The legal concept of “moral turpitude” refers to an act or behavior that gravely violates the sentiment or accepted standard of a community. The use of this term in the legal system comes with a heavy price.
There are varying levels of offenses and crimes, some offenses are mild and point to a moral and behavioral defect. And while they are indeed crimes, they do not deserve to be defined as acts of moral turpitude.
The inclusion or exclusion of “moral turpitude” in the court’s verdict is often down to agreements and plea deals arranged by prosecutors and defenders.
The greatest harm is the bastardization of such grave behavioral stigma to nothing more than legal language.
For example: If an offense is brought before a court, but is not one that the law has defined as an act of moral turpitude or if the prosecution does not wish to involve itself in the question of whether the perpetrator is guilty of such grievous behavioral defects, then the perpetrator is spared such defamation.
This is because the term is subject to court rules instead of societal ones.
Thus, the term “moral turpitude” has been expropriated from the public’s authority and reduced to nothing more than a legal term used in criminal language and legal contexts.
Moral turpitude can be attributed to the behavior of many during the coronavirus pandemic, with conduct that hurt the state’s fight against the pandemic.
And while the court system most likely will not prosecute these people for their behavior, they will still bear the mark of their poor social conduct.
The ones I am talking about are the ones who spread false medical news regarding the virus, the ones who attend mass gatherings despite the restrictions, and the ones who abused the concept of public protests to have a party.
All of these actions have caused so much damage to the country and to society that they may as well be defined as acts of actual violence with actual bloodshed. These are indeed acts of moral turpitude.
Thankfully, these vile acts go against the consensus agreed upon by the absolute majority.
One can debate whether the general closure is an effective response to the infection rates, but almost everyone agrees social distancing does have an impact.
One can argue about the level of risk in outdoor gatherings, but the majority understands that gatherings in enclosed spaces present a very real danger of spreading infection.
One can dispute the different methods of coping with the contagion, yet the importance of using accurate and analyzed data is accepted by all.
Violating or disregarding these agreements shames those who do so, and while the courts will not charge them with moral turpitude, the black stain on their characters won’t easily wash off.
The Halacha originally distinguished very well between legal moral turpitude and personal moral turpitude.
Humiliating someone, for example, is a grave act of moral turpitude in the Halacha, but it is not judged in a court of law. And while the law may not dictate the punishment for such an act, the morals of the Halacha dictate that a person should cast themselves into a furnace before humiliating a friend in public.
This is one example of many that calls on us to adhere not only to the legal definition of "moral turpitude,” but to strive to live a moral life.
Each and everyone of is should look in our own moral mirror - from the heads of state to those who gather en masse in confined spaces.
The moral stain is there, and it cannot be quickly erased.
Rabbi Yuval Cherlow is head of ethics in the Tzohar rabbinical organization