Up Against Macherarchy?

December 1, 2004
Share:email print

Jeffrey K. Salkin

WHEN THINGS GET HOT in synagogue land, I find myself humming “If I Were A Rich Man” from Fiddler on the Roof , especially the line “when you’re rich they think you really know.” It is a perpetual pattern in Jewish history: wealth vs. spirituality and learning; lay leaders vs. rabbis. We cynically call it the Golden Rule: whoever has the gold makes the rules.

What do we do when money and ethics clash? How do synagogues establish reasonable and fair dues and fee structures? How do Jewish and spiritual values fit into those structures? Stories abound about rabbis losing jobs because they do not perform intermarriages or bring into the synagogue its “fair market share” of new members. When the market becomes god, we are dancing around a new and improved golden calf.

How does the synagogue react when a wealthy donor makes his or her own programmatic and ideological demands on the institution, with the assertion: “or I will take my money and go elsewhere”? Where is the ethical imperative in a community when donors start a private “boutique synagogue” with their own rabbi on call? Each of these situations presents ample opportunity for congregations and communities to violate the words of Leviticus 19:15 “…You shall not show deference to the rich.”

A more difficult ethical issue is how we deal with the “kashrut” of donations to the synagogue. Jewish texts and responsa offer a clue. In June 1983 (coincidentally, as the Wall Street scandals were beginning to emerge), a Reform responsum addressed the issue of whether a convicted felon could be honored by a synagogue through a fund or a memorial plaque in his name. The responsum suggested that because it is a mitzvah to support synagogues, it would be wrong to refuse such gifts.We should not prevent people from doing mitzvot ; if we did, then only the indisputably ethically pure would be capable of Jewish living. Other authorities were leery about such gifts, because of the principle of marit ayin (“what will this behavior look like to casual observers?”) and the possibility that such gifts would compromise the synagogue’s honor.

On rare occasions donors have tried to exert too much influence on program and policy. At such times, the synagogue’s lay leadership, along with the communal culture, history, and ethos, politely tells the donor that s/he is wrong. This is essential: Raise up leaders who are so well versed in Jewish ethics and decision-making processes that narcissistic macherarchies have little possibility to exist. There is a reason why the Yom Kippur liturgy contains this confession: Al cheyt she-chatanu lifanecha b’chozek yad . “For the sin that we have committed against You by the abuse of power.”

Here, true to our name, Yisrael, we wrestle with the meaning of money and morality. Does the good that donated funds achieve override questionable sources? Are synagogues ever in financial positions to refuse donor money? And what about the issue of role-modeling? Would we want our children to grow up emulating and revering people whose funds emerged from unethical practices?

We must be ever cautious that the process of synagogue fundraising never damages the very mission of the synagogue. The Jewish community hurts itself more by sending mixed “meta-messages” about fundraising than it does by going without certain programs because of a lack of resources. If our actions wind up belying our words, then our words will ultimately and utterly fail as well. We can ill afford that, for compared to the tainting of our purpose, deficit spending is really not that big a sin at all.

Share:email print
Related Topics:

Jeffrey K. Salkin is the spiritual leader of The Temple, Atlanta, GA, and the author of numerous books on personal spirituality, published by Jewish Lights Publishing.

Post a Comment

Your email address will not be published.

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <s> <strike> <strong>