When Donors Behave Badly: Guiding Principles for Jewish Institutions

In light of CCAR Press’s publishing of The Sacred Exchange: A Jewish Money Ethic, edited by Rabbi Mary L. Zamore, earlier this year, we invited Rabbi A. Brian Stoller to share an excerpt of the chapter that he wrote.

What should a synagogue or Jewish institution do when a donor is known to be involved in illegal or immoral activity? Imagine that after a synagogue dedicates a newly renovated sanctuary, the beloved community elder who gave more than a million dollars toward the project is indicted for embezzlement. Suppose that a prominent nursing-home proprietor, whose facilities have a reputation for unclean conditions and abusive treatment of residents, offers to provide scholarships for needy kids to go to summer camp. We seek to be guided in our response to these situations by the moral voice of our tradition. While there are few clear-cut answers, our texts provide certain principles that can inform our decision-making.

What happens when two moral obligations conflict with each other?

A CCAR responsum on the case of a synagogue contribution by a criminal points out that it is a mitzvah incumbent upon every Jew to support the synagogue financially.(1) The Reform Movement has said that communal organizations should not refuse a donation from a person of questionable character because we do not have the right to prevent someone from fulfilling his religious obligations.(2) Moreover, denying the would-be giver the opportunity to do a mitzvah would further alienate him from the righteous path. As Maimonides says, “We do not tell a wicked person: ‘Increase your wickedness by failing to perform mitzvot.’”(3)

At the same time, accepting the donation may violate a different mitzvah, namely the prohibition against placing a stumbling block before the blind. As Jewish business-ethicist Meir Tamari suggests, a person may be “blind, so to speak, to the moral consequences of his actions.”

(4) By accepting the gift, therefore, we might inadvertently encourage the donor to continue in these errant ways and cause the donor to stumble further.

These conflicting moral obligations cannot both be operative at the same time, but the sources suggest that there are circumstances in which one or the other should take precedence.

What causes money to become “dirty?”

According to Deuteronomy 23:19,(5) payment for prostitution (which is forbidden by the Torah) and the monetary value of dogs used by hunters and watchmen to intimidate the public (which are lawful but unseemly activities(6)) are unacceptable as donations to the Holy Temple.(7) Maimonides rules that “when one steals or obtains an object through robbery and offers it as a sacrifice, it is invalid and the Holy One hates it.”(8) That principle suggests that the Torah regards money and anything else acquired through illegal and immoral means as “dirty” and unfit as an offering. Therefore, should someone seek to make such a donation, the synagogue or communal entity should refuse to accept it, even though doing so would prevent the person from fulfilling his obligation.

But if money gained through illegal or immoral activity is “dirty,” what about money that is earned on the up-and-up by someone who behaves immorally in other areas of her life? Is there a difference between a donation from Bernie Madoff, who acquired his wealth through theft and fraud, and a donation from Harvey Weinstein, who earned his money legitimately but sexually harassed and manipulated countless women? In a relevant discussion, Maimonides holds that a kohein (priest) is not disqualified from performing his religious duty on account of immoral behavior in his non-priestly life unless he commits one of the three cardinal sins of Rabbinic Judaism: idolatry, illicit sex, or murder.(9) Following this reasoning, could modern institutions say that immoral behavior unrelated to how one’s money is gotten should not disqualify a donor from carrying out her religious duty unless she commits an act that the community regards as a cardinal sin? If so, what actions would rise to that level?

Should the Donor be Acknowledged Publicly?

The sources raise two key concerns about publicly honoring a donor of dubious character. One is that acknowledgment will draw constant, unwanted attention to this sinful behavior. The other is that people of ill-repute will “utilize a gift to the synagogue [or other Jewish institution] as a means of purchasing a good name”(10) and atoning for their sins.(11) In order to avoid these outcomes, the Reform Movement recommends that organizations accept the donation but not publicly acknowledge the donor unless and until he does t’shuvah and abandons the immoral behavior.

Organizations should not accept donations of items that are known to have been gotten illegally. Beyond this, the guiding principles outlined here leave room for leaders to exercise judgment based on communal values and the nuances of each situation. While decisions need to be made on a case-by-case basis, institutions benefit from intentional conversations about core values and principles that guide their approach when donors behave badly.

Rabbi A. Brian Stoller serves Temple Israel in Omaha, Nebraska.


  1. CCAR Responsa Committee, “Synagogue Contribution from a Crimi- nal,” Central Conference of American Rabbis, accessed September 17, 2018, Readers should con- sult this responsum for a thorough analysis of the relevant halachic issues.
  2. See the CCAR responsum cited above, as well as Mark Washofsky, Jewish Living: A Guide to Contemporary Reform Practice (New York: UAHC Press, 2001), 45.
  3. Maimonides, Mishneh Torah, Hilchot N’siat Kapayim 15:6. Translation by Rabbi Eliyahu Touger, Mishneh Torah: Hilchot Tefilah II and Birkat Koha- nim (New York: Moznaim, 2007), 218.
  4. Meir Tamari, The Challenge of Wealth: A Jewish Perspective on Earning and Spending Money (Northvale, NJ: Jason Aronson, 1995), 32.
  5. Deut. 23:19 states: “You shall not bring the fee of a whore or the pay of a dog into the house of the Eternal your God in fulfillment of any vow,  for both are abhorrent to the Eternal your God.”
  6. In his comment to Deut. 23:19, Abraham ibn Ezra explains that “the pay of a dog” refers to activity that, although not forbidden, is “disgraceful” (derech bizayon).
  7. These explanations of the phrases “the fee of a whore” and “the pay of a dog” are given by Rashi and Nachmanides in their commentaries to the verse.
  8. Maimonides, Mishneh Torah, Hilchot Isurei Mizbei-ach 5:7. Translation by Rabbi Eliyahu Touger, Mishneh Torah: Sefer Ha’Avodah (New York: Moznaim, 2007), 334.
  9. Maimonides, Mishneh Torah, Hilchot N’siat Kapayim 15:1–6, esp. halachot 3 and 6.
  10. Washofsky, Jewish Living, 45.
  11. See Nachmanides’s comment to Deut. 23:19.

Employment, Partnership and Mutual Respect

In celebration of the release of CCAR Press’s newest publication, The Sacred Exchange: Creating a Jewish Money Ethic, we share an excerpt of the chapter that Rabbi Jill Jacobs wrote.

Six days you shall labor and do all your work, but the seventh day is a Sabbath of the Eternal your God.

Exodus 20:9–10

The commandment to observe Shabbat simultaneously asserts the sanctity and value of work. Just as God worked for six days of Creation and rested on the seventh, human beings spend six days contributing to the world and one day enjoying the fruits of our labor. Pirkei Avot even demands that we “love work” (1:10). An early commentary on this text explains, “A person should love work and not hate work. Just as the Torah was given through the covenant, so too work was given through the covenant, as it says, “For six days you shall labor” (Avot D’Rabbi Natan 1, chapter 11).

While the Rabbis of the Talmud idealized a life immersed in Torah study, without the need to work, they also recognized both the necessity of work and its inherent dignity: “Skin carcasses in the marketplace and collect your wages, and do not say, ‘I am a kohein and a great man, and this is below my dignity’” (BT P’sachim 113a). Even the most important leader should not consider skinning animals—considered one of the most unpleasant types of work—to be below one’s dignity, if economic need demands.

From the Rabbinic fantasy of a life devoted only to Torah study, and from Adam’s punishment, “by the sweat of your brow shall you eat bread” (Gen. 3:19), we might conclude that Judaism views work as a necessary evil. But this is not the only or even the majority view. God purposely leaves the world unfinished and tasks human beings with completing this world. That’s why we are commanded to work for six days, yet only to rest for one. As Rabbi Chaim David HaLevy, the Sephardic chief rabbi of Tel Aviv from 1973 to 1998, puts it, “In the Jewish worldview, work is sacred—it is building and creating and is a partnership with God in the work of Creation.”

If work is sacred, then the workplace must be treated as a holy place, in which everyone strives to make divinity manifest. According to one midrash, “Everyone who does business honestly, such that people feel good about them, is considered as though they have fulfilled the entire Torah” (M’chilta D’Rabbi Yishmael 15:26). Whereas we might be inclined to think of synagogues and other sacred spaces as being the sites of religious practice, our tradition asserts that workplaces, too, belong in this category. Therefore, employers must take measures to ensure that workers are paid fairly, are respected, and are ensured a workplace worthy of being called sacred.

This approach to the relationship between workers and employers emerges in a t’shuvah (legal opinion) of Rabbi Ben-Zion Meir Chai Uzziel, the Sephardic chief rabbi of Mandate Palestine/Israel from 1939 to 1953, and HaLevy’s primary teacher. Uzziel writes:

Employers are obligated to behave toward workers with love and honor, and with goodwill and generosity. And the workers, for their part, act faithfully and give themselves fully to the work that they were hired to do. . . . The relationship between the employer and the worker needs to be a relationship of fellowship, as with an equal, and not a relationship in which one person is of inferior status, as such a relationship can lead to acts that are insulting or that induce shame.

These ideals sound beautiful, but how do we put them into practice? As always, the Jewish legal corpus translates these ideals into specific laws regarding workplace practices.

Jewish law and narrative text offer a series of specifics regarding the relationship between employers and workers, including requirements regarding fair and timely pay, expectations of mutual respect, and encouragement for workers to form unions and even initiate strikes when necessary. Ultimately, all of these details aim to create a workplace that lives up to the ideal, articulated by HaLevy, that our labor should feel like a “partnership with God in the work of Creation.”

Rabbi Jill Jacobs is the Executive Director of T’ruah:The Rabbinic Call for Human Rights.