Q. Is it really proper to name buildings after donors?
A. This is an ancient question to which Jewish tradition gives an emphatic answer: It is proper and even desirable to acknowledge the generosity of donors by perpetuating their names.
Rabbi Shlomo Adret, a medieval rabbi who was one of the greatest Jewish legal authorities of all time, was asked about a man who donated a synagogue to the community. The man wanted to write his name on the entrance, but the community objected; in the end, they consulted Rabbi Adret.
The rabbi’s answer was: “Who can stop someone who dedicates and builds from his own property, for the sake of heaven, from mentioning his name on what is his?” He continues, “And this is a trait of wise and experienced people, in order to give a reward to those who perform good deeds. Even the Torah itself adopts this trait, for it records and publicizes those who perform good deeds.”
The main message of Rabbi Adret’s answer is that there is nothing unethical or shameful about recognition. It is appropriate and even desirable to give people credit for their contributions.
However, it is still not proper to give in the first place in order to obtain recognition, or to draw excessive attention to our good deeds. The Talmud tells us that a person who gives in order to boast is in danger of losing all the merit of his gift; charity needs to be given in order to provide for the needs of the community.
Jewish tradition considers that in all of our acts, the intention is of the utmost importance, and not only the act itself. A favorite saying in our tradition is “Rachmana liba bai” — the Merciful One desires the heart. At the same time, we acknowledge the great value of an act that doesn’t have a perfect intention, where an element of selfishness is still present. For instance, the Talmud tells us “A person should study Torah even without intent, for out of study without intent he will acquire the right intent.”
What then is the reason that giving charity with improper intention is so problematic?
One answer is that there is a difference between using honor as a motivator and viewing it as a true goal. A person who excels in his studies in order to obtain recognition strives to eventually surpass this level, to discard this crutch. But if the entire purpose of the good deed is for honor, then there is no spiritual progress at all.
Another answer is that in the case of charity giving, an improper intention can actually contradict the entire concept of this important commandment. The Torah doesn’t just tell us to provide the needs of the poor; the first thing it tells us is “Don’t harden your heart” (Deuteronomy 15:7). A critical aspect of the commandment of charity giving is to open our hearts as well as our wallets and identify and commiserate with the recipient. A person who is giving out of a desire to boast and exalt himself is not only missing the point, he is accomplishing the exact opposite of the true object of this important mandate.
A charitable donor is certainly entitled to ask that reasonable recognition be provided in return for the gift, and the charitable organization may and even should acknowledge generosity in this way. However, the giver should be certain that his main objective is to identify with the needs of the recipient; his desire for recognition should be an encouragement, and not the reason for the donation. Boasting and basking in recognition work against this important condition.
SOURCES: Babylonian Talmud Bava Batra 10b; Responsa of Rashba I:581; Shulchan Arukh Yoreh Deah 249:13 in Rema; Rashi Sanhedrin 106b; Babylonian Talmud Pesachim 50b.