Accepting Donations From Improper Sources

Each week Rabbi Yoel Domb writes about issues of business ethics related to the Torah portion of the week.

President Clinton’s controversial pardon of a prominent Jewish financier and philanthropist has brought the issue of receiving donations from inappropriate sources sharply into focus. Many Jewish organizations have benefited from the munificence of donors who accrued their money either in ways which are contrary to Jewish law or by dealing in businesses which the Torah disapproves of. The question of whether organizations devoted to the advancemant of Jewish moral values should accept the contributions of those who do not promote these values is an old dilemma: should we assume that the donor wishes to assuage some of his guilt by giving to worthy causes and assist him on the path of repentance, or do we view this as moral ambivalence and refrain from accepting “tainted” contributions.

The subject was actually disputed in a Jerusalem Post article (February 16th, 2001). Rabbi Mordechai Liebling, director of the Shefa fund, which aims to get “Jewish institutions to examine Jewish values in accepting money,” says that “we are not helping if Jews take money from someone accused of violating the law or exploiting people and restore that person’s good name without that person doing Teshuva (repentance). Rabbi Zvi Blanchard, director of organizational development at CLAL, contends that deciding whether to accept contributions “falls into questions of gray rather than black and white. You want to give a person a chance to contribute to society. In Judaism there’s a tradition of Teshuva-you don’t want to say because you did something wrong you can’t return to our community and do good things.”

The above viewpoints can be traced to an anomaly in our portion of the week, which describes in detail the procedure of donations for the Tabernacle which the Jews built in the desert. The first verse (Shemot 25:1) initially states “Speak to the children of Israel, that they should take for me a contribution,” implying that this is only for Jews, wheras the verse concludes “from every man whose heart moves him to donate, “seemingly including foreign contributions. The Zohar (a Kabbalistic tract attributed to second-century leader Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai) explains (Vayakhel 7) that the Torah is alluding to the “mixed multitude “of gentiles who accompanied Israel out of Egypt. Despite the fact that their wealth predated the exodus and may have been acquired illicitly, G-d wished them to participate in building the Tabernacle. Rav Abba in Yerushalmi Shekalim 1:1 is more explicit: he sees the Kaporet, the golden cover which adorned the holy ark, as an appropriate atonement for the golden calf (the word Kaporet has a connotation of atonement in Hebrew, as in Yom Kippur). Rav Abba legitimates contributions which are brought as a guilt-offering and does not consider them an abomination. However, a more skeptical view is expressed by Rav Chiya. He says “One cannot comprehend this people’s character: they are asked to give for idolatry and they give: they are asked to give for a Tabernacle and they give.” It seems that Rav Chiya does not approve of this attempt to expiate one’s sins through philanthropy, as such donations could not emanate from a genuine desire for holiness if the same donor engages in promoting idolatry.

The Zohar itself concludes that the mixed multitude’s contributions were eventually rejected. “They made the Golden Calf and all the Jews who followed them died. Since they caused death and destruction to Israel, G-d said “from now on the Tabernacle will only be built by Israel, as it is stated (Shemot 35:1) “Moshe gathered the children of Israel, saying “Take from you a contribution for G-d.” Obviously if the donor has harmed Jews, his money would not be desired for sacred causes. What about an individual who has not hurt Jews, yet his money may have been obtained illegally? On this point the Zohar elaborates in another source (Vayakhel 63), stating that such a contribution is no merit for the donor and even serves as a reminder of his sins. This position is diametrically opposed to Rav Abba’s lenient approach.

David, king of Israel, wanted to build the Temple but was prevented by G-d because he had “spilt much blood.” He therefore decided to set aside money. Yet his son Shlomo refrained from using this money to build, because he was worried that the nations would later claim that the temple was destroyed since it was financed by his father’s theft of the nations (Rashi, Radak Melachim 7:51). David himself had expressed this fear later (see Yalkut Shimoni). Perhaps we can conclude from this that care is required when soliciting donations to ensure that they do not ultimately cause a desecration of G-d’s name. Possibly low-profile donations from controversial sources could be accepted, but not in a way which appears to condone illicit practices.

Rabbi Yoel Domb is a graduate of JCT and a member of the faculty of the JCT Bet Midrash. He was awarded a fellowship from the Center for Business Ethics for the academic year 2000-2001. He is currently researching topics of business ethics in Jewish Law and is preparing a curriculum to facilitate the teaching of these topics in Rabbinical seminaries (Yeshivot).