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Thursday, April 24, 2014

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A second look at legalized gambling

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The Ontario Lottery and Gaming Corporation would like to add a casino in Toronto and make lottery tickets and slot machines more readily available, arguing that this could add up to $2 billion a year to government revenues.

At a time when the Drummond Report has warned that without radical action today, the Ontario deficit could balloon to unmanageable levels, an extra couple of billion dollars could sure help. And since the money would be given voluntarily, it’s much less politically or economically painful than tax hikes or spending cuts.

Jewish law lists gamblers among those whose testimony is not accepted in a court of law. According to some, gambling is actually a form of theft, making a gambler a low-level thief. Others note that gamblers “do not engage in the development of the world.” One cannot trust the word of non-contributing members of society. The Talmud notes that according to this second accepted opinion, occasional gamblers, who otherwise make positive contributions to society, would have their testimony accepted.

Nonetheless, while the recreational gambler may not be invalidated, gambling – even on an occasional basis – has been frowned upon in our tradition, so much so that Rabbi Ovadiah Yosef, perhaps the pre-eminent authority of Jewish law today, has ruled that Jews may not purchase tickets to Mifal HaPayiss, the Israeli version of Lotto 6/49. And years ago, Rabbi Moshe Feinstein ruled that, ideally, a shul should not raise money through bingo.

Yet the issue is more complex. For many worthy institutions, lotteries serve as an important fundraising mechanism. It’s hard to classify people who purchase such lottery tickets as gamblers, although without the (remote) possibility of winning, many would not buy tickets. Government-sanctioned lottery tickets, while offering a greater percentage of revenues in winnings, serve to bring in needed funds.

One can make a cogent argument that today’s casino are actually very much involved in the “development of the world.” They are arguably no different than any other form of entertainment – be they sporting events, movies, theatre –providing gainful employment to many, and much-needed economic benefits. And while one can properly argue that there are better uses for one’s time, it’s quite clear that entertainment is an important feature of the world we live in.

One may argue that gambling is addictive and has the potential to ruin one’s life. However it’s no more, and likely much less, ruinous than alcohol, or tobacco for that matter, and no one proposes outlawing those. Societal decisions cannot be driven by worry about how careless individuals may act.

Yet at the same time, we’re aware how those who can least afford it are the ones who in reality spend the most on gambling. For the poor, the allure of winning is much more enticing. It’s not for nothing that gambling is known as a tax on the poor.

Yet when all is said is done, it appears to me that society has an obligation to act in the best interests of most people. Legalized gambling already exists. Perhaps along with expanding it, some money should be made available to treat those who fall prey to its addictive nature.

Send comments to rabbijay@torahinmotion.org.

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