Are We Permitted to Take Charity From Improper Sources?

Responsa of the Week: Are we permitted to take charity from improper sources?

A weekly series by Dr. Meir Tamari about responsa regarding business ethics issues.

In order to demonstrate the work of the halakhic system and its moral considerations regarding a variety of issues in business and economics, I will present a number of responsa drawn from the literature. These represent questions addressed either by laymen or by rabbis or communities to rabbinical authorities and their answers. They cover a period of close to 2000 years and reflect Jewish life in all the countries of the Diaspora. Even though the answers may vary and conflict with each other so that one cannot draw behavioral conclusions from them, they demonstrate Jewish thinking and values in this field.

QUESTION: May we as a charitable organization take donations or grants from people whose money was earned illegally or who are guilty of profiting from selling goods or services that while legal, are halakhically considered to be harmful or dangerous? Are we obligated to verify the kashrut of the funds donated to us?

ANSWER: [This was given orally and since I have not been able to verify it with the source, I have reproduced it here anonymously].

“To the final question, no, the onus is not on you to police your donors or to verify whether the funds originated from legal or good sources. That would be suspecting everybody; chosdim bi kashering, which is not permitted. It opens the gate to gossip and tale bearing, that are likewise forbidden.

The case of one who is known to be a criminal or was found guilty by a fair and honest court is different.

It is true that one may not bring the hire of a harlot or a dog as a contribution to the Temple (Deut.23: 19). That only applies where one knows that the source of the articles were of such a nature. We know that in contrast to buying stolen goods, which is forbidden, one may have a benefit from the property of a thief. ‘ One is not permitted to have a benefit from the property of one who is known to be a robber. However, where at least some of his property is known to be definitely legally and honestly his, then one may benefit, until it is definitely shown that that particular item was known to acquired dishonestly’ (Choshen Mishpat, 369, sub-sections 3 – 4). This is permitted since we have no knowledge that that article or asset was in fact stolen or acquired non-halachically, and we are not required to investigate.

The argument that we do not know, even in the case of a known criminal, whether the particular article was indeed stolen and therefore it is permissible to benefit from it and therefore accept such donations would seem to apply to cases where one is faced with readily identifiable assets. However, how would this apply to cases such as Enron, tax evasion, money laundering and the earnings from trade in drugs, pornography, harmful goods or fraudulent wealth? How would we distinguish between stolen and non-stolen financial assets, or identify the results of imaginative accounting to make charity legitimate? Furthermore, the Shulchan Arukh clearly disallows benefiting from known criminals, where investigations are quite unnecessary.

Over and above this opinion, it is often argued that that the act of giving charity may well be a form of penance for the thief or robber; in that case we would be closing the gates of teshuva before wrongdoers. It seems that the source for this opinion is the following ruling: “The repentance of the shepherds [hired, not owners of the flocks] and the tax collectors [tax farmers not tax officials] is extremely difficult because they rob the public and therefore cannot identify the injured parties in order to return their stolen wealth [a prerequisite for doing teshuvah. The same would apply to those who cheat in their tax returns, trade in false weights and measures or flawed products. Also those guilty of share fraud, money lending to Jews at interest or dealing in halakhically defined harmful goods]. They must therefore devote their wealth to public and good works, like the building of water cisterns, etc.” (Choshen Mishpat, section 366, subsection 2).

There are two ethical issues with this argument. Firstly it is dangerous in that public works and charity easily become ways to ease our consciences thus allowing us to continue doing wrong and simply then contributing part of the spoils to charity. Secondly, all the authorities recognize these works as being only a second class type of teshuva, a way out for those who are unable to do real teshuvah and return the stolen goods or money.

We have to consider the role of the charity organizers or the emissaries who collect charity; after all, “it is not the mouse that steals but the hole.” Accepting money from known illegal or dishonest sources allows the donors to achieve respectability and often, communal honor. Not only is this bribery that often leads to communal corruption in many forms, but it has a powerful negative affect on the moral, religious and spiritual education of adults and youth alike. What message does it send to students when they see unethical people or criminals being honored and what ethical message is being sent to the public when libraries, parks, hospitals, religious and institutions of higher education, are knowingly and publicly funded from immoral sources? All too often, there is tremendous chillul Hashem involved. In the age of television and the electronic media, such chillul Hashem is spread worldwide and instantly. The case of the Israeli prime minister, the mayor of Jerusalem and sundry rabbis and heads of charitable or educational institutions asking for a presidential pardon of a wanted fugitive from justice, is only one of many examples of where large charitable donations over the years have lead religious, communal and political leaders to cleanse or bear evidence as to the character and the nobility of those engaged in earning wealth in non-religious, unethical or immoral methods.

It seems appropriate for all, when considering the question of accepting charity from doubtful or unethical sources, to remember the words of Menachem Mendel of Kotsk, “A pure one does not draw close or touch the impure.”

This column presents general principles for approaching business ethics topics. For specific guidelines, please refer to a halachic authority.

Dr. Meir Tamari is the former chief economist of the Office of the Governor at the Bank of Israel, and the founder of the Business Ethics Center of Jerusalem.