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The Controversy Over the Marc Rich Pardon
Rabbi Chaim Steinmetz

The Controversy Over the Marc Rich Pardon

Rabbi Chaim Steinmetz

Recently, many were embarrassed by the Jewish community.s involvement in the Marc Rich pardon. President Clinton, in an op-ed article, claimed that pressure from Israeli politicians and Jewish leaders led him to pardon Mr. Rich. In the minds of many, the reason why these Jewish leaders campaigned for Rich.s pardon was because he had donated money to their organizations. Rabbi Eric Yoffie, president of Reform Judaism's Union of American Hebrew Congregations, wrote in an op-ed piece in the New York-based Jewish Week that: "I am in no position to judge Rich's legal claims, but neither are the many Jewish leaders and luminaries who contacted President Clinton in support of the pardon...Why their interest in a man who appears to have traded illegally not only with Iran but with Iraq and Libya, rogue states devoted to Israel's destruction? The answer is simple: They were bought....... Rich contributed generously to Jewish causes and charities around the world, and then, in a carefully orchestrated campaign, called in favors to put pressure on the president." While the facts in this case are complicated, If Yoffie.s portrayal of this affair is correct, a serious breach of ethics has occurred.

How does one evaluate the Rich case from a halachic standpoint? There are several halachic discussions that relate to this issue. The key questions are: May one accept charity from a disreputable figure? Can one accept charity that is given with ulterior motives? Can they consider themselves to be objective when lobbying for the pardon of a major contributor?

1. Accepting Charity from Disreputable Figures

It is clear that stolen items cannot be used for ritual purposes, or accepted by charities as gifts. The prophet Isaiah (61:8) writes "for I the Lord love justice, and hate robbery with burnt offerings". The Talmud (Sukkah 30a) states that sacrifices and other ritual objects such as Lulav and Etrog are disqualified if they are stolen.

In addition, the Torah makes it clear that objects acquired in a disreputable fashion (such as an object bartered for relations with a prostitute) carry a taint that makes them unacceptable for sacred use, such as writing a Torah (Deuteronomy 23:19; Shulchan Aruch OH 153:21). However, cash or any fungible asset that is earned from such disreputable activities could be used to acquire ritual objects.

These rules relate to specific objects acquired in disreputable ways, and whether they can be used as sacred objects. However, there is a second issue: accepting money from a "mumar", a habitual sinner. The Talmud states that we do not accept sacrifices from a "mumar" (Hullin 5b). (The definition of a "mumar" in this context is complex. Some say it refers to fundamentally immoral people who reject any sort of moral authority, while others say it includes any habitual sinner. See Yabiah Omer 1:YD 11) It may be that the "mumar" is excluded from giving a sacrifice because we assume he is doing this for ulterior motives (see Orchot Chaim II page 442) or because we view the money of a "mumar" to be tainted (see Sefer Chasidim no. 938; cf. no. 687) Some apply this rule to include all types of charity, and say that we must always refuse the money of a "mumar" (Rama, OH 154:1; YD 254:2). Others distinguish between ritual objects, such as items used in a synagogue, which because of their inherent holiness cannot be donated by a "mumar", and charity that is distributed to the poor, which can be donated by a "mumar"(see Chatam Sofer, comment to Magen Avraham OH 154:18). Others limit this rule to sacrifices, and allow a "mumar" to give any type of charity (Shach YD 254:5; Magen Avraham OH 154:18). Indeed, some argue that charity should be accepted from all types of people, because it is important to encourage sinners to do good deeds (see Yabiah Omer 7: OH 22).

This debate has important implications for who should be accepted as a donor. A majority view would accept charity from disreputable characters. They do so with the hope that the very act of charity may be the donor.s first step in improving his behavior, and because of the practical value the charity will have. An important minority rejects charity from disreputable characters, because the donation is tainted.

There is another element in receiving charity from disreputable characters, and that is the desecration of God.s name (Chillul Hashem). Any action that will diminish the reputation of a religious institution, and as a consequence, desecrate God.s name, is absolutely forbidden (see Rambam Yesodei Hatorah 5:11). I would suggest, that because of this concern, disreputable characters should be barred from giving "naming gifts", where a specific room or lecture is named after a donor. In this instance, the taint of the donor.s name would diminish the reputation of the charity, and result in a Chillul Hashem.

2. Charity With Ulterior Motives

A similar question that arises out of the Rich case has to do with the motives with which he gave charity. One could argue that Marc Rich.s motivation to give charity was not altruistic, and that he gave charity primarily to clear his name by enlisting the help of Jewish leaders in his campaign for a pardon. Were Rich.s donations, which were given for ulterior motives, allowed to be accepted by charitable organizations?

It is acceptable to give charity in order to enlist God.s favor (Pesachim 8a). However, there are medieval sources who strongly condemn the giving of charity for the sake of fame and glory (Beit Yoseph YD 247, in the name of the Semag). According to this view, charity that leads to arrogance is itself a sin.

Because of this injunction, one could argue that publicizing the identities of donors and the size of their gifts, (a component of most fundraising campaigns) should be forbidden. In fact, this argument was made in 1867 by Elazer Dov Ettenzesser. Concerned with the common practice of the time, in which charitable organizations would place ads in the Jewish paper, Der Israelit listing the donors and the amounts they gave, Ettenzesser wrote to several prominent German Rabbis asking for the practice to be stopped. In response, Rabbi Ezriel Hildesheimer (YD I: 219) defends the practice. He argues that giving charity with the hope of publicity does not necessarily mean that one is looking for glory, and that it is impossible to be certain what the motives of a donor are. In addition, while he recognizes that publicizing gifts is ethically inferior, Hildesheimer is willing to accept the imperfect system for the sake of increasing charitable revenue. According to Hildesheimer.s view, (which is the current custom), an organization is allowed to accept charity, no matter what the motive.

3. Speaking on Behalf of a Donor: Corruption or Advocacy?

Perhaps the most controversial part of the case was the fact that Jewish leaders asked for Rich.s pardon. As we mentioned earlier, if a leader uses his organization.s prestige to advocate an inappropriate pardon, he may cause a Chillul Hashem, because he is using a religious institution to support a disreputable character. More importantly, it left many observers with the feeling that these leaders had been corrupted by the donations they received, and misused the influence of their positions to advance Rich.s case. This is a significant ethical issue. Halacha recognizes how easily people become biased. If a judge receives even a small favor from a litigant, he can become biased in favor of that litigant. In fact, the Shulchan Aruch rules that if a litigant aids his judge by wiping some dust off the judge.s garment, the judge is disqualified (CM 9:1). Consequently, it is impossible for a leader of an organization not to be biased in favor of a major donor, and any decision he will make will not be objective.

For this reason, the Jewish leaders who were asked to write letters supporting Rich.s pardon should have consulted with an objective outsider before writing their letters; their judgement would certainly be distorted by the donations they have received. There is nothing inherently wrong with leaders of Jewish organizations lobbying for a criminal.s pardon; however, any leader whose organization has received donations from the criminal should have all of his lobbying efforts reviewed by an objective outsider, to determine if his efforts are appropriate.

The Rich case underlines the complexity of receiving charity from less than reputable individuals. While there is a solid halachic basis for organizations to accept such gifts, there is an additional imperative that such donations must be carefully assessed to make certain they do not corrupt or taint the organization receiving them. They also should have an impartial outsider review their actions, because one.s moral vision is easily distorted by a large donation.

Rabbi Chaim Steinmetz
Tifereth Beth David Jerusalem
6519 Baily Road, C.S.L.
Quebec, Canada H4V 1A1
tel: 514-489-3841
fax: 514-489-2260

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