By David J. Schnall, Ph.D
Tzedakah, the Jewish approach to charity, compassion and social justice, is a frequent reference in the prayer, sermon and religious discourse that comprise our spiritual heritage. It is a sacred institution encompassing the most noble of personal impulses: the altruistic desire to provide help in response to human need. Executed collectively, it becomes a powerful force expanding social horizons, providing service, healing and care to those underserved, even abandoned, by the formal mechanisms of government and the open market. No wonder it is said to avert the evil decree and it plays a central role in our conceptions of penitence and religious renewal.
But today, our philanthropic impulse is in trouble. It has been dealt a mighty blow by the greed, arrogance and incompetence of many entrusted with its organization and administration. Over the past year there has been a string of scandal related to the oversight of Jewish communal and philanthropic resources that has included the Council of Jewish Organizations of Boro Park, the Jewish National Fund and the Jewish Federations of Bergen County, Washington D.C. and Toronto. Most recently, two Brooklyn rabbis were arrested for helping to support their shul and yeshivah with assistance provided by South American drug lords.
That it all follows in the wake of still more sensational doings at the United Way, the NAACP, Covenant House, the Episcopal Church and Adelphi University, is small solace. Jews are supposed to be better — or at least different.
I had the opportunity to make this point at the General Assembly of the Council of Jewish Federations last November. As part of a day-long institute projecting Jewish life in the United States over the next century, I called for “integrity and incorruptibility” as requirements for future Jewish leadership. For this, I was roundly criticized.
Such was the thinking of the past, a young participant opined. We need a “paradigm shove,” he demanded. Simple honesty was a value “that goes without saying.” I had heard this latter phrase often, in regard to the regular study of ethics in the curricula of yeshivot and in the mission statements of religious organizations. Sadly, what “goes without saying,” too often needs most to be said. Actually, Chazal spent a good deal of time and space in saying it. Public organization and structure forms the context of our religious and social activities, our mitzvot bein adam laMakom and lechavero (mitzvot between man and God and mitzvot between fellow men). Therefore, they focused sharply on this sphere of Jewish life and spared few words in their concern for the ethics and behavior of those who would manage philanthropic and communal institutions, as professionals or as volunteers.
The time is long past that we revisit these texts. For reasons unclear to me, they are neglected sugyot (Talmudic discussions). There is much scholarship and clear application surrounding their themes. Yet, they rarely inform lively discussion in the great batei midrash of our time, nor find their way into the treatments of Jewish morality that regale us and our children in print and in song.
So here are some hard-headed reflections from the words of our Sages, borne of long experience with the collection, management and disbursement of community funds. With a bit of imagination, we might infer their reactions to that which has been perpetrated by those acting on behalf of their progeny and their traditions.
Firstly, the mekorot (sources) demand high personal standards of behavior and propriety among parnassim and gabbaim, as lay and professional leaders were called.
Their position was a sacred trust, a mission to be approached with deepest reverence. As children of the Patriarchs, each constituent deserved deference and respect. In particular, there was concern over the accrual of serarah — influence and authority that could easily turn willful and arrogant.
Rambam warns sternly that a leader may never act with serarah nor in a boorish spirit, but should approach the task with humility and awe (Hilchot Sanhedrin 25:1-2). A parnas who imposes his authority capriciously “will never see his children become scholars,” no doubt due to the social and ethical indifference imbibed at their parent’s knee. Rabbi Yaacov ben Asher, Baal HaTurim adds that leaders must retain their patience and forbearance, even if their brethren “curse them and stone them” (Tur Choshen Mishpat 8:12).
Even the appearance of impropriety must be shunned by those entrusted with public funds.
The rabbis held especially high expectations for charity administrators and their agents. Of course, it was imperative to avoid any potential conflict of interest. Indeed, even the appearance of impropriety must be shunned by those entrusted with public funds. A well-known Talmudic passage (Bava Batra 8-9), upon which most normative discussions later were based, details the care invested to insure that philanthropic services always remain above reproach.
Charity was to be collected by two agents, never separating one from the other, lest there be an opportunity for malfeasance. Once collected, all currency must be recorded “one-by-one,” to assure an honest count. After distributions were completed, remaining funds or goods might be transferred. But administrators were proscribed from participating in any such transactions for the potential temptation and conflict they represented. As a tribute to the high regard and esteem in which they were held, early gabbaim were afforded a surprising degree of discretion and latitude in the investment, allocation collections and disbursements made, the good faith of the administrator being sufficient.
The Talmud provides personal models of such discretion, which suggest that purity of character may have been held even above professional competence in the original constellation of values. A good example is Rav Chananiah ben Tradyon, immortalized in the Yom Kippur liturgy as among the Ten Martyrs of the Roman oppressions. Rambam adjures that donors entrust their charitable funds to a kuppah (public fund) only if it be administered by one such as he.
According to the Talmud (Avodah Zarah, 17b), Rav Chananiah was a gabbai responsible for several charitable funds, including a fund designated especially for the celebration of Purim. Apparently, he confused this account with another, or with his own funds. Nonetheless, he covered the loss at his own expense and in such a manner as to embarrass neither donor nor beneficiary. It seems that Rav Chananiah is held aloft less for his administrative skills than for his exemplary personal integrity and commitment to duty.
Similarly, the Talmud tells us that Rabbi Yanai was given to borrowing from the public till, with the implicit approval of the poor (Arachim 6a-b). They knew that should his dealings yield a shortfall, he would repay the debt and turn more strenuous in his collections. The result invariably benefited those in need.
Later authorities looked upon such anecdotes as exceptions, ideal types not replicable en masse. Controversy was not unknown over the choice and the ethical demeanor of a gabbai or parnas. Especially as such positions were frequently awarded to salaried professionals, accusations regarding misappropriation had to be fully investigated. In short order, charitable funds were placed under standard review and routine accounting and financial disclosure became accepted as the norm. All the same, this was to be a discrete affair at the hands of a select group of community trustees. To protect the reputation of the honest administrator, this was never a random audit, nor the result of a frivolous claim or accusation (Rema and Shach, Yoreh Deah 257:2-3, Aruch HaShulchan, 257:12).
In sum, classic Jewish texts provide a profile of honesty and nobility expected of all who undertake the mantle of communal leadership, particularly those entrusted with the collection and disbursement of charitable funds. They must be as concerned with the fact of ethical behavior as with its appearance: never operating “out of sight” of their colleagues, never participating in the sale or transfer of community resources, always counting their collections “one-by-one” and periodically providing a full and regular detail of all their financial activities. With the public trust satisfied and their reputations secure, parnassim and gabbaim may be extended substantial discretion in the execution of their tasks. Should their activities result in a shortfall, they are duty-bound to compensate from their own funds. The central demand is for the integrity of the service and a commitment to the calling over personal gain. Anything less is a corruption of responsibility and a failure of mission.
There are few surprises here. But the events that motivated this writing suggest that there is also nothing that can “go without saying.” Two nagging observations remain.
The first is largely a matter of semantics. Discussions such as these are generally categorized under the rubric of middot. For those less parochial in their inclination, the term “ethics” is substituted. Whatever the original connotation, perhaps the moment is auspicious to cease using those terms.
Sadly, the study of middot today has been separated from the regular body of normative Jewish thought and relegated to another clime. Middot are “soft”; halachah is “hard.” Middot are best taught through song and fable, generally appropriate for the earliest primary grades. At schools for proper young ladies, the study of middot is an alternative to Talmud. Elsewhere, such things are unnecessary; once again, they “go without saying.” Therefore, to title honesty and integrity as matters of middot, somehow devalues, almost trivializes them.
Instead, it is imperative that these sugyot be revisited and their study upgraded, if only to reaffirm that they are just as rich, just as well-developed, and most crucial, just as binding, as the studies that more usually inform our religious curricula. There are “shas and poskim” here, as well as ample opportunity for the application of “chumrah and diyuk.” (There is much Talmudic and rabbinic wisdom to be gleaned and much stringency and precision to be applied.)
Sadly, “what goes without saying,” too often needs most to be said.
And it is equally imperative that Jewish communal, religious and educational institutions incorporate such references as part of their statements of mission. They must build them into their personnel handbooks and require their regular review, as part of any in-service training they offer, for lay and professional leaders alike. We must invest as seriously in the requirements of halachah regarding honesty and integrity in the disbursement of public resources, as we do in developing staff competence in the use of Windows ’95, or in understanding changes in state aid formula relative to parochial education.
The second observation speaks to those empowered to relate halachah with the vagaries of modern life. Applying the words of Chazal to current examples of corruption within the American Jewish community (and elsewhere) requires fuller development in at least one substantive arena. Much of what is said and written in classic text and popular call, has a “micro” focus. It places responsibility and accountability for both good and evil upon the single individual. Surely, that is a powerful dynamic.
However, we must also come to terms with the “macro” in all this. Indeed, we have seen more than a few examples of individual arrogance directed toward narrow personal gain. But corruption in communal organization, as well as in government and in the corporate world, often involves a form of collective misdeed reminiscent of what Hannah Arendt termed “the banality of evil” and what Irving Janis called “groupthink.”
Contemporary evil is not always easily recognizable. Nor is it necessarily composed of the violence and brutality that make us recoil in its presence. It is often banal: wrought as easily by lap-top computers and 28,800 BPS modems as by guns and knives. It attaches to those who leave the office and return home to play with their kids, to work in the garden, to daven and to learn. It attaches to those who look like neither devils nor monsters, but more like clerks and shayneh yiddin.
The bad guys no longer carry pitchforks. Instead, they wear white collars and sit at desks several steps removed from the outcome itself. Buried deep within, or atop, an organization, they rarely confront evil directly and they easily purge themselves of responsibility or guilt. After all, they performed no bloody deed and were purposefully ignorant of those who did. Nor was it their decision, alone. Others, distinguished individuals in positions of authority, also acceded. To object would have been futile. It would prevent nothing and only endanger one’s own professional future.
And if such is true of the perpetrators, so too is the act itself banal. Precisely because theft and corruption can be wrought by the computer, the pen and the standardized form, they are unlikely to be recognized as such. In organizations where functional roles are fragmented and redundant, people operate under what some call “bounded rationality” and others, less kind, term “muddling through.” They rarely feel accountable for the implementation of their routine and they easily become accessories by simply pursuing that routine without thinking. We have learned that corruption may result from neglect and indifference as much as from intent and design.
The problem is further exacerbated when the enterprise has a religious mission. Precisely that which should motivate higher levels of morality and integrity becomes a rationale for corruption in the name of the faith and its community of believers. Even the Divine Will may be invoked, as normally good, honest, sincere individuals are moved to take actions that they would never consider, were it purely for personal gain.
These random concerns aside, let it be said that much of the tradition has been captured, by purpose or intuition, on the part of armies of honest volunteers and professionals who work tirelessly for the communal good and who recoil from the merest hint of wrong-doing. They properly find scandal and corruption in their ranks offensive, repugnant and a blot on their good faith. It behooves us to confirm their commitments, to renew their credibility, and to affirm the faith and trust that they have invested in our communal enterprises. Those involved in the sacred pursuit of tzedakah and chesed on behalf of the organized community deserve a Jewish Code of Ethics, forged and fashioned from the rich mekorot that await our reconsideration.
This article is dedicated to the blessed memory of my beloved parents, Mrs. and Mrs. Harry Schnall (hk”m).
Dr. Schnall is Herbert H. Schiff Professor of Management and Administration at the Wurzweiler School of Social Work, Yeshiva University and Visiting Scholar at the Hastings Center for the Study of Ethics.