I’m not a regular reader of Glamour magazine, but my wife was studying the current volume of that journal when a headline caught my eye: “The Man Who Stole My Life,” a story about hairdresser Kelly Stein.
One day a transvestite named Debbie entered Stein’s beauty salon in Greensburg, Pa. “Raised never to judge” other people, as she told Glamour, Stein ended up taking him on as a regular hair-and-nails client, and later as a friend.
Unfortunately, Debbie — whose real name is Robert Domasky — developed a raging obsession with Stein. He legally adopted her first and last names as his own, obtained identification in her name (including her Social Security card and passport), had all her bills switched to his address, tattooed her name on the back of his neck — in short, he did everything possible, legal and illegal, to become Stein.
Big deal, you say? Identity theft may not appear to be the tip of any iceberg of generalized thievery. From a high in 1991, according to FBI statistics, burglary, larceny and motor vehicle theft all have been on a steady decline. But look again through the lens of the Eighth Commandment, “Thou shalt not steal,” and Jewish tradition.
In the Talmud, “theft” is defined in broad terms. Technically, the sin prohibited in the Decalogue is “person theft,” namely kidnapping. But there are other derivative crimes including property theft.
Gambling, which rabbinic law prohibits as a form of stealing, is one example. That’s because if I win a bet with you, there was never the necessary mental relinquishing of your property (my winnings) that there would be in a proper business transaction.
Also categorized as theft is political demagoguery. The classical exemplar is King David’s son, Absalom, who fomented treasonous rebellion by approaching any citizen who had a legal case before the king. Absalom would tell all such litigants that only he understood their gripe. Yes, he felt their pain. Only he would vindicate their complaints — if only he were king! In this way, “Absalom stole the hearts of the men of Israel” (2 Samuel 15:6).
Widen the scope of your definition of theft, and you’ll see that stealing hardly could be more prominent in contemporary society. Consider:
The modern-day version of “person theft” occurs many times a day in our own country, with the trafficking of foreign-born women and children for sexual exploitation. According to the CIA, as many as 100,000 women are thus victimized every year, sold and shipped like merchandise into the United States.
The Internet, meanwhile, continues to breed new forms of stealing: first the “phishing” form of identity theft and more recently “pharming,” not to mention the ever more popular sport of Internet gambling. And as the tragic downfall of lobbyist Jack Abramoff calls to mind, there is the metastasizing phenomenon of Indian gambling.
As for Absalom-like demagoguery, an obsessive attention to personal and ethnic gripes rules American political culture. This is how our leaders steal our hearts — to adopt the Bible’s language — every Election Day.
Even property theft is a cause for concern, if some of the excuses for thievery generated during the looting of New Orleans are any indication. Take singer Harry Connick, Jr., who opined, “If I grew up in conditions like that, with no hope, I might have to go out and steal me a plasma TV.” (He later apologized for saying this.) Or how about pop diva Celine Dion: “Oh, they’re stealing 20 pairs of jeans or they’re stealing television sets. Who cares?… They’re so poor they’ve never touched anything in their lives. Let them touch those things for once.”
Thou shalt not steal, indeed.
Here, as in so many other areas, the Ten Commandments offers us a valuable diagnostic tool to analyze our nation’s cultural ills. What’s fascinating about the Decalogue is the way the commandments on the first tablet correspond linearly to those on the second. In this analysis, drawn from the ancient midrash Mechilta, the Eighth Commandment, against stealing, is revealed as an extension of the Third Commandment, against taking God’s name in vain.
How so? Well, not unlike a human being, God has an identity, crystallized in His name. He is no mere impersonal essence. To trifle with His name is to deny this.
In the same way, thievery treats other people as depersonalized resources to be plundered. The theft of someone’s person — his body, his identity — is the ultimate expression of this contempt for the personality, expressed in a human’s name, as in God’s.
The creepiness of Debbie’s crime reminds us that comforting statistics about property crime mask a disturbing reality just below the surface. The violation of Kelly Stein may be comic at first glance, but at second it is chilling and illuminating in equal degrees.
David Klinghoffer, a senior fellow at the Discovery Institute, is author of the forthcoming “Shattered Tablets: What the Ten Commandments Reveal about American Culture and Its Discontents” (Doubleday).