For generations Jews and scholars have grappled with the question of how to treat good things that come to us from problematic places.
An example discussed in the Talmud (Moed Katan 17a) is the question of whether you can learn Torah from a wayward or disgraced sage.
The Gemara concludes that this is not possible, even if his Torah is needed. Though the truth of the teaching is not questioned, the rabbis are concerned about giving legitimacy to improper conduct.
They perceived accepting Torah from a sinner as some kind of endorsement and worried about the future influence this scholar might have on the behaviour of their students.
The concern motivating charities who have returned donations from the Presidents Club appears to be similar. They do not wish to be seen to endorse the behaviour that is reported to have occurred at the events that raised the money, and are concerned about legitimising further actions of this kind. Should they return the money? Jewish teaching appears to suggest that this depends on what the charities knew when they received the money.
The Orthodox halachic authority Rav Moshe Feinstein taught that in the case of a Torah written by a heretic, the scroll could be used if it was written before the writer sinned.
This is an important idea because it suggests that if the community acquired the scroll in good faith, and before a transgression had occurred or was known of, then they can use it.
This is a helpful guide for approaching the question of how charities should act now.
If charities acquired the money knowing what happened at the event, then taking that money constitutes endorsement of the kind that the Jewish teaching explicitly prohibits.
If charities received the money in good faith, before the terrible behaviour at the event was exposed, without knowledge of previous claims but having done appropriate due diligence, then they should not need to return it.
Just as learning from a wayward scholar doesn’t redeem that scholar, none of this changes the status of the acts that occurred at the event.
The dinner remains a problem, but charities acting in good faith should not suffer from the sins of others.
- Deborah Blausten is a rabbinic student at Leo Baeck College