My Jewish Standard Dear Rabbi Column for January 2015 - Books, Books, Books

Dear Rabbi: Your Talmudic advice column

Dear Rabbi,

I’ve been buying books for many years. Now I look around my house and I’ve decided that I just have way too many volumes. I need to thin out my library, but I’m overwhelmed. I don’t know where to start. Please advise me!

Buried in books in Bergenfield

Dear Buried,

Yes, we are the people of the book. One of the major archetypes of Jewish culture is the scribe, the writer of books. We put passages from our sacred writings on our doorposts and we wear them in our t'fillin. In synagogue we embrace and kiss our Torah, the primary book of our religion.

And for many of us, buying and owning books is an important part of life. As a professor for several decades I amassed quite a library. And of late with the rise of digital books and internet archives of many reference materials, I find that owning paper books is no longer so necessary.

Also, as we get older, we realize the time will come when we leave our children our possessions. And they often do not want to inherit our books. I’ve dealt with the problem of too many books quite recently, as I ponder the destiny of my own impressive book collection and as I continue to deal with my father’s library after his death several years ago.

Here are some of the options and suggestions for what to do with your books that my siblings and I have tried with some small successes.

(1) Give them away. You may donate books to a school library. Many universities, seminaries, colleges and yeshivas are willing to accept donations, especially if your books are non-fiction or academic or religious books. You may also try to give away your books to family or friends. I tried but have had far fewer takers on my offers than I had imagined. I have heard anecdotally that posting free books on the Teaneck Shuls listserv can be successful.

(2) Sell them to a dealer or book store. If you have a focused subject collection in Judaica or another field, a serious dealer or book store may make you an offer, and it may not be as low as you expect. You can find active local dealers by asking around. In Teaneck, Aryeh Wiener is one of our local book dealers (aryehwiener@gmail.com).

(3) Become a book seller yourself and list and sell your books on Amazon or eBay. It’s not hard to list a book on Amazon. Just look up the book on the site, seek out the magic words on the listing, “Have one to sell? Sell on Amazon,” and click on that for the details. The current market value of a book may surprise you. A volume that you prize may be selling on Amazon for pennies. And one that you don’t care for may be priced quite nicely on the world’s biggest book e-commerce site. It’s a bit trickier and slower to sell your books on eBay.

Be sure to be practical. If you want to sell your book, price it below the lowest asking price on the site. I have sold an item in as little as a few days, or even a few hours. But note that it’s usually a gruelingly slow process. Yet with patience, one by one you will see spaces appear in your bookshelves, and some lucky buyer will have new prized possessions.

And last suggestion, (4) recycle your books - with this note of caution. If your books include traditional Hebrew volumes, you need to consult your local rabbi about how to dispose of them with respect. Some books with the name of God printed in them will need to be buried. That may actually cost you money. Consult at your synagogue to see if they will accept your discarded seforim.

Bottom line, your question does not surprise me. Many of us people of the book do find there comes a time when we need to be people of the fewer books.

Dear Rabbi,

In my community we are collecting money to pay for the writing of a new Torah scroll. We are having a heated discussion about whether money from questionable sources can be accepted for this project. 

As I once learned, money for the upkeep of the ancient Temple could not be accepted if it came from illicit acts. So now I ask, some in our community want to accept funds that we suspect were obtained through stock manipulation, investor fraud, kickbacks, bribery or other criminal activities – and use the money to pay for writing the sefer Torah. The shady donors then will be honored for their good philanthropic deeds. I say this is wrong. What’s your advice?

Troubles with Scrolls in Tenafly

Dear Troubles,

Your question is quite timely. Donating dirty money for a worthy religious purpose is one way to clean the proceeds of illegal acts. Like you, I find it utterly distasteful that a person would use religion to tidy up his stained reputation and to launder his filthy funds.

We are living in an age when many governments and politicians support the crackdown on illicit activities through more consistent discovery of and restrictions on monies that derive from and support those crimes.

I consulted with my son Yitzhak, who is an international expert on anti-money laundering practices. He prescribes that tighter controls on donations be developed for our religious institutions. He says, “My answer to the direct question is no. A Torah scroll should not be written or purchased with money obtained from illicit activities.”

He says that of course, you can only know what you know. A "Know Your Donor" (KYD) program should be put in place by all charitable institutions – similar to the "Know Your Customer/Client" (KYC) requirements used by banks and other financial institutions.

He observes that such programs put the onus on the institution receiving the funds to determine the source of the funds. Institutions are rigorously held accountable according to recent strict anti-money-laundering legislation. And notably, some big banks in the US, Switzerland and Israel have received large fines for their lax KYC programs and for other related AML violations.

Yitz points out that banking institutions now often use detailed questionnaires to determine the source of  its customer or client funds. At the end of the day, each institution needs to make the call on whether to accept the funds offered to it.

My takeaway from my son’s discussion of AML regulations is that we need to be proactive and inquisitive in our communal institutional acceptance of donations. Where red flags go up and there is suspicion that monies may stem from dirty sources, we need to have the processes in place to investigate. And if found to be the case, our charities must reject the funds and in some cases, where evidence merits, they should contact the authorities.

While short term it is tempting to accept big donations for worthy causes regardless of the source, the long term health of our community depends on its integrity and honesty.

In addition to the pragmatism of that motive, I do feel the need also to invoke objective ethical imperatives. It’s wrong for a religious institution to validate crimes in any way. It’s sinful. It should never be tolerated.

Dear Rabbi,

I was shocked to discover that my teacher took a big book that I published a few years ago, and he re-published it under his name – with no acknowledgement that I was the author. When I discovered this new edition of my book with his name on it as author, and confronted him, he claimed the whole thing was just a production mistake. On the one hand, I want to expose him as a vile plagiarist. But I also revered him for many years as my mentor. I am torn. What’s your advice?

Torn over a book in Teaneck

Dear Torn,

I’m of two minds in how to counsel you.

Stealing someone’s work through plagiarism is plain and simple a brutal authorial theft. It is tempting for me to advise you to screw the bastard in every way that you can. Expose him for what he is. Advise the world of his evil. Sue him in civil court.

But I sense that you are not looking for dramatic payback, but that you do want to right the wrong. So here is what you will have to do.

Formally inform him and his publisher of the “mistake” that you discovered. And tell them that these steps need to be followed to set it right. First, recall and destroy all printed volumes bearing the teacher’s name as author. Second, calculate and pay you, the real author, whatever were the royalties that were paid to the teacher. Third, republish the book with the accurate attribution of authorship to you, and pay you royalties for any future sales. It would also be a nice option if, fourth, your teacher publically acknowledged and apologized for his mistake.

I do hope you aspire to be the big person in this awful mess and follow these steps. Revenge and retribution can only sully our society. Take the high road and stay on it.

Tzvee Zahavy earned his PhD from Brown University and rabbinic ordination from Yeshiva University. He is the author of “The Book of Jewish Prayers in English,” “Rashi: The Greatest Exegete,” “God’s Favorite Prayers” and “Dear Rabbi: The Greatest Talmudic Advice” – which includes his past columns from the Jewish Standard and other essays – all available as Kindle Edition books at Amazon.com.

The Dear Rabbi column offers timely advice based on timeless Talmudic wisdom. It aspires to be equally respectful and meaningful to all varieties and denominations of Judaism. You can find it here on the first Friday of the month. Please mail your questions to the Jewish Standard or email DearRabbi@jewishmediagroup.com.

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