The sullied moral character of Donald Sterling is clear to anyone with eyes and a conscience.
In the days since his now infamous tapes were leaked we have learned that Sterling has been charitable to Jewish organizations and other groups, such as the NAACP. Why he has given money away, who knows? (PR? Tax deductions? Moments of generosity that remind him of what his mother may have once wished for him?)
In recent days leaders of the Los Angeles Jewish community have sought to distance themselves and their organizations from Sterling’s past gifts and have pledged not to accept anything more from him going forward.
Not so fast!
What does Jewish tradition say about receiving financial gifts from someone of Sterling’s character?
There is much discussion in Halachic literature (Jewish legal literature) concerning the bringing of donations to the synagogue. The Hebrew Bible rules that a sacred object cannot be brought to the Temple in Jerusalem that has immoral origins (Deuteronomy 23:19). Later commentaries come to a consensus that a donation from an individual who acquired the object through immoral or criminal means can be given to the Jewish community.
The 17th century Polish Commentator Rabbi Abraham Abele Gombiner (known as Magen Avraham) refers to a comment of Rabbi Moses Isserles (Shulchan Aruch, Orah Hayyim 153:12) and notes that if the object is first converted into money, and then that money is exchanged for other money, the second set of cash can be given to the synagogue.
Rabbi Solomon Freehoff in his Responsum “Synagogue Contribution from a Criminal” (Contemporary Reform Responsa, CCAR Press, 1969, pp. 52-55) concludes:
“In my judgment you should accept the gift, because it is his [the sinner's] obligation (a mitzvah) to support the synagogue and we have no right to prevent a sinner from performing a righteous act.”
Tradition, however, conditions the giving of such a gift to its anonymity. No plaque or public mention may be noted about the origin of the gift in order to prevent the donor from enjoying the honor (kavod) of giving the gift. Rabbi Freehoff, however, says that if the sinner/criminal wishes to honor his/her parents, then acknowledgment of his parents may be publicized.
A related matter concerning the public role of a sinner is raised in a Responsum cited in The Holocaust and Halakhah (by Irving J Rosenbaum, Ktav, 1976, p. 154). In this case a particularly brutal and despised Kapo (Jewish policeman) in the Kovno ghetto claimed after the Shoah to have suffered great remorse for the evil he perpetrated on the Jews in the ghetto, and to have sincerely repented from his crimes. He approached the leadership of the Jewish community and requested to act as shaliach tzibur (prayer leader) in the synagogue.
Though acknowledging the great power of repentance, Rabbi Efraim Oshry (a survivor himself) ruled that
“A She’liah tzibur must be fitting; ‘fitting’ means that he must be free from sin and not have had an evil reputation even in his youth.”
This Kapo’s evil reputation, regardless of the t’shuvah he may have undergone that wiped clean his sin, permanently kept him from assuming any public leadership role in the Jewish community.
From these two Responsa, we can draw the following conclusions:
First, Donald Sterling ought to be excluded from any public leadership role in the community (as the NBA has properly done) regardless of whether he ever does t’shuvah in the way, for example, that the former racist Alabama Governor and presidential candidate George Wallace did before his death (Wallace publicly repented of his racism and apologized personally to Reverend Jesse Jackson, representing the African American community), Sterling’s current bad reputation would continue to exclude him.
Second, should Sterling wish to donate money to Jewish causes or other non-profit charitable organizations anonymously, his money need not be rejected. Not only could his donation serve greater community interests, but one day they may be part of the means by which he does sincere t’shuvah.
In this regard, I hope he gives generously and anonymously to all kinds of good causes. While doing so, he ought also to sincerely apologize to and makes amends with all the apartment dwellers he has victimized, to the African American community, to Latinos and peoples of color he has insulted, to women he has exploited, to the Jewish community who by association he has demeaned, and, of course, to the Los Angeles Clippers organization and the NBA.
I wish him courage, the strength and decency to do so.