Should a charity accept donations from someone with a stake in internet porn?

November 20, 2008
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Question: I am a trustee of a charity and we are all worried about the impact of the current financial crisis. We were recently offered a significant gift for a particular project but we discovered that the prospective donor has a large stake in internet porn. Should we take it?

Rabbi Naftali Brawer

Naftali Brawer is rabbi at Borehamwood and Elstree United Synagogue.

As tempting as it might be to just look the other way and accept the money, you have done the right thing by putting ethics first and raising this question.

Lenin reputedly made the comment that "money has no scent" but Judaism takes a very different view. In a passage bearing an almost direct response to your question, the Torah states: "You shall not bring the fee of a whore or the pay of a dog into the house of the Lord, your God in fulfilment of any vow, for both are abhorrent to the Lord, your God" (Deuteronomy 23:19).

Based on this passage, the rabbis forbade funds of immoral provenance being used to purchase religious articles or to fund religious institutions. While your charity may not, in the strictest sense, be a religious institution, the spirit behind this law is equally applicable to any institution professing Jewish ethics.

By accepting such a gift, your charity will be seen to condone the business interests of your patron. While the reality may be different, public perception is what matters. Further complications will arise if the charity feels it must in some way publicly honour its generous benefactor.

It is not just pornography that Jewish charities must not be seen to support but any form of unethical behaviour, be it outright theft or the exploitation of the poor. In the case of theft, there is the additional problem that the money does not rightfully belong to the donor in the first place and a charity has no right to accept it.

It is worth pointing out that, should the donor have other significant legitimate sources of income, it may be possible for the charity to accept his donations. However, this very much depends on how this will be perceived by the wider public.

As it is incumbent on Jewish charities to ensure the source of their funding is ethical , equally important is that their own governance is ethical. Transparency and accountability in how the funds are managed, coupled with ethical treatment of employees, are the foundation on which any Jewish charity must be based. When this is the case, such charities serve not only their stated cause but they act also as exemplars of kiddush Hashem, the sanctification of God's name, conferring honour and respect on us all.

Rabbi Jonathan Romain

Jonathan Romain is rabbi at Maidenhead (Reform) Synagogue.

In an ideal world, the obvious course of action is to reject the offer. Accepting it would appear to condone the pornographic industry behind the donation.

Pornography does not comply with Jewish values of modest behaviour and sexual fidelity. In addition, it may have involved exploiting those working for it, while it also panders to the baser instincts of those buying it.

But are there other factors? Is the industry any less exploitative than the High Street stores who bring us cheap goods thanks to pitiful wages and terrible working conditions of those in the Far East? Public companies can be just as immoral as seedy porn shows, yet we take their money.

What about the donor? Could it be that he/she feels uncomfortable with what they are doing and the gift is not to curry favour but as a desire to help this particular charity or as an act of teshuvah [repentance]? It would be better not to be in the industry in the first place, or leave it immediately, but maybe this is a first step to distancing themselves from it.

There is also an argument that internet porn- though here I would specify "soft porn"- is of help to some people, who either do not have a partner or who have a very unsatisfactory sexual relationship with them. Judaism has never seen sex as being a matter of procreation only, and those who are lucky enough to have a fulfilling physical relationship should not underestimate the frustration of those who lack it.

Still, these points are open to challenge and can easily be argued the opposite way. What is not in doubt is that your charity provides for those in need and, to be blunt, a starving man does not care who baked the bread he is being offered. In fact, Maimonides, in his list of degrees of charitable giving, ranks highly those who give in a way so that the recipient does not know the identity of the donor - be he villain or saint.

So, accept the offer: your concern is helping the needy, not reprimanding the rich. But the way in which the gift is received is also important. It should be acknowledged openly and with good grace but without sycophantic fanfare, so that the emphasis is not on advertising the donor but aiding the charity.

    Last updated: 6:46pm, March 11 2009

    COMMENTS

    Joe

    Mon, 11/24/2008 - 20:25

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    In Fort Lauderdale, Florida a mafia boss left the money to built a major Catholic church. The Church found its own way to make the money 'kosher' but most local Catholics found it very distasteful. I hope most Jews would feel the same way about taking money from someone involved in internet porn.


    Mark

    Thu, 01/08/2009 - 16:52

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    Does what we now know about Bernard Madoff change or add to anything you wish to say?

    I guess the nub of my question is what happens if you accept the gift and then afterwards discover that the money was obtained fraudulently, and that the giver had no right to give it?

    He may well have been using the artifice of charitable giving to "buy" himself respectability, so would simply removing his name as a donor be sufficient, or should the money be returned to his creditors to whom the money rightfully belongs?


    Mark

    Thu, 01/08/2009 - 16:56

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    Does what we now know about Bernard Madoff change or add to anything you wish to say?

    I guess the nub of my question is what happens if you accept the gift and then afterwards discover that the money was obtained fraudulently, and that the giver had no right to give it?

    He may well have been using the artifice of charitable giving to "buy" himself respectability, so would simply removing his name as a donor be sufficient, or should the money be returned to his creditors to whom the money rightfully belongs?

    Or in the specific case of the original question, what if they accepted the money and then only found out some time afterwards that the donation was funded by the proceeds of Internet porn?

    Sorry, I tried to edit my previous and now it comes up twice!