Parasaht Ki Tissa

Our Golden Calf: When Tzedakah Is Not Righteous

The incident of the Golden Calf challenges us to consider how we respond to tzedakah that comes from resources that were acquired unethically.

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What are we to do, then, when tzedakah is given for immoral reasons, and how are we to respond when charitable resources are derived from unethical and criminal pursuits?

Gangsters & Israel

I am reminded of two such instances, taking place in the throes of the creation of the State of Israel. As is now more widely-known, several Jewish gangsters contributed money, weapons and smuggling expertise on behalf of Israel's struggle for independence.

One such gentleman, Jake "Greasy Thumb" Guzik, was Al Capone's accountant; another was Bugsy Siegel, a mob enforcer, and founder of the Las Vegas gambling industry. Some argue that when facing a basic existential crisis like the Jewish people did after the Holocaust, our community had no choice but to accept aid from any source. But what about today?

We in the social action community and indeed in the Jewish community as a whole must ask and challenge ourselves to think critically about when the ends justifies the means--and they don't. In recent years, our community has increasingly had to ask whether financial resources gained from unethical activities should be accepted, or even applied specifically to social action concerns.

Ivan Boesky, Michael Milken and now Marc Rich, are well-known for their less than pure ways of accumulating wealth, but each also achieved notoriety for their seeming devotion to tzedekah. (Marc Rich, for example, did business and grew wealthy in part from his dealings with regimes such as Iran, Iraq and apartheid-era South Africa--and yet he also gave millions of dollars to Israel and other causes.)

Although this dilemma is not new, I fear that our community has yet to truly deal with this challenge. There are no hard and fast rules to these moral questions. But if we are not thoughtful about what we construct, and if we ignore the sources of our largesse, we too, like our ancestors in the wilderness of Sinai, may find ourselves building an idol made of gold rather than truly serving God and caring for humanity at large.

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Rabbi Charles P. Sherman

Rabbi Charles P. Sherman, D.D., has been the spiritual leader, teacher, and counselor of the Temple Israel in Tulsa, Oklahoma since 1976. Ordained in 1969 at the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion in Cincinnati, he is a Past-President of the Southwest Association of Reform Rabbis.