Kushner: Crimes, Misdemeanors and Philanthropy

[I first published this blog post on 12/06/2006.]

“Behind every great fortune is a great crime,” my friend Charlie used to assure me on the golf course as we discussed the meaning of life. He exaggerated to make his point that it is commonly understood that people break laws in the pursuit of wealth. Lately we don’t have to look far to find proof.

When the wealthy donate the products of their ill-gotten gains to charities we face some meaty moral issues. Do yeshivas, synagogues and federations have the obligation 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 circumstances when accepting money from a scoundrel is morally right?

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. Now said individual has been arrested for allegedly paying prostitutes in an effort to suborn the perjury of witness that could testify that he made illegal contributions to political candidates.

This is not a “great crime” but the full story of Kushner’s fortune has not yet unraveled. We may derive some moral guidance in today’s scandal ridden times at what some people argued regarding earlier ill-gotten gains.

Back in the eighties 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 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 now, what should the community do? According to the New York Times of November 28, 1986, the insider trading scandal stirred an ethics debate. This was surprising since the public discussion of morality always has been rare in American society and has been virtually nonexistent in the American Jewish community.

One issue that was raised in the controversy back then was whether the activities of the so-called "corporate raiders" were at all ethical? Arguments on both sides supported the self interests of the raiders on the one hand and of the entrenched corporate managers on the other. Whoever was right, one thing was clear. This aspect of the process of amassing great wealth in a short term was not an exclusively theological or religious issue. Surely this was not a problem that was likely to be handled intelligently by theologians.

The rabbis certainly could attempt to sort out what should be done with the "dirty money" earned by unscrupulous persons who have transgressed the statutes of our land?

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, if only weakly, the exhortations of Israel's classical prophets.

Note well however that the summit was not held. What if we now held the meeting? On the top of the agenda of any forthcoming moral summit conference or continuing debate of public morality within the Jewish community, we must place several problems:
Should philanthropic institutions, rabbinic seminaries, holocaust memorials, synagogues and schools accept donations of "dirty tzedakah"?
How far, we must ask, should an institution go to investigate the source of every munificent gift?
Once we have discovered that funds received by an institution derived from theft, embezzlement or swindling, should we give those funds back, refuse to make use of the fruits of iniquity?

If we put these questions on the agenda the preponderant responses will be that we must look more closely at the sources of monetary donations, we must scrutinize more carefully their sources. But on the subject of returning illegally earned monies already donated to the Federation, the yeshiva, or other philanthropic recipients, we will find understandable resistance.

Two paths of argument will emerge. One voice 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.

Very few who will raise their voice 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.

Yet where do we draw the line? Will we continue to accept money from the Boeskys, Levines, Kushners and their friends? Will we name Yeshivas after them? Will we hold these people up as models of behavior for our younger generation?

Perhaps we should demonstrate our moral abhorrence of greed and criminality by rejecting the corrupt and sending back to them the fruits of their corruption with a reminder of an age-old message 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 you 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."

To continue to be a great nation we must uphold our moral standards, even when the cost is great. 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. _____________________________

Tzvee Zahavy was ordained rabbi at Yeshiva University and holds a Ph.D. in Religious Studies from Brown University.

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