Q. I have a translating business. Recently someone asked me to translate some financial documents that are clearly forged. Should I agree?
A. The question of taking part in a seeming transgression pits two ethical principles against each other. On the one hand, the Torah educates us to mutual responsibility, on the other hand it teaches us to judge others favorably. We must not take part in wrongdoing, but we must also not be quick to conclude that wrongdoing is taking place.
We learn in the book of Leviticus (19:14): "Don't put an obstacle before the blind." Our tradition understands that this does not refer to a physical obstacle before a person with poor sight, but rather creating an obstacle to someone pursuing his self interest, which he himself does not perceive. In particular, this verse forbids us from enabling someone else to do a transgression, which is obviously against his true spiritual and ethical interest.
The rabbis of the Talmud extended this rule and concluded that in many cases, it is forbidden not only to enable a transgression but also to abet one. The mishna states: "We don't strengthen the hand of wrongdoers". (1)
Not only should we not abet wrongdoing, when possible we should actively oppose it. A few verses farther on (Leviticus 19:17), the Torah tells us, "Surely reprove your fellow, and don't bear sin towards him." So it is best for you to warn the other side that submitting forged documents to authorities is a serious crime and could get him into trouble.
On the other hand, the Scriptures write of the Torah that "Its ways are ways of pleasantness, and all its paths are peace" (Proverbs 3:17). The Torah does not envision a busybody society where everyone is scrutinizing his fellow man and rebuking him constantly. Another verse in the same chapter (Leviticus 19:15) tells us: "Judge your fellow righteously," which our sages understood to mean that we must give our fellow man the benefit of the doubt. (2)
Thus, the same chapter in the mishna that tells us that we many not strengthen the hand of wrongdoers also tells us that we should go out of our way to seek a favorable explanation. For example, if a person wants to buy a cow used for plowing in the Sabbatical year, when plowing is forbidden, we should assume that the person intends to use the cow for eating, even though draft animals are seldom used for this purpose. The reason, the mishna tells us, is "the ways of peace" – evidently an echo of the verse from Proverbs telling us that the ways of the Torah are ways of pleasantness, and its paths peace.
However, in your case it seems that a favorable explanation is quite far-fetched. There is seldom a good excuse for creating forged documents, even more rarely for taking the trouble to translate them. At the very least we would expect the client to explain to you his rationale for doing something so surprising. Obviously any use made of the documents is the responsibility of the client, not the translator, but these documents seem to be designed for mischief. In this respect the Torah warns us (Deuteronomy 25:13-15):
You must not keep in your pouch two different weights, one large and one small. [Similarly], you must not keep in your house two different measures, one large and one small. You must have a full honest weight and a full honest measure. If you do, you will long endure on the land that God your Lord is giving you.
The Torah doesn't forbid only giving short measure; it forbids even keeping the inaccurate weights in the pouch or in the house, since the only reasonable use for them is a dishonest one.
We shouldn't be hasty to assume an unusual request from a client or customer is a dishonest one. But you should draw the line when it is pretty clear to you that your services will contribute to wrongdoing.
SOURCES: (1) Mishna Shviit 5:9 (2) Shevuot 30a.
The Jewish Ethicist presents some general principles of Jewish law. For specific questions and direct application, please consult a qualified Rabbi.