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.
But there is also pressure from within. I have been in meetings and private conversations with other rabbis who talk about how much money they've raised like most guys talk about their sexual prowess. When I asked whether or not he enjoyed spending so much time fundraising, an elderly rabbi pulled me aside, waved an arthritic finger in my face, and proclaimed, "You'll never be the Rav if you don't raise the money."
Putting ill-gotten money to sacred use
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"Yeah, but it's not your money" I responded.
"As far as the board is concerned," he retorted, "if I raise it, I get to call the shots."
In a way he's right. There is little doubt that rabbis and ministers who raise a lot of money for their institutions have more say over those institutions' priorities. There's also little doubt that those who raise the most money get the highest salaries and clergy longevity is often more a factor of rainmaking than wisdom, kindness, or scholarship. But of course, "There's no quid pro quo," everyone acknowledges just before inking the deal.
All of which brings us back to Jack Abramoff and his ilk. Most people in fund-raising have heard of the 80/20 rule. Eighty percent of the money comes from 20 percent of the people. It stands to reason that most of the money the synagogue or church needs to operate will come from a few families.
So what choice does the clergy really have? We are the ones with the relationships to those families. We have buried their loved ones, married them or their children, brissed or christened their grandchildren, helped get their kids into college or off drugs. The truth is that for most of them it is not so much to the Bible, synagogue, or church that they feel obligated--it's to us personally.
Let me be clear. Should I use those relationships to benefit the synagogue? Of course. Should I accept the money even when I know the donor's character or methods of acquiring the money are suspect? Yes. I see no reason why a synagogue or church or any charity for that matter should not try to right a bit of the wrong by putting ill-gotten money to sacred use. It was Mother Teresa who I am told once said about a suspicious donor, "Even the wicked have the God-given right to do a good deed."
Judaism also teaches that you should never stop a person from doing a mitzvah. Would I put a convicted criminal's name on a building? No. Would I accept his or her anonymous donation to the synagogue? In a minute. Robin Hood had the right idea. His mistake was stealing from the rich instead of meeting them at the club for lunch and asking.
We live in a world in which the clergy must get in line and ask for money. The danger comes when we lose our sense of purpose. When our personal aspirations trump our institutional goals, our souls weakened from years of asking, asking, asking. Losing sight of the holiness in our work. Measuring success by how much comes in rather than by how it is spent, by the size of the building rather than what happens inside it.
I have seen a lot of clergy more concerned with who they know than what they know. I suspect that's what happened to the old rabbi who wagged his finger in my face. I know it sometimes happens to me. In truth, there's a fine line between rubbing shoulders with the rich and kissing their asses. But one thing's for sure. You'll never be the Rav if you forget which side of the line you are on.