SYNAGOGUE CONTRIBUTION FROM A CRIMINAL
A man known or reputed to be a gangster wishes to make a contribution to the Temple. Should his gift be accepted? The question may also arise as to whether a plaque be put up in appreciation of his gift, as is done with other generous donors. (From M.A.K.)
THERE is considerable discussion in the legal literature which relates to the question raised here. The chain of Halachic reasoning begins with the verse (in Deuteronomy 23:19): “Thou shalt not bring the hire of a harlot or the price of a dog into the house of the Lord thy God for any vow; for both these are an abomination….” Aaron of Barcelona, in his Sefer ha-Chinuch, explains the reason for the prohibition as follows: If a lamb is brought to the altar in the fulfillment of a vow, its purpose is to purify the heart, but if one brings a lamb which had been given as the hire of a harlot, it would bring back lascivious memories of the sin.
The law is carried over to the Mishnah (Temura, VI, 2) and thence to the Talmud (Temura 29a ff., Baba Kama 65b). In the Talmud the application of the law is generally restricted. There are opinions given, that the word “harlot” used in the verse applies only to sexual relations with a married woman (which could not be legitimized by marriage) . Other opinions say that only the object itself (e.g., the lamb) may not be given. But if the object is changed (if it be converted into money) or if corn be given to the harlot and the corn is converted into flour, or olives into oil, then these converted objects are no longer unfit and may be brought to the Temple in payment of a vow. So Maimonides records this as the Law (Hilchoth Issure Mizbeach, TV, 14): “Only the object itself (i.e., the payment in its original form) is prohibited to be brought to the altar.” The “hire of a harlot,” etc., is the only “dirty money” mentioned in Scripture as prohibited as Temple gifts, and even these are restricted to the “hire” in its original form.
But there is a further and more important question involved here. The law as given in Bible and Talmud applies only to the Temple in Jerusalem and the altar, etc. Can it be legitimately extended to apply also to the synagogue?
There is considerable doubt about the justification of thus transferring and extending the old Temple restriction to the synagogue. The doubt is clearly expressed by the Magen Avraham (to Or ah Hayyim 153:21). He says that the law refers only to the Temple, and that no classic de cisor has extended it to apply to the synagogue except Jacob Weil. (I could not find the passage he refers to in the Responsa of Jacob Weil.) Therefore the Magen Avraham decides that (since there is doubt whether the prohibition really applies to the synagogue at all) all questions on the matter should be decided l’kula, i.e., permissively.
Magen Avraham’s comment is in reference to the note of Moses Isserles (ad loc.) who does apply the law to the synagogue, and says that no sacred synagogue object or Sefer Torah can come from “the hire of a harlot.” But he adds that money (if the gift is converted into money) may be used. As a matter of fact, the application of the Temple Law to the synagogue was made before Isserles (i.e., before the sixteenth century) by Rabbenu Yeruchem (of Provence, fourteenth century). In his Toldoth Adam V’Chava (Section Chavah, Path 23, part 1) he says that “the hire,” etc., may not be used for a Sefer Torah or for synagogue lights, etc. But he also says (in reference to Temple times) that if a man gave money and she bought an animal, it would be permitted on the altar (because she did not give the object that she recieved).
So as far as the law is concerned, it is clear that as long as the man you refer to does not give the actual money (coins or gift) which changed hands in the prostitution transac-tion, it is not prohibited by the Halacha.
However, our present concern is not restricted to the letter of the law, even though it does have weight with us. We are concerned also with the moral effect upon the community if we accept such a gift. This is a delicate matter and must be carefully weighed. In my judgment you should accept the gift, because it is his obligation (a mitzvah) to support the synagogue and we have no right to prevent a sinner from performing a righteous act. For example, it is a mitzvah encumbent upon a Cohen to bless the people (in the Duchan). But suppose a Cohen has committed a grievous sin, should we allow him to bless the people? To which Maimonides says (Hilchoth Tefilla XV, 6) that he must perform the mitzvah. He says: “We may not tell a man to add to his sin by neglecting a mitzvah.”
So it is in this case. He, as a Jew, has the duty to support the synagogue according to his means. We have no right to prevent him from doing his duty.
But as to putting up a plaque honoring him, that should not be done. Of course, in general, Jewish tradition favors recording and publicizing the names of donors in order to encourage other donors and also in order to prevent a specific giftobject being used or melted up for another purpose. (See Isserles, Yore Deah 249:13, and the whole discussion in Recent Reform Responsa, p. 203 ff.) Neverthe-less, the putting up of a plaque would also be honoring him as a person, and such a man is not one whom the synagogue “delighteth to honor.”
Yet even in this case, something constructive can be done. If he wishes to honor his parents or some other close relative, a plaque can be put up in their name and his name included as the donor. In this case, besides giving a gift to the synagogue, he is honoring his parents, which makes it a double mitzvah.
To sum up, the money itself is changed from its original form and all authorities agree that it is acceptable. As for the donor, it is his duty to support the Temple according to his means and we have no right to prevent him from doing his duty. As for a plaque, he should not be so honored in his own right, but if he wishes to have a plaque put up in memory of a close relative, such a plaque should be put up, and his name mentioned on it as the donor.