12/14/08

Cursed be the cheat. Charities Must Return the Madoff Donations.

We Jews as a nation do not condone cheating. We curse it.

To continue to be a great nation we must uphold our moral standards, no matter what the cost. We must set the highest standards for ourselves, our children and for the world around us. That has always been the destiny and primary mission of the Jewish people.

We Jews must demonstrate our moral abhorrence of greed and criminality. We must reject the corrupt and send back to them the forbidden fruits of their corruption. And we must send them the age-old message that makes us a chosen people like that of the prophet Malachi at the end of chapter one, the Haftarah of Parashat Toledot:

"You bring (to the Temple) what has been stolen or is lame or sick, and this you bring as your offering! Shall I accept that from your hand? says the Lord. Cursed be the cheat who has a male in his flock and vows it, and yet sacrifices to the Lord what is blemished; for I am a great King says the Lord of hosts, and my name is feared among the nations."

Behind every great fortune is a great crime

My golfing buddy Charlie used to assure me of our moral superiority on the golf course as we pondered why we were playing on the Edina public course rather than the Oak Ridge Country Club course. He liked to make his point that people break laws in the pursuit of wealth. As he put it, Behind every great fortune is a great crime.

Lately, we don’t have to look far to find evidence that suggests that behind every great fortune is a great crime.

Forbidden Fruits

So when the wealthy cheats donate the products of their ill-gotten gains to charities we face some meaty moral issues. How far do yeshivas, synagogues and federations have to go to investigate the source of the munificence that donors offer? How far must they go to be sure that the money is clean and that the donor is not a crook? Are there any circumstances when accepting money from a scoundrel is kosher?

Case # 1: In a recent local example Harold Kushner, a billionaire real estate developer and businessman in Essex County, made substantial donations to Jewish charities including Yeshiva University and a local yeshiva, subsequently named after him, the Kushner Academy. Then said individual was arrested for allegedly paying prostitutes in an effort to suborn the perjury of a witness who could testify that he made illegal contributions to political candidates. He went to prison.

Sure. This is not a “great crime” but do we know the full story of Kushner’s great fortune? We know enough.

Case # 2: Back in the eighties a New Yorker, Ivan Boesky made millions of dollars through the exploitation of illegal insider information. He did not earn his fortune honestly and through hard work. We know that he broke laws with impunity.

And worst of all we know that with his dirty fortune he sought and was accorded notoriety and prominence in our Jewish community. Boesky served as president of the New York Federation fund drive, as member of the national Holocaust Memorial Council, and as a prominent supporter of the Jewish Theological Seminary.

A troubling question was raised then as it should be again and again, what must our community do once the evil is known?

The Moral Retooling Summit

According to the New York Times of November 28, 1986, that insider trading scandal stirred an ethics debate. This was surprising since the public discussion of morality is rare in American society at large or in our own American Jewish community.

Rabbi Wolfe Kelman, executive director of the Rabbinical Assembly of Conservative rabbis, was quoted in the New York Times in 1986 as saying, "There have to be some limits to the prevalence of greed." He suggested a "moral retooling" beginning with a summit meeting of rabbis, cardinals and priests. No one disagreed with this call to justice, echoing, however faintly, the exhortations of Israel's classical prophets.

Note well - that the “moral retooling” summit was never held. Apparently some fragrance in the ink they use to print money caused the theologians who inhaled it to grow forgetful.

Initial Agenda for the Moral Retooling Summit:

1. Should philanthropic institutions, rabbinic seminaries, holocaust memorials, synagogues and schools ever accept dirty donations?
2. How far must an institution go to investigate the source of every munificent gift?
3. Once it is discovered that funds received by an institution derived from theft, embezzlement or swindling, should it give those funds back and refuse to make use of the fruits of iniquity?

Session one to discuss the Purification Argument: One voice at our summit will argue that laundering illegal funds by donating them to worthy causes is good. It cleanses the soul of the donor and allows for some worthy outcome for reprehensible behavior. These gifts serve as sin-offerings of a sort. And anyway, some may say, who can determine whether a dollar given to charity came from a shady deal or a legitimate one? If the charity doesn't take the money, or keeps it and doesn't give it back out of revulsion, and if the Federation and UJA don't use the proceeds of scandal for purposes of ultimate good, then someone else will surely use the money and maybe not for such seemly purposes. And furthermore, the recipient needs to grow and do more of its consecrated work. The local agencies supported by Federations need more funds for their worthy purposes. And the UJA needs the money it has received to do more good for social welfare in the State of Israel.

Session two to discuss the Holiness Imperative: One small still voice at the summit will speak against this practice will dare to contend that stolen money must not be accepted in any form into the organized community. Few will say that by accepting stolen funds one desecrates the sanctity of a cause; that by honoring the crook, one sanctions immorality. Few will argue that the most effective way to limit greed and corruption is to use the sanctions of society against the immoral elements who would want to be accepted into our organized and orderly world.

There was no summit. And here we are at Case # 3. In 2008 a man named Madoff. Nobody is running to the rabbis cardinals and priests.

We watch now for a mad rush by the victims off to the lawyers. Not that there is anything wrong with that. It is what they must do.

But that’s not a Jewish response or a godly response or a moral response or an ethical response. I say let’s start over with Malachi:

"You bring (to the Temple) what has been stolen or is lame or sick, and this you bring as your offering! Shall I accept that from your hand? says the Lord. Cursed be the cheat who has a male in his flock and vows it, and yet sacrifices to the Lord what is blemished; for I am a great King says the Lord of hosts, and my name is feared among the nations."

And this time let us do something. Charities that received any donation from Madoff must return it to his victims. Charities must stop taking dirty money.

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