large families. Especially burdensome is the cost of tuition, which for large families can easily run into the $75,000 range annually. The pressure to support these schools and related communal institutions is enormous, and the temptations to steal to do so are strong.
- Chosenness. You know the line. The world is blessed through us, all who bless us are blessed, curse us are cursed. Taking this line of reasoning to an extreme, stealing from the government or an insurance company isn’t really theft because it actually brings blessings down on the government and helps it because it has "helped" us.
Of these factors, I think the second, economics, is the driving force behind most large-scale haredi crime. Life under communism certainly accounts for its share, too, along with much of the small time haredi crime, while chosenness is simply a rationalization. (Which of these accounts for stealing from employees and unions, I just do not know.)
It follows that changing the haredi economic situation will over time drastically reduce haredi crime. But to do this, haredim need to have a meaningful secular education and yeshiva costs must be brought down. The second can be accomplished by combining yeshivot and eliminating the duplication and extra expended resources that duplication entails. The first takes rabbinic leadership and will.
If rabbis find within themselves such leadership and the will to execute based on it, if they work diligently to ensure the negative effects of life under Soviet rule are erased and the idea of chosenness is not misused, haredim and white collar crime will no longer be synonymous.
This means haredi institutions and rabbinic leadership must separate themselves from the likes of Aaron Rubashkin and family (and. it now seems, Shaya Boymelgreen as well), and must spit out from their midst rabbis like Gershon Tannenbaum and Moshe Rubashkin.
The key to this is rabbinic will. Haredi leaders have lacked this will for at least twenty years, since the passing of Rabbi Moshe Feinstein. Without that will, change will only come from the outside, through Justice Department investigations police proceedings.
Either way, change will come. How it will come is up to the haredim themselves.