Every Hebrew school student learns about the eighth commandment: Al tignov ("Thou shalt not steal"). Back in my day, it seemed pretty clear cut. Unfortunately, ethical questions today have become fraught with ambiguity and tempered by moral complication.

Take Jack Abramoff, the Washington lobbyist and Orthodox Jew, accused of conniving a reported $80 million in fees from Indian tribes who wanted casino licenses. The tribes now cry foul at the sums paid to Abramoff, claiming that they were bilked. He is under the scrutiny of the Justice, Interior, and Treasury Departments and two Senate committees. While the possibility that Abramoff engaged in fraud in pocketing the fees is troubling enough, the goal of his work in promoting the gaming industry raises additional ethical concerns. And on Aug. 12, Abramoff was indicted by a Florida federal grand jury on unrelated charges of falsifying financial documents purporting to be a $23 million loan.

Jack Abramoff is also a philanthropist who has donated millions to Jewish charities. What, as Jews, do we think of someone who earns money from a tainted source and donates it as tzedakah (the Hebrew term for philanthropy)? What do we say about the donor and the tzedakah itself? Does the `good' of the mitzvah (good deed) outweigh the bad of the tainted source? What obligation, if any, does the donee have in terms of accepting or returning the money?

Even in his tzedakah, Abramoff's behavior may be suspect. Newsweek reports that he may have diverted funds from a youth sports charity he founded to provide weapons for West Bank settlers. Anyone who raises funds for one purpose and funnels them to an unrelated cause commits a grave violation of fundraising and ethical principles. At the very least, you alienate donors by misleading them as to what you intend to do with the money. Think what damage such behavior causes for non-profits in the eyes of the community. Doing good relies on the good will of the public. If you lose good will, then it's that much harder to raise funds for good causes.

Non-profits should understand if they accept a tainted gift they may allow the donor to assuage a guilty conscience. Should they be in the business of allowing donors to redeem themselves in the eyes of the community by giving gifts? Do not doubt this is precisely what is in Jack Abramoff's mind. In an interview with The New York Times, he pleads for our sympathy: "I have spent years giving away virtually everything I made. Frankly, I didn't need to have a kosher delicatessen. That was money I could have bought a yacht with. I don't live an extravagant lifestyle. I felt that the resources coming into my hands were the consequence of God putting them there."

Rabbi Elliot Dorff, rector of the University of Judaism, explained in an interview that the Torah comments on tainted contributions. Deuteronomy 23:18 prohibits the Temple from accepting gifts from male or female prostitutes. So certainly Jewish tradition recognizes that some gifts are tainted beyond redemption, especially if the donor makes no serious attempt to redeem the bad conduct that caused the moral taint.

How bad does a donor's behavior have to be before it becomes treif (unkosher)? Would we accept tzedakah from a drug dealer? A murderer? A spouse-beater? You can get into murky ethical territory if you begin classifying levels of ethical impropriety for the sake of tzedakah.

What to do with a sinner's charity
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  • Because Abramoff has proven to be his own worst enemy, revealing to the world his venality and duplicity through both e-mails and press interviews, he's an easy candidate for moral censure. But no matter his boorishness, his actions pose a potentially significant taint on all Jews. It is all too easy for anti-Semites to say: "Look at Abramoff, that's what they all do: steal from the goyim for the sake of their own." While it is wrong to blame a group for the faults of an individual, narrow-minded people are happy to do just that. How, as a people, do we deal with the potential moral stain from actions of individual Jews?

    Perhaps a Bet Din (rabbinical court) should deliberate about the issues in this case. Should his contributions be returned? Should his alleged pilfering from Native American tribes be censured?

    Rabbi Dorff points out in his article, "Nonprofits and Morals: Jewish Perspectives and Methods for Resolving Some Commonly Occurring Moral Issues" that we must calibrate our attitude toward a tainted gift with the donor's own attitude toward his crime/sin. The charitable gifts of a sinner who makes amends for his or her misdeeds are considered differently than those of an unrepentant person.

    On this account too, Abramoff seems to fall short. In the New York Times profile, Abramoff admits to unspecified "mistakes" but never elaborates on what they might be. He seems more interested in explaining and justifying what he did rather than in doing teshuva ("turning" or making amends).

    One of Abramoff's staunchest defenders has been Rabbi Daniel Lapin, a prominent social conservative who runs Toward Tradition, an alliance of Jews and evangelical Christians.

    In Abramoff's e-mails made public during congressional hearings, he asks Rabbi Lapin to provide him with a bogus "award" from Toward Tradition to bolster his application to join an exclusive private club. Lapin's e-mail replies indicate that he was a willing accomplice in the charade. The rabbi's willingness to engage in questionable ethical behavior was no doubt influenced by a million-dollar contract that Abramoff appears to have helped arrange for Lapin's brother, David (also a rabbi).

    What should rabbis do when another rabbi appears to breach Jewish ethical norms? Do they have a responsibility to speak out? With the exception of Rabbi Steven Z. Leder's article on Beliefnet, I haven't heard any rabbi or Jewish leader even comment publicly on Abramoff's or Lapin's conduct, let alone censure them. Perhaps it is hard to censure a colleague. But if rabbis fail to speak out, then they allow the Lapin brothers to tarnish the good name of all rabbis. Silence in the face of bad behavior helps no one-not the Jewish community, not other rabbis and not the offending rabbi, who may delude himself into thinking that other rabbis do not disapprove of what he's done. The poor judgment of Rabbi Lapin and the greed of Jack Abramoff do not represent either the ethical ideals of Judaism or the reality of how most Jews conduct their affairs. They are aberrations. And we reject any attempt-by them or those who seek to besmirch all Jews with their conduct-to claim they represent us or our religion. We are the People of the Book, who follow the prophetic ideal to do justice, love kindness, and to walk humbly with God, not the people of the inside track and the shady deal.
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