Clergy and the Color of Money

How often is dirty money welcomed in the sanctuary? More often than you might believe.

Jack Abramoff is a once-influential Republican lobbyist now under investigation by two U.S. Senate committees, the Justice Department, the FBI, the Internal Revenue Service, and the Interior Department's inspector general for allegedly defrauding his Indian casino-owning clients and for breaking lobbying laws. He was recently indicted in Florida on multiple charges of conspiracy and wire fraud in applying for loans in the purchase of a Florida-based casino cruise-ship company. He is also an Orthodox Jew who has given millions of dollars to Jewish causes, schools, and charities. That's my problem and the problem of every clergy person I know.

In the mythology of ages past, it was the wealthy who lined up at the doors of the wise. Today, it is the wise who line up outside the doors of the wealthy. I stand in that line and so do a lot of other rabbis, priests, imams, and ministers, et al. We have different agendas, but we are all standing in the same line, waiting for our turn to rub shoulders with the rich, the powerful, and the sometimes corrupt. Abramoff is just the most recent name on a long list of people whose money may be ill gotten, but who still try to do a little good along the way. I don't know a lot of these people, but I do know this. Money changes people-including clergy people.

Most rabbis and other religious do-gooders did not grow up rich. Those of us now in power in the American religious world were raised primarily in the middle class in the middle of the last century-we were not poor, but we were not among the elite either. So it's hard not to feel a little awkward around big money.


There is something disturbing and strange about having dinner with a person whose watch sells for five times your annual salary and who could rebuild your entire house of God with the stroke of a pen. My situation in Los Angeles is outrageous in this regard, but it is far from unique. The numbers may differ, but the phenomenon is the same for virtually every rabbi I know.

I like smart, successful people. I like a nice meal. I like good folks whether they are wealthy or not. I have written extensively about money and firmly believe that money is not the problem. Money is often the solution to our personal and societal ills. But still, money, especially tainted money, presents an ethical dilemma for the clergy.

The external pressure on rabbis to cater to the rich is extreme. Our boards of trustees expect us to raise the money, to build the building, to fund the programs, to pay the salaries, to market the events, to burn the mortgage, to feed the dog that bit the cat that ate the kid my father bought for two zuzim.

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Rabbi Steven Z. Leder
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