Ancient Jewish Wisdom for the Health of the Jewish Nonprofit Field in 5776
By Yossi Prager
The Jewish nonprofit world has been my professional home for over 20 years. I am proud to have as colleagues very many passionate and talented professionals serving the Jewish community. And yet, as I look back on 5775, I remember a year punctuated by scandals that raised troubling questions about ethics and professionalism in our field. Both CEOs and rabbis provided headlines that tarnished the reputations of community leaders and organizations. As we look forward to great success in 5776, I’d like to suggest for your consideration a Jewish text that offers a paradigm that could elevate our work and protect it from scandal. The story, and the text, date back almost 2,000 years to the management practices at the Temple in Jerusalem.
The Beit HaMikdash (the Temple in Jerusalem) was the spiritual center of the Jewish people until its destruction in 70 CE. But the Temple had another side – it was also the largest Jewish nonprofit organization of its era. In addition to providing religious services, staff had multiple responsibilities: upkeep of the majestic building of Jerusalem stone and gilt; maintaining hospitable roads, including wells to provide drinking water for travelers to the Temple; and operating a huge store in which visitors could purchase the animals, birds, flour, wine and oil needed for their offerings.
This kind of major financial operation required significant revenues. Temple operations were funded from multiple sources – voluntary capital and operating gifts, revenues from sales, and a mandatory half-shekel “tax” on each Jew over 20. The half-shekel tax was collected and brought to Jerusalem, where the money was kept in a treasury room. The Mishnayot in Tractate Shekalim report on practices and policies related to fundraising, investing and business operations related to these half-shekels. A couple of these Mishnayot became sources for aspects of modern Jewish charity law. An even larger number of them, by reporting on ancient Jewish practices, clue us into a value system that can inform contemporary thinking about nonprofit operations.
This brings us to our text, a Mishnah in the third chapter of Tractate Shekalim (Mishnah 2):
He did not enter the chamber wearing either a bordered cloak or shoes or sandals or tefillin or an amulet, lest if he became poor people might say that he became poor because of an iniquity committed in the treasury; or if he became rich people might say that he became rich from the treasury.
For it is a man’s duty to be free of blame before men as before God, as it is said: “And be guiltless towards the Lord and towards Israel” (Numbers 32:22), and again it says: “So shall thou find favor and good understanding in the sight of God and man” (Proverbs 3:4).
The words may be a bit obscure, but the meaning is clear: staff members who entered the Temple treasury did not wear clothing with pockets or a hem, shoes, an amulet or even a religious article that could be used to conceal coins stolen from the treasury room. The really interesting point is that this extreme safeguard was not enacted to prevent staff from stealing but to protect the reputation of the staff. The concern was that one of the staff might suffer economic hardship, provoking talk that this was punishment for stealing from the treasury; or, the reverse, a staff member might become wealthy, and people would say that he stole from the treasury. If there is no opportunity for theft, the staff’s reputations remain pristine. The Mishnah cites two verses to prove that just as we are commanded to be blameless before God – acting with absolutely honesty – we must also avoid any appearance of impropriety that could cause people to suspect our integrity.
Consider the implications of this approach to contemporary Jewish organizations. What would be different if our policies and procedures were intended to maximize public confidence in the integrity of our professionals? Let me just open the conversation. Not only would financial oversight be strong – double-signatures on checks would be routine and independent auditors would be asked to seek out anomalies that could signal trouble – but organizational cultures would welcome whistle-blowing on all kinds of bad behavior. Everyone in the Jewish community would know that our professionals are committed to the highest ethical standards.
In addition, our organizations would model financial transparency. Nonprofits are required to disclose some information on IRS Form 990s, which can be found at guidestar.org, but this obligation does not apply to organizations connected to churches and synagogues. Even where Form 990s are available, they often do not provide sufficient or sufficiently-clear information. Beyond financials, policies related to employee benefits, travel and annual reviews would be disclosed. Reliable full disclosure would protect employees as well as the public. Recently, an article in The Chronicle of Philanthropy tainted the reputation of a retiring employee and a nonprofit institution by making it seem as if the employee had received unreasonable compensation. In fact, the information from the Form 990 – a blunt instrument – unfairly combined salary and deferred compensation that had accumulated during the employee’s long tenure. The Chronicle footnoted this, but the large print did the damage. Thus, full disclosure by organizations would both restrict abuse and protect the reputations of nonprofit staff.
Now, back to the Mishnah. The concern about avoiding the appearance of the possibility of theft from the Temple treasury seems to be entirely prudential – how, as a practical matter, do we maintain reputations for high integrity. In this modern world, where litigation and leaks have the potential to make all emails public, and with social media carrying rumors to and from all ends of the earth, the Mishnah’s teaching seems almost self-evident (even if insufficiently practiced). However, from the perspective of Jewish thought, what is at stake is not just the reputation of people, but also the reputation of God. And here is the link to the upcoming holiday of Rosh Hashanah. While the liturgy for Yom Kippur focuses on sin and repentance, the prayers on Rosh Hashanah are about proclaiming God’s sovereignty and sanctifying God’s name. The Talmud (Yuma 86a) describes a way in which God’s name is sanctified:
Abaye explained: As it was taught: “And you shall love the Lord your God,” i.e., that the Name of Heaven be beloved because of you. If someone studies Scripture and Mishnah, and attends on the disciples of the wise, is honest in business, and speaks pleasantly to persons, what do people then say concerning him? “Happy the father who taught him Torah, happy the teacher who taught him Torah”… Of him does Scripture say: “And God said to me: You are My servant, Israel, in whom I will be glorified.”
Perceived honesty in business is not only a way to protect our reputations, it is also a way of revealing God’s presence. The Talmud hopes that people will connect our good behavior to the goodness of God and Torah, from which we learned how to be ethical. If our reputations are tarnished – even if our actions have actually been honest – we cause people to denigrate not only Jews but also God and Torah. It turns out the prudential concerns, the operational details, are interconnected with the mission we accept on Rosh Hashanah: to help all of humanity recognize the presence and loving nature of our God.
No mechanism for oversight and transparency is foolproof, capable of always protecting the public from undocumented kickback schemes or poor record-keeping. Still, the Mishnah about the half shekels suggests a paradigm for elevating the reputations of Jewish nonprofits professionals and enabling us to be exemplars of the loving-nature of the Divine. It consistently amazes me how much can be extracted from Jewish texts once we begin to scratch the surface. I studied Mishnayot from Tractate Shekalim, including the one described here, with philanthropist David Shapira, and our joint study reinforced for me the contemporary relevance of these texts.
As we enter 5776, I suggest that we open two conversations: 1) about oversight and transparency in the Jewish nonprofit world, and 2) about how to access the texts of our tradition so as to both inspire our professionals and generate modern applications of the Torah’s ancient wisdom.
I wish you a year of good health, dreams realized, and opportunities to apply the Torah’s wisdom to your lives.
Yossi Prager is Executive Director – North America for The AVI CHAI Foundation.