The Unethical Donor:
A Moral Challenge

By Rabbi David A. Teutsch
and Rabbi Mira Beth Wasserman

Is it ethical to accept contributions from a donor who is known to have behaved unethically?

In the Me-Too era, some well-known and powerful donors have become known as harassers. These donors are often people who have wielded considerable influence within the Jewish community as a whole and direct power within particular Jewish organizations. Their inappropriate speech and/or action have humiliated communal professionals and volunteers, most of them women. There are far more cases of such harassment than have been publicly acknowledged to date. That victims are coming forward is a great credit to their courage, and when the organizations involved have adjudicated such cases with care and transparency, their actions have brought credit to them as well. Such actions carry risk to both the financial wellbeing and the reputation of an organization, but they are essential for the moral credibility of the Jewish community. It is a core Jewish value to uphold the dignity of others, and we have a particular obligation to those who have chosen to serve the Jewish community.

The first steps in righting these situations have already taken place in some organizations. They include investigation, removal from boards and committees, and, in the case of repeat offenders, public disclosure to protect others. During an investigation, the accused ought to be required to step back from involvement with the organization both as a donor and a volunteer. An organization’s first responsibility is to protect the dignity and safety of everyone connected to the organization – staff, volunteers, recipients of services, and all other stakeholders. Once the case has been investigated and the person found to be at fault, the next question is often what kind of relationship with such a donor is possible in the future.

Jewish tradition teaches that money is morally neutral. It has the power to do good or evil, depending on what people do with it. While Jewish sources prohibit the acceptance of money or gifts that are directly tainted by theft or other misdeeds, there is no prohibition on accepting donations from known wrongdoers, provided that the donation itself was not stolen (Mishna Temura 6:2,4; Shulchan Arukh Hoshen Mishpat 369:3). In most cases, Jewish law stipulates that while ill-gotten gains must be returned to those who were wronged, other funds can be accepted from wrongdoers. Such gifts are generally encouraged, for the good of the community and for the sake of the donor’s penitence and rehabilitation.

When it comes to sexual harassment by donors, the ethical considerations are more complicated. While the money itself is not tainted, the act of donation might be. Philanthropy structures relationships in a way that creates the conditions for harassment because it grants donors power and influence, making organizations and the people who work for them dependent on donors’ goodwill. Sexual harassment by donors is an abuse of the power and influence that the Jewish community grants big donors. Before an organization can accept a gift from a known harasser, it must take steps to ensure that the donation will not enhance the donor’s stature or power in any way. Traditional commentators understand the biblical precept of “not putting a stumbling block before the blind” (Leviticus 19:14) as an ethical injunction to avoid enabling or abetting those who are prone to wrongdoing. This means intervening so that those who have abused their influence and stature as donors in the past are not granted the power to do so in the future.

A wrongdoer should not be allowed to have influence in organizational decision-making lest the organization be used as an inadvertent vehicle for furthering inappropriate ends. If such a gift is accepted, it is important to disclose the circumstances fully to the board and senior staff of the organization in order to maintain transparency and oversight. And the organization should not accept gifts in a way that publicly connects the donor to the organization and bestows honor on such a donor. Such forms of honor include putting the donor’s name on a host committee; accepting a naming gift for a building, room, or program; or featuring the donor in any other way. Such honors may help to restore the donor’s good name inappropriately, and they will certainly undermine the moral integrity of the organization and potentially damage its public image.

Some donors will refuse to give without such inducements, but others will be moved by a genuine interest in making a difference, in advancing the organization and its work. Were the donor willing to accept those conditions, we believe it would be appropriate to accept the gift not only for the organization’s sake but for the sake of the donor. Giving tzedakah can be an act of contrition and repair, a part of the process of doing teshuvah (return, repentance) after wrongdoing. To be effective in the teshuvah process, such an act should be a private one that is devoid of self-aggrandizement and of efforts to burnish one’s public image or restore one’s influence. Acts of tzedakah that accompany public apologies should have our full support.

Unfortunately, very few harassers have offered genuine public apologies. The apologies we have seen have often been far from complete. Sometimes they take the form of a statement like this: “I do not recall the incidents the way my accusers do, but if I have caused anyone pain, I apologize.” Genuine teshuvah requires full acknowledgment of wrongdoing and sincere efforts to repair harm. Apologies to both individuals and organizations are necessary when wrongdoing occurs in an organizational setting. Jewish tradition teaches that genuine teshuvah is always possible, though in the case of harassers it does not seem common. When it occurs, it should be welcomed. Until then, there is every reason to be extremely cautious about the roles such people assume in the Jewish community.

Why have heartfelt public apologies been so rare? One factor is undoubtedly the advice of attorneys who caution about providing evidence that can be used to sue. Another is public shame. It is hard for anyone to honestly examine their personal behavior when experiencing shame. Shame is a crushing experience that seems to interfere with one’s ability to examine one’s actions in a reflective way. Helping any wrongdoer through the process of admitting the damage that has been done and publicly apologizing helps in moving the individual toward resolving that shame.

Genuine remorse and public apology will help to change the climate in the Jewish community that has created toleration for gender-based harassment and abuses of power. Creating and enforcing zero-tolerance policies and training, and supporting and celebrating courageous victims who come forward can help us to remove a communal blight and improve the moral state of the organized Jewish community.

Rabbi David Teutsch, Ph.D., is a senior consultant to the Center for Jewish Ethics and Wiener Professor Emeritus at the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College, where he previously served as president.
Rabbi Mira Beth Wasserman, PhD., is director of the Center for Jewish Ethics at the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College.