Bribery, Popularity and Integrity

  • Rav Yitzchak Blau
The Israel Koschitzky Virtual Beit Midrash

Understanding Aggada
Yeshivat Har Etzion

Shiur #17b: Bribery, Popularity and Integrity

By Rav Yitzchak Blau

Rava said: "What is the reason for [the prohibition against] a bribe? Once a judge accepts a bribe from another, he feels close to that person as if he himself was the litigant and he will not find himself guilty."

R. Papa said: "A person should not serve as a judge for his friends or for his enemies because he will not see wrong in his friends or merit in his enemies."

Abbaye said: "If a rabbinic scholar is beloved by all the people in his town, it is not because of his great qualities but because he does not rebuke them in matters of heaven."

Rava said: "Initially, I used to say that all the residents of Mehoza like me. After I became a judge, I said that some of them hate me and some like me. Once I realized that a person declared liable today wins tomorrow, I said that if they like me, all of them like me; and if they hate me, all of them hate me. (Ketubot 105b)

The first part of this gemara appears quite straightforward. Bribery corrupts those in authority and ruins the possibility of just decision making. The novel ideas in the gemara above emerge from a careful analysis of the statements of Abbaye and Rava. Abbaye reminds us that popularity cannot be the barometer of rabbinic success. Without denying that, all things being equal, it is a good thing when rabbis are liked, too much focus on popularity distorts one’s educational vision. A congregational Rabbi might achieve popularity by never challenging the congregation. Such a Rabbi might win by an overwhelming majority every time renewing his contract comes to a vote but he fails miserably when it comes to raising the level of his community's learning, davening, kindness, and religious observance. The high school educator faces a similar challenge. He or she can attempt to achieve easy popularity by telling inappropriate jokes, needlessly criticizing the school administration, or giving in to every whim of the students. Countering this behavior means not judging the educational efforts of a teacher solely by a vote of student popularity.

The fact that this idea appears in the middle of a discussion about bribery gives it added poignancy. In the case of a normal bribe, the person giving the bribe explicitly offers financial rewards in exchange for a favor. In the case that Abbaye speaks of, a Rabbi essentially offers to give his congregants a free pass in exchange for the bribe of popularity. The fact that no money changes hands and that the deal is never explicitly articulated does not alter the parallel to bribery. Thus, the broader Talmudic context hammers home the problematic nature of this activity.

Rava adds a different insight. He initially thought that all the townspeople who had won cases before his bench would like him and all those that had lost would dislike him. He soon realized that likes and dislikes based on such matters quickly change with the vicissitudes of time. Perhaps Rava instructs us that the Rabbi criticized by Abbaye on moral and religious grounds is making a mistake from a practical perspective as well. It is impossible for anyone in authority to keep everybody happy all the time. Decisions between rival factions and competing visions need to be made and it is not feasible to find a compromise in every situation. Those who love your decision one day will hate it the next. Thus, the attempt to always make everybody happy by giving them what they want is futile by definition. On an institutional level, the attempt to make everybody happy usually means that the institution will lack a coherent overarching vision. Therefore, the constant search for popularity ultimately results in personal and professional failure.

Rava's final statement envisions the possibilities of universal popularity or unpopularity. It could be that the path of greater integrity may sometimes actually lead to the admiration of the community. Even the less than stellar congregants may develop a grudging respect for a Rabbi with courage and conviction. Of course, courage and conviction can lead to the boos of the crowd as well. Abbaye reminds us that popularity remains the wrong criteria of success and Rava instructs us that universal popularity is simply not to be achieved.