Can a community accept gifts from crooks? Ask the rabbi

November 9, 2020 by Rabbi Raymond Apple
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Well…can it?

Rabbi Raymond Apple


Q. Why is the Jewish community happy to accept gifts from people whose wealth comes from dubious practices?

A. If your question implies that Judaism whitewashes unethical practices in business, this is far from the truth.

The Torah warns us against having false weights and measures, putting a stumbling block before the blind, perverting truth and justice and exploiting the disadvantaged.

The Talmud says that the first question put as we seek entry into the World to Come will be, “Did you deal honestly in business?” (Shabbat 31a).

It equates the punishment for unethical business practices with that for committing adultery (Y’vamot 21a).

Maimonides says that a mark of a Torah scholar is that his business is conducted with integrity (Hilchot De’ot 5:13).

So if someone who is widely considered to be unethical seeks to give the community a donation or endowment, the question is whether to accept it.

The decision is not easy, because there are issues of evidence of wrongdoing, of not publicly shaming a person and of not discouraging someone from coming back to the Torah and repenting. So there can be no hard and fast rule.

The ideal would be to use the occasion to influence the prospective donor to turn over a new leaf and to counter any lack of ethics in the past by going “lifnim mishurat hadin” – being more than ordinarily scrupulous in future. And this would imply trying to make amends to those whom they might previously have exploited.

But if it comes to the crunch, it may on occasion be necessary to find a way to decline a gift or endowment, with all the consequences that may follow.


Q. How does Judaism handle the claims of Bible critics who question the text and authorship of the Torah?

A. Judaism reveres the Torah as the word of God.

Yes, there are non-traditional interpretations that are sometimes quite radical and “hack at the shoots” (Chag. 14b). These interpretations claim to be based on linguistic and historical evidence, though the “evidence” is sometimes disputed and some of its proponents are biased against Judaism and even against religion as a whole.

Judaism does not object to people asking questions: what it objects to is the claim that the critics have all the answers.

There is a Jewish tradition called Midrash which derives its name from darash, to seek out. Midrash seeks out the hidden meanings in the text. Its approach is not arrogant and aggressive but loving and patient, knowing that the Divine giver of the Torah works at His own pace and reveals His secrets when and how He chooses.

The believer heeds Psalm 27:14, “Wait for the Lord” and remembers the advice of the Ethics of the Fathers, “It is not your duty to complete the work – but neither are you free to desist from it” (Avot 2:16).


Q. How can some texts describe Maimonides as a philosopher? Wasn’t he a theologian? Aren’t the two roles contradictory?

A. Despite the common view, you may well be right since philosophy has to reason things out without preconceived notions, and Maimonides as a believer began with axioms such as the existence and oneness of God.

Of course Maimonides works extensively on philosophical concepts, but my teacher Isidore Epstein argued in a famous essay for what he called the Supremacy of Faith in Maimonides, as against Ahad HaAm who argued for the Supremacy of Reason in Maimonides’ thinking.

As a theologian, Maimonides uses rigorous philosophical methodology to reason about the faith and tradition which he upholds.

It should be said, however, that modern philosophy also analyses the meaning and use of words and it is still called philosophy. Maybe this proves the pragmatic view that philosophy is what philosophers do, analogous to the definition of law which I heard as a law student, that law is what lawyers do.

Rabbi Raymond Apple served for 32 years as the chief minister of the Great Synagogue, Sydney, Australia’s oldest and most prestigious congregation. He is now retired and lives in Jerusalem where he answers interesting questions.

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