General Topics

Do Steal


You want to know why religion in Europe is up the spout? It is called moral relativism. In other words, no standards. A nice English priest, Father Tim Jones of York, has shot to fame or shame by suggesting that the poor should go and shoplift over this holiday season.

Such a genuine and sincere chappie he seems. I’m sure he is a great pastoral comfort to his flock. All Christian charity and goodwill and here he is telling people to break the Ten Commandments. He does qualify it. Only go for the big stores, he says, not the small Mom and Pop ones. Steal, he says, but only from the big guys. As if shoplifters are going to stand outside, calculators in hand, read the balance sheets and then make informed economic judgments. As if shoplifters are going to work out the differences between the threshold of need and desire and decide that stealing basic foodstuffs is fine but electronic gadgets are not.

Of course he is right that our material societies are morally corrupt in many ways. Most people are self-centered, selfish consumers who may occasionally drop a penny or two into the poor box or the collection plate. The fact is most human beings walk by poverty and ignore it. That is human nature, if you will. But now how do we deal with it? Do we suspend all moral laws? It is OK to steal under certain circumstances? No, it is never OK to steal (except to save a person’s life). And even stealing from thieves is not acceptable either. Would he say it is fine to beat your wife if you are really feeling very, very depressed and hungry and it makes you feel better? Of course not.

So what is the issue here?

According to the Talmud, a judge always has to follow the law. If someone is guilty of a crime, however small, he is guilty. Motive may differentiate between crimes (e.g., manslaughter as opposed to murder). It may be taken into consideration when deciding on a penalty. But a crime is a crime is a crime. For human society to function effectively, the rule of law is absolute. “On three things the world depends [in order to function effectively]”, said Rabban Shimon Ben Gamliel in Mishnah Avot, “Truth, Justice and Peace.” And what differentiated Jewish law from Hammurabi and other early legal systems was that in civil matters every citizen has to be equal in the eyes of the law.

This classical Talmudic value lies in the narrative of a judge faced with a thief who had stolen to feed his starving family and must, as a judge, find him guilty. In exactly the same way that he may not give preference to a rich man because of his status, so he may not to a poor one. But then as a human being he has a religious and moral obligation to help feed the thief’s family! It is this second part of the equation that is missing in many sectors of modern life, and one of the reasons is the European model of the Welfare State. So much money is taken from ordinary citizens by the state that supposedly has taken on the responsibility of feeding the poor and caring for the deprived that the ordinary citizen wonders why the heck he should give up from what is leftover to do what he paid the state to do (amongst other things of course). The result is that the average citizen in socialist countries gives pennies each year to charity.

So our poor priest ought to be preaching charity and good works. He ought to open his church and offer shelter and ask his congregants to give food or money to feed the starving, as indeed many churches do. But apparently he knows that all he will get in North England (as opposed to the USA) is bubkas. Average citizens are fed up with hundreds of thousands of scroungers from all over the place, home and abroad, citizens and aliens, of various religious persuasions that all proclaim the benefits of charity but are far better at taking than giving. So he or she closes up instead of opening up. Churches, mosques, and synagogues do indeed usually try their best, but most citizens don’t go there.

Why are we Jews so much better on average at giving? Because we know we have to take care of our own. And we despise dependency (or at least we used to until welfare made it easy and legal). As Hillel said (Talmud Shabbat 118a), “Make your Shabbat no better than an ordinary week day rather than depend on others for handouts.” Every morning we say in our prayers, “These are the things that have no limit…being kind to other human beings”, “These are the things that give you reward in this world and in the next, materially and spiritually: respecting your parents, kindness to others,” etc. And every time we say Grace after Meals, we say, “Help us not be dependent on the gifts of other human beings,” and we repeat all this, day by day throughout our lives and somewhere down the line it sinks in.

Our whole religious culture is suffused with charity and giving, financially or otherwise. So it is with many other religions too. But theory is never enough unless it is rooted in daily required practice. And nowhere do our spiritual leaders ever tell us, “Be good, but if you can’t then it’s ok to steal.”

28 thoughts on “Do Steal

  1. A wonderful blog, Jeremy, and a perfect statement of an important Jewish ethic. Shabbat shalom.

  2. I suppose you don't approve of supermarket security staff turning a blind eye to mothers pocketing lumps of cheddar?

    I can't imagine you're really so harsh that you wouldn't allow a degree of moral relativism, when actually faced with the cheese going into the pocket, and the three wailing children, maybe even a miserable dog. Would you really put the law before this Dickensian picture of woe?

  3. Morally Relative:
    Are supermarket staff turning blind eyes saying it is not wrong to steal? Or are they admitting it is but choosing not prosecute? And I assume we are not talking about free samples. Unless of course it is public supermarket policy to write off a certain percentage of what they amusingly call 'shrinkage' to charity. Still the person taking without permission is still stealing just as someone driving at 40.001 MPH is speeding. One might well take extenuating circumstances into consideration when deciding whether to prosecute. But that is not moral relativism, it is human sensitivity and generosity.

  4. Jeremy

    I don't know if we're talking about semantics or ethics. Your "human sensitivity and generosity" looks to me like my moral relativism .

    I can't account for the thinking of supermarket security staff. They exercise a certain amount of discretion which seems to me to be how normally decent people behave. Cheese is stolen more often than porridge oats because it fits into a pocket more easily and costs more.

    The distinction between stealing out of need and stealing out of greed is not legally recognised but there is no logical reason why it shouldn't be. The law functions quite differently when it deals with the taxation of your income and how it treats multinationals. We do not say 'tax is tax, it must be applied equally or else it stops being tax'. If we give business tax breaks (and we certainly do) in the interests of the wider economy, then why can't we also legislate for other aspects of society?

  5. I'm delighted you are persevering in trying to put me right.
    But I base my position on traditional Jewish values. We draw a distinction between MISHPAT Justice, which indeed must be blind in the traditional Western view ( hence blind folded lady on top of the Old Bailey ) and TSEDEK Righteousness which has the same root as CHARITY TSEDAKA.

    Both are necessary but have different functions and we are expected to take both on board in their separate roles. Relativism usually involves watering one down or compromising. We adopt both in their strictnesses and individualities.


  6. Jeremy, I don't understand. I have always learned that there is a halachic principle that one not only may but is required to violate any law (other than the prohibitions on idolatry, murder, or adultery) in order to preserve life. If someone's health is actually at risk, and if, as you suggest is the case, society does not provide adequate help through charity, wouldn't stealing cheese in such a case be an example of just that?

  7. Jeremy and ss, thank you both, all v educational, not to mention also entertaining.

    We seem to have moved from the vicar who didn't object to people breaking English law by stealing food from supermarkets to the distinction between mishpat and tsedek. I do not understand how the two are kept apart. The prophets have muddled me because although the terms are not used synonymously, one seems to follow the other as night follows day. They imply that a propensity for meaningless observance is the forerunner to injustice (because they are having a crack at the rich who know all the rituals but disregard the poor). I understood this to mean not only that halacha isn't a tick the box system but that observance of the letter without the spirit is actually counter to Judaism. If that is right, how does a concept of justice being 'blind' fit within this thinking? And, what is the process for recognising the "different functions" and "separate roles" of mishpat and tsedek if this isn't 'moral relativism'?

  8. I think " Moral Relativism" is confusing Jewish Law ( Halacha) with state law in democratic countries. I am currently learning Bava Kamma with some chavairim of mine. The laws of how to deal with theft are very complex in Jewish law and there are circumstances that where a thief in Halacha appears to get off scot free. The freedom however is in this world however and when one realises this we understand that there is a much higher authority that passes judgement. Unfortunately when one losses ones religious perspective and becomes morally relative whether vicar, rabbi, mullah or contributor to a blog then all structure break down and we arrive at a society which precipitated the flood. Our Rabbis in the Talmud went through intellectual inquiry in order to establish correct judgement which would make the average secular lawyer these days appear like a child. For my part my trust is in them.

  9. Dafka:

    The prophets, it seems to me, were very clear in their condemnation of hypocrisy. They never condemned either the law or the temple service, only those who abused them.

    A modern parallel of your conundrum might be the obligation to pay taxes, on pain of punishment, even where much of it goes to helping the poor, unemployed, etc., and on the other hand the moral/religious obligation to give charitably, voluntarily.


  10. I once put 13 Quality Street orange
    creams in a bag at my local Woolworths
    (They are the only ones I like)
    and happily left in a dream without
    paying. I was so embarrassed when
    I got home that I phoned the manager and
    apologised. He laughed, thanked me for
    my honesty…and gave me them!
    So there!!

  11. I don't accept that stuff from managers and clerks, where they try to let me keep an overpayment of change, an undercharge, or something I forgot to pay for! It's going on MY Heavenly balance sheet, not theirs! (And the monetary cost is going on the owner's, who is rarely the one I am dealing with; the employee has no more right to take from the store than I do!0

    No–if necessary, I mail them a check for what I owe, so they can't give me any guff about it! 🙂

  12. Last Sunday I went to my local cheap supermarket and bought six packets of smoked salmon because it was on offer and had won a top rating in a national newspaper. When I got home and checked the receipt I found they only charged me for five packets. The extra packet cost £2. This didn't seem like a problem that needed fixing or could be fixed without causing a lot of aggravation for supermarket staff but I'm open to advice.

    (Word verification: 'explome' – I think I might explome if someone tells me to return the two quid!)

  13. Oh my, Jeremy, if ONLY I could become a saint over piddling little things like that! I guess it would be called going to Heaven in a handbasket. 🙂

  14. Anonymous:
    Just force it on them, anonymously if necessary. Because you're right, otherwise they make a big thing out of it and try not to take it. 🙂

  15. Go to Customer Service, not just any old employee. If they don't want to take it back, ask if there's a gratuity box for staff (or a charity collection for those who might otherwise steal off their shelves).

  16. Sorry, all yucky, yucky, yucky. Making a business in public handing over money. Yucky. Acting big. Yucky. Looking like I have more than I need. Yucky. Being a pain in the neck. Double yucky! These aren't just faceless internet sales admin people but my neighbours. The only glimmer of hope is that they'd think I was Christian because who else does things like foist charity on people?

  17. Anonymous:

    That's why I'm telling you–do it anonymously, send them the money in the mail with a little note. It's often the only way to keep them from getting one up on you!

    Or buy something for 2 pounds and then secretly place it back on the shelf! Haha! I haven't done that, exactly, but I have done the self-checkout and scanned something twice in order to make up a debt!

  18. Oh, yes, and G-d forbid anyone would think a Jew would return money that wasn't his or give charity without being asked.

    We have outsmarted GK Chesterton.

  19. In some ways you are reiterating what should be blindingly obvious but in the age it has to be said over and over again and louder and louder until we are woken from the nightmare of moral relativism

  20. It's not morally relative to think that an error in ones heavenly account shouldn't be corrected at the expense of other people doing extra work or feeling embarrassed.

  21. I admitted I was wrong, the manager
    agreed but it wasn't worth the admin
    Costs to them of collection or
    digging another 13 out and weighing them
    and I was driving to Belgium..
    All that said, I was eventually punished
    cruelly as Woolworths went bust and pick
    and mix sweetie bars have disappeared.
    What goes around…
    Mea culpa!

  22. Luzrose – what the heck were you doing with Quality Street when Belgian chocolates were available!

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