Is Gezel Akum (stealing from idolators) permitted?

In response to the recent federal indictment of some dozen haredi denizens of Lakewood, NJ over defrauding the federal government, a tiff broke out between two prominent figures in Orthodoxy over whether such stealing is halakhically forbidden.

The exchange was initated by R. Ysoscor Katz, an immensely learned Rabbi who grew up haredi but is now classified as “liberal Orthodox”, or “open Orthodox” (“OO” –for those who regard “liberal” as a bad word). A defining tenet of Open Orthodoxy is that halokho is not static; that as mainstream society and culture evolve, halokho allows, and even calls for, updating certain aspects of it, such that its prescriptions are aligned with prevailing modes of living.

On the question of stealing from a gentile, Katz originally asserted in a column on Times of Israel that the Lakewood indictment is a manifestation of a lingering sense within the haredi sector that stealing from a gentile is “technically permitted” (as R. Katz later clarified) even if frowned upon by the rabbis. This sense, which conflicts with one’s intuitive sense of morality, is a result of a shortcoming inherent in Haredi Judaism: by dismissing out of hand any and all modification to the halakhic code, the sector is also unable to update and apply its sense of morality, thus allowing it to countenance such a glaring misdeed. By contrast, argues Katz, liberal Orthodoxy allows a Rabbi to confidently pronounce an act such as gezel akum as emphatically forbidden; but that also opens a can of worms by allowing one to wonder: what else in the halokho can be changed over time?

R. Avrohom Edelstein is a leading haredi outreach specialist. He grew up frei in South Africa and has subsequently not only adopted a haredi worldview but emerged as a preeminent leader and expert in the “field” of bringing estranged Jews near to (a.k.a. “be mekarev”) their heritage. R. Edelstein was incensed by Katz’s column. Though he doesn’t expressly state the reason for his outsize ire, it is apparent that he sees such a pronouncement as a hilul hashem (a profanation of God’s name) and a liability to the kiruv movement. After all, who would want to join the ranks of a sanctimonious community that purports to be morally superior to mainstream America, and yet inexplicably (and hypocritically) allows stealing from non-Jews.

R. Edelstein repudiates Katz both in fact and in law. It is not commonplace, he says, for haredi Jews to consider gezel akum permitted, nor to follow through on this and steal from goyyim. It was only 14 alleged cases in a sector of nearly half a million. No sociologist would generalize from such a sample. Halakhically, too, it is not true that gezel akum is “technically” allowed. Rambam, Shulhon Orukh, and most Rishonim and Aharonim consider it forbidden, some of them attributing it to the Toroh (mideoraisoh).

Who is Right?

It seems that R. Edelstein’s emotions on this subject got the best of him. He is patently wrong on both counts. Official statistics pale in relevance in the face of knowledge of and experience with a Lakewood-type haredi community (which Katz has but Edelstein doesn’t). Just because more people are not being indicted is, logically and anecdotally, not proof that theft from gentiles isn’t more prevalent than fourteen cases out of a half million.

There is incontrovertibly a clear distinction in Judaic literature going back millennia between stealing and cheating from a Jew on the one hand, and stealing and cheating from an alien on the other. The former is categorically forbidden according to the Torah: Thous shalt not defraud thy neighbor, neither rob him (Leviticus 19:13), whereas the latter is hotly debated and qualified by rabbinic scholars “between the walls of the besmedraosh” up to this very day. Whereas it is true that halokho (as expressed in the shulhon orukh) forbids it, the question remains whether it is biblical or Rabbinic; furthermore, if it is rabbinic, so as not to cause a profanation of God’s name, then under what circumstances would it be permitted when there is little to no fear of the act’s becoming public thus constituting a hilul hashem.

Yerushalmi on stealing from an alien

The most telling clue to this question is a Yerushalmi (Bovo Kamoh 4:3) that relates a story of how the Roman government dispatched officials to learn Toroh from R. Gamaliel. After a comprehensive Toroh course they said to him “Your entire Toroh is pleasant and praiseworthy, except these two things that you say…: that all stealing from an Israelite is forbidden and from an alien is permitted”. The Talmud concludes that at that time R. Gamaliel decreed that “stealing from an alien shall be forbidden due to profanation of God’s name”.

This Yerushalmi is important because it demonstrates that R. Gamaliel, the leading Rabbi of his time and an indispensable link in the Judaic tradition, a) did not consider alien stealing forbidden by the Torah; and b) he only forbade it thenceforth and only so that gentiles not condemn Judaism for its discriminatory attitude.

In the Bavli it is the subject of dispute between tanoim. One holds that it is permitted by the Toroh since the aforementioned verse reads “thy neighbor”, i.e. a fellow Israelite, implying that there is no prohibition against stealing from a non-Israelite. Another points to the biblical law of Jewish slave redemption that states that the redeemer shall pay a price to the gentile to redeem the Jewish slave as proof that simply walking off with the slave without paying, a.k.a. stealing/robbing the gentile, is forbidden.

Nevertheless, Rashi assumes that even the tanoh that forbids it does so not “by the Toroh”, but “by the Rabbis so as not cause a hilul hashem”:

It seems that Rashi considered the tanoic adduction of the Jewish slave redemption law as an asmakhtoh (a mere “leaning” on a Biblical verse to justify a decree that is Rabbinic in origin).

In diametric opposite to the Ashkenazi Rashi, the Arabic Maimonides does not brook any such discrimination, even according to the Toroh:

Maimonides ignores the “neighbor” component of the prohibition against fraud and stealing. He apparently interprets it either as an expression merely of whom an Israelite is most easily and likely to defraud, or as meaning, roughly, “someone in society” whether that “neighbor” be an Israelite or a gentile.

But the logical Maimonides may have been somewhat prejudiced in this. He was, akin to R. Gamaliel, well integrated in gentile society, living as he did in the Arabic Golden Age and being highly regarded by both Jew and gentile a like. He functioned as a court physician at the Egyptian sultan for some time. Maimonides, in his logic, could not see how a righteous and true Toroh could possibly distinguish on such a basic and universal moral question as that of appropriating someone else’s property against his will.

Another question, almost never brought up by any of the rishonim or aharonim, is that of “who is an alien”. In some of the passages in the Talmud on this, it is from a “kuti” (a 6th century offshoot of Judaism) that stealing is permitted. This would imply that from outright gentiles it would be permitted even more so. In other places the term “akum” is used, implying that it is only permitted, if at all, from an idolater, thus prima facie excluding modern-day Christians from this category. Finally, there is the Yerushalmi mentioned above that uses the term “alien” which is most nebulous of all. (While no fellow observant Jew could plausibly be considered an alien, the epithet could be ascribed to non-observant Jews and beyond, or it could be considered a euphemism for idolater.

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2 Responses to Is Gezel Akum (stealing from idolators) permitted?

  1. Berl Baalachov says:

    Aliens exist? I thoghy it’s from the movies only…

  2. Mordechai says:

    I am wondering about the extent of the author’s Jewish education. While he is clearly somewhat knowledgable, his piece is also lacking some very important information, and is therefore wanting and not reliable. I don’t believe he was ordained. So therefore his writings should be viewed as those of an outsider, a layman, often lacking in vital detail.

    For example,R. Menachem Hameiri, one of the greatest Rishonim, early authorities, has stated that the civilized nations we live among now are not considered the same as the evil idolators of the ancient world. And other great Rabbis have followed along those lines.

    Re Katz vs. Edelstein, they are coming from different places. Katz grew up in a Hungarian Hasidic type milieu, while Edelstein is coming from a Litvish/non-Hasidic place. There are significant differences between those two groups-segments and they should not be lumped together/conflated under the label of Haredim in discussions such as this.

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