As passions rose in Brooklyn’s ḥasidic communities over coronavirus lockdowns, a mob attacked the ḥasidic journalist Jacob Kornbluh with shouts of moser, which loosely translates as “informant.” Henry Abramson explains the history of this highly charged epithet:
Moser (also pronounced moyser) literally means “one who hands over,” in the sense of one who informs or turns over a Jew to the secular authorities. The term is laden with portent in Jewish law.
Moses Maimonides wrote in the 12th century that “an informer may be slain anywhere, even at the present time when Jewish courts do not try capital cases. . . . It is a religious duty to slay him; whoever hastens to kill him attains merit.” There should be no misunderstanding here: Maimonides was writing in a particular social context, prevalent for much of the past two millennia, when Jews constituted a tiny diasporic minority subject to the whim of often hostile, capricious, and brutal governments.
Halakhic authorities like Rabbi Hershel Schachter of Yeshiva University have been quick to declare that this law does not apply in modern, democratic societies: reporting criminal behavior to police, or even tax evasion to the IRS, does not make one a hated moser. Maimonides’ ruling is more comprehensible in the context of Nazi Germany, Saddam Hussein’s Iraq, or perhaps Stalin’s Russia.