Anyone who attended Hebrew or Sunday School remembers learning about the commandment: Al tignov (“Thou shalt not steal”). Back then, it seemed so black and white. Unfortunately, today ethical questions have become fraught with ambiguity and tempered by moral complication.
Take the case of Jack Abramoff, the powerful Washington lobbyist and prominently-identified Orthodox Jew, who stands accused of accepting $80-million in fees from various Native American tribes who wished to gain casino licenses or prevent competing tribes from getting them. The tribes are crying foul at the enormous sums paid to Abramoff. The New York Times reported several months ago that his “lobbying for Indian tribes is under scrutiny by the Justice Department, the Interior Department, the Treasury Department and two Senate committees.” The Times reports today that his attorneys are in intensive negotiations with the Justice Department regarding his cooperation in the prosecution of his former Republican political patrons.
While the possibility that Abramoff engaged in fraud in pocketing the fees is troubling enough, the goal of his work in promoting the gaming industry raises ethical concerns too. And the ways in which he co-mingled these fees with his charitable activities has to be troubling to those Jews who respect the integrity of tzedakah (“charity”). The notion that he appears to have used these groups as conduits to “launder” the lobbying fees of their gambling “taint” is even more disturbing. The [Austin Statesman->http://www.statesman.com/search/content/news/stories/nation/12/15abramoff.html] describes in copious detail the various charitable manipulations which Abramoff favored for his Capital Athletic Foundation. Among other things, he told the IRS the Foundation made grants to Jewish charities which it never made. As if he didn’t have enough problems, such fraudulent reporting can be criminally prosecuted.
Articles in the Washington Post and New York Times (among others) note that Abramoff donated millions to Jewish charities including his own children’s Jewish day school, which he himself founded. What, as Jews, do we think of someone who earns money from a ‘tainted’ source and donates it as tzedakah? What, as Jews, do we have to say about the donor and the tzedakah itself? Does the good of the mitzvah (“good deed”) outweigh the bad of the tainted source? What obligation, if any, does the donee have in terms of accepting the money? In Abramoff’s case it appears that the donees were mere extensions of himself and his political interests and not non-profits with independent boards. Another troubling issue.
Even in his tzedakah, Abramoff’s motives and actions were suspect. The Jewish Telegraphic Agency says: “Newsweek reported the FBI is investigating whether he funneled funds from the Capital Athletic Foundation, a charity he established to support sports programs for urban youth” and to support West Bank settlements. Anyone who raises funds for one purpose and funnels those funds to an entirely unrelated cause is committing a grave violation of fundraising, if not ethical principles. At the very least, you are liable to alienate those donors by misleading them as to what you intended to do with the money.
Another concern I have is—if you accept a tainted gift, are you not allowing the donor to assuage whatever guilty conscience he might have about how he earned the money in the first place? Should non-profits be in the business of allowing donors to purify themselves in the eyes of the community by giving charitable gifts? And do not doubt that this is precisely what was in Jack Abramoff’s mind. He pleads in the New York Times (TimesSelect subscription required) for our sympathy: “I have spent years giving away virtually everything I made. Frankly, I didn’t need to have a kosher delicatessen. That was money I could have bought a yacht with. I don’t live an extravagant lifestyle. I felt that the resources coming into my hands were the consequence of God putting them there.”
Michael Crowley writes this about Abramoff’s ability to be loud, profane and crude while at the same time showing a reverence for Jewish religious practice:
I had noticed that amid the vast profanity and insults and Machiavellian exultations in his e-mail messages, Abramoff drew lines. In one message, he rendered ”God” as ”G-D.” Abramoff nodded solemnly when I brought this up. ”This is a Jewish tradition, to not write out God’s name in something that might be destroyed,” he explained.
I find the hateful ethnic slurs in Abramoff’s correspondence with his colleagues to be morally offensive to me as a Jew. As a people who have suffered deeply from similar hatred and bigotry, do we not have a special obligation to condemn such bigotry when it comes from one of our own? I believe God frowns upon the man who respects Him but disrespects His creatures.
Biblical Sources on Tainted Tzedakah
In an interview, Rabbi Elliot Dorff, rector of the University of Judaism, explained that Deuteronomy 23:19 (“Do not bring the wages of a prostitute or price of a dog into the House of the Lord as a vow since both are an abomination to the Lord your God.”) prohibits the Temple from accepting gifts from prostitutes. So certainly our tradition recognizes that some gifts are tainted beyond redemption. Dorff also tells me that when he sat on the Ethics Committee of Los Angeles Jewish Family Service his group deliberated on a proposed $10,000 gift from Phillip Morris. The only condition attached to the gift was that the company wanted the right to publicize its affiliation with JFS. To this (and to its credit), the committee refused though they would have accepted the gift without strings.
Tainted Jewish Donors: Michael Milken
I remember attending a national conference of synagogue directors years ago at the time that Michael Milken was convicted of fraudulent stock transactions while associated with Drexel Burnham. He had just given millions to Stephen Wise Temple and the new Bernard Milken Jewish Community campus in the San Fernando Valley. At one conference meeting, a speaker said: “It’s not the job of an organization to examine the ethical background of a donation or a donor. We’re in the business of doing good, not vetting people. My only consideration is that he pays his pledge. Besides, the good we can do with the money cancels whatever bad he might’ve done in earning it.”
I guess this is what you’d have to call situational ethics with a vengeance. It argues that a strict, unconditional approach to ethics is impractical in today’s world. And there’s something appealing about this view as we all wish charities to do good.
How bad does a donor’s behavior have to be before it becomes treif—too objectionable for consideration as a proper act of tzedakah. Would we accept tzedakah from a drug dealer? A murderer? A spouse-beater? You can see that you can get into some murky ethical territory if you try to begin classifying levels of ethical impropriety for the sake of tzedakah.
Tainted Jewish Donor II: Ivan Boesky
In the 1980s, the Jewish Theological Seminary’s new library was named for Ivan Boesky. When he was indicted, the Seminary was in a real quandary as to what it should do. It did not want to offend a donor, but it also did not want its institution sullied by association with a convicted felon. Boesky resolved the issue decently by resigning from the Seminary’s board and asking the Chancellor to remove his name.
Abramoff and His Impact on American Jews
Because Abramoff comes across as a boor and rapacious power grabber, he’s an easy candidate for moral censure. But no matter his level of boorishness, his actions pose a significant taint on our entire community. It is all too easy, for example, for anti-Semites to say: “Look at Abramoff, he’s just one example of what they all do: steal from the goyim (or in this case, Native Americans) for the sake of their own.” And don’t think this is a hypothetical example. I wrote a post about Jack Abramoff that was linked to by an anti-Semitic website. Before I knew it, my site was flooded with scores of deeply offensive anti-Semitic comments. While it is improper to blame an entire group for the faults of an individual member, we all know there are many people in the world filled with hate who are happy to do just that. How, as a people, do we deal with the potential moral stain from actions of individual Jews?
I wonder, for example, whether a Washington Bet Din should be convened to deliberate about the issues in this case. Should his tzedakah be returned? Should his alleged pilfering from Native American tribes be censured? I can see from some of the comments on this case in my blog that the Orthodox community is circling the wagons to protect their own. We may be hearing from some quarters that the Justice Department is engaging in an anti-Semitic vendetta. I feel this is a misguided approach. Before making a martyr out of Jack, let’s let the criminal justice system work this out. If he is exonerated, then we should reevalutate our opinions of him. If he is convicted, then why should anyone, Jew or gentile, defend him. [Note: I wrote the above paragraph in August, 2005 and I’m glad to say that I haven’t read very much from the Jewish community along the lines I predicted.]
Rabbi Dorff also points out in his article, Nonprofits and Morals: Jewish Perspectives and Methods for Resolving Some Commonly Occurring Moral Issues (in Good Intentions: Moral Obstacles and Opportunities, Indiana University Press, 2005) that we must adjust our attitude toward a tainted gift to the attitude of the donor. For a sinner/donor who is remorseful and attempts to make amends for their misdeeds should not be seen the same way that an unrepentant person’s gift might be. But on this account too Abramoff falls short. In the Times Magazine profile, Abramoff admits to unspecified “mistakes” but never elaborates on what they might be. He seems entirely more interested in explaining and justifying what he did, rather than in doing teshuva (“return” or making amends).
Rabbi Daniel Lapin: Abramoff’s Rabbinic Enabler
One of Abramoff’s staunchest defenders has been Rabbi Daniel Lapin, a prominent social conservative who runs Toward Tradition, a conservative alliance of Jews and evangelical Christians. It was Lapin who first introduced Abramoff to Tom DeLay.
Congressional testimony reveals that Abramoff asked Lapin to provide him with a bogus Jewish “award” which he could use to bolster his application to join the exclusive Washington Cosmos Club. Lapin’s correspondence with Abramoff reveals him to be a willing accomplice in the charade. No doubt his readiness to help Abramoff, even in a fraudulent way, may lie in the fact that Abramoff helped Rabbi David Lapin’s company Strategic Business Ethics, win a $1.2-million contract with the Northern Mariana Islands (Torah Cover–Rabbis to the Right, The New Republic, June 20, 2005). David Lapin is Daniel’s brother. The Mariana’s were lucrative sources of fees for both Abramoff and Lapin.
While the Lapin brothers don’t seem to play an active role within the organized Jewish community (I don’t believe that either has a pulpit), I wonder whether fellow rabbis should feel some sort of obligation to critique the questionable behavior of a colleague; if for no other reason than that it brings the entire profession into disrepute? In addition, the Lapins have appointed themselves Jewish rabbinic emissaries to the evangelical movement. Shouldn’t the American rabbinate state loudly that the Lapins do not represent it in their dealings with the Christian Right (something evangelicals no doubt do believe in some sense)? I can tell you that I haven’t heard any rabbi or Jewish community leader comment publicly on Abramoff’s or Lapin’s conduct, let alone censure them. As far as the rabbis are concerned, perhaps it becomes hard to censure someone you may meet at a future rabbinic conference or you know personally. Well, American Jewish rabbinate…I can’t hear you!
Silverstein has published Tikun Olam since 2003, It exposes the secrets of the Israeli national security state. He lives in Seattle, but his heart is in the east. He publishes regularly at Middle East Eye, the New Arab, and Jacobin Magazine. His work has also appeared in Al Jazeera English, The Nation, Truthout and other outlets.