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Dear Joseph,
I live in a small building with no doorman in New York City. Four or five of us get The New York Times delivered every day; the papers are left near the front door.

On a recent morning, when I went downstairs to pick up my paper, I noticed that mine was missing. I hesitated, then took a neighbor's paper. But not just any neighbor's paper; I took the paper that belonged to a guy who had cheated me, had cheated our co-op, and, at least once, had beaten his first wife (a bunch of us heard it). About a year ago, he illegally sublet his apartment and, when informing his tenant that she'd have to move out, threatened to sic two thugs on her.

Just what combination of avenger, vigilante, thief, and/or minor offender do you think I am? --Paper Snatcher

P.S. Laws being what they are, we haven't been able to evict him.

Dear Paper Snatcher,
Your neighbor sounds like a disgusting person. Do you therefore have the right to steal his newspaper?

When phrased like that, the answer becomes pretty obvious. Of course not. And, of course, you know that.

The truth is, if your description of your neighbor is accurate, he deserves far worse than having his newspaper stolen. Still, taking his newspaper is not good for your soul.

You're rationalizing, and once you start rationalizing stealing, where does it end? This hotel overcharges me, so it's okay if I take a few towels.

Furthermore, if we, as a society, decide that whether or not we are permitted to steal from another depends on the would-be victim's character, things could get pretty bad pretty quickly: That guy over there whose wallet fell--he's a disgusting person. Joanne told me he gypped her at his store. Maybe I'll keep the cash in his wallet, and I'll even give Joanne $10.

Having said that, there is one instance in which I can envision taking the man's paper: if you knew for a fact that he had stolen yours. But among your neighbor's manifold faults, stealing newspapers doesn't seem to be one.

I think you should suffer the discomfort and go out and buy a paper. You'll feel better about yourself. And you'll avoid starting down a slippery slope that could take you to places you surely don't want to go.

Dear Joseph,
I know the Bible tells people to love God. That I can accept. But to be honest, there's plenty in the Bible about fearing God. I've always hated that. What good can come from fear of God, except the creation of scared automatons who carry out meaningless rituals in a state of terror? --Annoyed at the Bible

Dear Annoyed,
Fear of God has gotten something of a bum rap. Admittedly, it has sometimes been used by clergyman and theologians to terrify people, and I, like you, find that appalling. But if you go back to the Bible itself, you'll find that fear of God is expected to make people morally better in two ways: by helping to guarantee protection of the weak and by liberating people from the fear of human beings.

As regards protecting the weak, we find that the injunction to fear God almost invariably follows laws mandating the kind and fair treatment of those weaker than ourselves. For example: "You shall ... not place a stumbling block in front of a blind person; you shall fear your God" (Leviticus 9:14).

Why does the Bible add the words "you shall fear your God" to this commandment? Because even a sadist would be cautious before tripping another person, if only out of fear that the person would see who had hurt him and seek vengeance. But one who trips a blind person has no reason to be afraid, because the victim won't know who hurt him. So the Bible reminds us that when we have no reason to fear the victim of our acts, we must remember to fear God, who demands that we act justly.

Let me cite one more example: "You shall not rule over [your servant] ruthlessly, but you shall fear God" (Leviticus 25:43). Throughout history, people have mistreated servants and assumed, usually rightly, that there was nothing the servants could do about it. It's precisely because masters have no reason to fear servants that the Bible reminds them to fear God. The contemporary implication of this law is that anytime you're dealing with a person in a weaker position that yourself and are tempted to take advantage of your stronger position, remember, "And you shall fear God."

Fear of God can also liberate us from fear of human beings. The opening chapter of Exodus records that the Egyptian Pharaoh ordered the midwives working with the Hebrew babies to kill all male babies upon birth. The midwives refused to do so because, the Bible tells us, they feared God (Exodus 1:17). In other words, although they presumably feared the very powerful Pharaoh, they feared God even more.

On the other hand, because other Egyptians only feared Pharaoh, they, unlike the midwives, followed Pharaoh's subsequent order to hunt down and drown the Israelite infants. Significantly, this biblical tale is the first story of civil disobedience in any recorded literature.

Send your questions for Joseph Telushkin to: columnists@staff.beliefnet.com. Please include "Telushkin" in the subject line.

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